On Writing Furtively

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I expected, after the completion of my MFA, to be entirely unemployable. Yet, so far, the opposite has proven true. I’ve had the good fortune of securing not just one, but two great jobs this year: working as a bookseller at Literati, and teaching at the university where I received my degree. Perhaps, though, I have had a little too much good fortune.

Going from a fellowship that actually forbade me from holding a job to working six, and sometimes seven, days out of the week is already an extreme transition. But on top of this large life change, I realized that I also had to find the time and energy to write on a regular basis. The prospect of scheduling alone turned my anxiety into a full-body cast for most of August. No matter how hard I looked at my calendar, I couldn’t find a single consistent chunk of time every day to write. The math just didn’t add up. As the days counted down, the only thing I could think to do was pretend that everything was going to turn out fine. I squared my trembling shoulders as September began.

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September is now over, and while it’s only been a month, I have been writing more than I thought I would. I write in the half-hours between student conferences, during my breaks at the bookstore, and, my personal favorite, in my office, hours after the building closes. This is my most extended time to write, after I see my last student at five, when I hear my officemates wheeling their bikes out and closing their doors around me. I pack away my teaching materials and take out my manuscript. I spread the papers out on the desk where, just moments earlier, student essays covered the surface. After hours of smiling and greeting and talking and teaching, I relish how alone I suddenly am. Every so often, I scurry out of my office to refill my mug in the kitchen. Sometimes, there are leftover cookies. Once, even pizza.

Though my office is small and windowless, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. Quite the contrary, holing up in this room transports me, transforms me. During the day, I am a larger version of myself, putting on personas to put others at ease, but at night, I shrink until I feel like one of the shoemaker’s elves, working privately and invisibly in the after hours. Not that I am entirely alone. One colleague stays as late as, and often even later than I do. Though she keeps her door closed, her office light burns bright like mine, and seeing it on my way to and from the kitchen comforts me as much as the rows of dark offices surrounding us.

Of course, I am surprised at how quickly I’ve taken to writing furtively. How much sharper my focus is on the project at hand, and how easily the rest of my life fades into the background. The world outside ceases to exist in the hours I spend writing, and it’s often the case that when I reemerge I get to see the weather for the first time since I left my house that morning. But even more surprising to me is that while this mode of writing feels like a departure, it also feels, in a sense, like a return.

For the past three years of my MFA, writing was the largest priority in my life. I learned, in those years, how to write when I did not feel like writing. I learned how to write when inspiration did not come. How to write when every word felt wooden and false. And I learned, also, how to feel guilty on the days when I could not bear to write even a single, shitty sentence. After a while, a day did not feel spent if I hadn’t written a satisfactory amount, which is to say that most days did not feel spent. I’m not knocking this workmanship style of writing. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to start and finish a novel without it. All I mean to say is that for the past three years, writing was the only thing I had to do, but before I came into the MFA, writing was the thing I never got to do. Writing was what I did in the nooks and crannies of my life.

What I think of now as writing furtively used to be what I thought of as just plain writing. I once believed that I never wrote better, with more passion and insight, than when I should have been doing something else. In the years before Michigan, writing was what I did to procrastinate my “real work.” I would often open a Word document an hour before a class or a meeting, only to find that my best writing came in the ten minutes after any chance of showing up on time went out the window. Otherwise, I wrote late at night, procrastinating sleep, feeling so awake as I typed that I could almost believe it was two in the afternoon. I felt a bit like Robin Hood, stealing time from myself, for myself. Writing was a guilty pleasure, the softest form of rebellion. The days when I didn’t write didn’t feel lost, but the days when I did instantly became hard-won.

I never used to need a wide expanse of unscheduled days to feel like a writer. I never punished myself when weeks went by and my page remained blank. At the same time, I no longer need to procrastinate a dreaded task to fuel my writing fire. It doesn’t escape me that my favorite place to write is an office where I already spend most of the hours of my day. An office that is hardly a hermetic writing space; an office that I associate first with teaching. Writing where I work has helped me discover that I’m not a teacher and a bookseller solely to support my writing. Nor is teaching and bookselling, without writing, enough to fulfill me. Being a writer is part identity and part profession, as much as teaching and bookselling are. All three, at the moment, seem necessary on a practical and emotional level.

As a result, there are still strings of days where I don’t write. Some days, my lesson planning overtakes my writing time, or I have a shift at the bookstore right after teaching ends. Some days, I just want to watch TV and eat chicken on my couch, or have a drink with my friends, or see the sun before it sets. Those days I value as much as the ones that find me huddled in my writing cave. I suppose I could make an overarching statement, that after years of taking writing too seriously and not seriously enough I have finally found the sweet middle spot. But it’s only been a month.

All I can say is that writing can happen under all kinds of circumstances, and perhaps it should. Not because I have a better inkling of what writing means to me now (again, it’s only been a month). Rather, what I can more clearly see is what writing has meant to me in the past, which is, simply, a lot of different, and at times contradictory things. And so I feel better prepared to know what writing might mean to me in the future. I no longer have to pretend that everything is going to turn out fine. I can be cautiously optimistic that it actually will.

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Image: Larsson, Carl. “Model writing postcards.” 1906. Watercolor. Thiel Gallery, Stockholm.

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