Desperately Yours,

Somehow, without noticing, I’ve become someone’s version of a habitual writer. Most of my life, I’ve envied writers who pull weathered notebooks from satchels and leaf through crowded pages to find clean space. They add a page in place of bowing toward Mecca or kneeling at another station of the cross. Maybe hypergraphia packs those journals, daily reiterations of “I must write,” but their zeal has always seemed unattainable to me. My journals are moleskins of scrawled fragments written in a Starbuck’s line just before my turn arrives or three sentences I’ve managed to compose and memorize on my walk to work.

Then they become posts like this one that, according to a colleague, make me habitual.

I’m not. I’ve known true habitual writers. David Lehman, a poet who taught in my MFA program, endlessly extolled the daily poem. He urged his students to find some time every day to assemble the assembable as a poem. Some of Lehman’s daily efforts have a Frank O’Hara “I did this, I did that” appeal, and I had endless admiration for the devotion of his students…and all his other converts. Fiction students talked about their daily poem, as did non-fiction students, and people simply associated with the program. A college student who bussed abandoned dishes in the cafeteria paused to scrawl another couple of lines.

What were his daily poems like? Perhaps they were genius. Real habitual writing—the sort that expects no end but daily practice and commitment—readies you for another day of writing, and that readies you for another and so on until, one day, you reveal just how much genius ten thousand hours creates. But waiting is my worst option. I’m going over the physical proof of my book right now, I’m on number 265 on this blog, 145 on derelict satellite, but as much as I’ve written, I still consider myself an “occasion writer” in need of an assignment, a task, a deadline, a product due to roll from the factory and ship. A habitual writer is perfectly happy if this page seems more for the writer than the reader. He or she can forget what a reader is. I never forget.

Confucius said that all people would be the same except that their habits make them distinct, and, to Confucius, habits become the best picture of who you are. A person is known by his or her bent. I’m sure Confucius means we should have habitually high standards, but I worry I’d have no standards at all without this public compulsion to show up for our scheduled appointments. Confucius touts the transmutation of habit into being, the steady development of movement into muscle and soul memory.

My writing ways are less like a daily game of solitaire and more like the guy who, earbuds in, cavorts to a discman on the steps of a fountain across from my school. A solitaire player hopes each row falls-out perfectly, and perhaps expects against hope for the day cards will move without his or her hands. The discman and I are desperate.

As much as I admire habitual writers, perhaps I’m better off desperate. Every essay ends with, “What if that’s the last one? What if I’ve said all I ever need to and can’t think of a single word to add?” For me, fear beats habit, and something tells me I need to be afraid, that this chain I’ve been adding to all these years isn’t a chain at all, but a series of links, barely touching, only impersonating a chain.

What I really fear is that, if I become a habitual writer, I’ll be too happy. And soon too lazy. And soon too silent. The desperation keeps me dancing.

Nothing against Confucius, but I’d like to believe Edith Wharton when she said, “Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Blogging, Confucius, Essays, Identity, Laments, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

10 responses to “Desperately Yours,

  1. I love the struggle. My journals are filled, I write habitually, but the struggle is in putting it all together for the reader. Sure, I write pages and pages each day, but what’s actually great writing? That is the toil for me at the end of the day. I sift and I sift through the words and I cut and paste them into different shapes and sounds much like Lee Krasner with her collages of prior paintings brought to life in a new work. I think you are both. I think you’re a habitual writer, but one that struggles with the presentation, one that cares about the final product in the eyes of the reader, but that’s the fun part. Isn’t that part of what it’s all about? The printed line? I don’t know, that’s just the impression that I get.

    • dmarshall58

      If I woke tomorrow without the writing urge (and it were really gone), I wonder how I would grieve. I have a love/hate relationship with it all. I love some of the moments of composition–you’re right that I care deeply about the final product and can futz endlessly with words and phrasing–but I do wish I cared a little less about publication and the moment I can push the publish button. I might be a better writer and visual artist if I practiced with no intention but to practice. That’ really what I envy. Your description of your own process sounds much healthier. Making collages is fun, and it wouldn’t hurt to devote more time to gathering the raw material. Thanks for visiting and thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments. I really enjoy hearing your take on writing. –D

      • I love reading both of your blogs and I always look forward to seeing what you will write next. I think you’re fabulous at what you do and I can only imagine you are an excellent teacher as well. I’m sure you are a role model to many! Thank you for taking the time, as always, to respond to my fuzzy, long winded comments 🙂

      • dmarshall58

        Thank you–I’m grateful for your fuzzy, long winded comments (which are really neither).

        As for being a role model or good teacher, the best that can be said for me is that I’m earnest and hard-working. That’s probably the important part, but who knows how my students feel. They would be the final arbiters. –D

  2. Somewhere, we share DNA. How lovely for me that I can find my thoughts so well articulated by you, as I am not an articulate conveyer of ideas.

    I have, for the last couple of years, since jumping into the cyber-writing world, looked with amazement at all the people who turn out a poem, sometimes more, a day. If I work at it [okay, my working at it is sporadic and depends entirely on my brain saying: Now.] I can have a poem in submittable shape in a few weeks, sometimes months. The good news is I am perfectly happy. While getting my poems published is something I want and need, writing is something I want and need more and I always write when I want to, not because I have to; or, I write because I have to, not because I should, if that makes better sense.

    My collection of scribbled on scraps is hysterical. I try not to be anywhere without some form of paper. As a non-habitual, who knows when something will strike. I, too, have spent desperate journeys reciting something I don’t want to lose. I have come to ends, but then I have had new beginnings. I don’t think writing about ideas, experiences, sights, ever goes away completely. I think the novelists and scriptwriters have a much harder time. Poets and essayists… we have fodder forever.

    I grinned all the way through this. Thank you.

  3. I am like you, writing on assignment, even if self-assigned, especially on deadline (also self-imposed). I have boxes and boxes of journals that one of my mentors suggested “mining” for ideas, but they sit boxed, an overwhelming source, like trying to harness a waterfall. Ideas come with regularity and are mined and polished (I hope) into blog essays and poems. Thanks for the validation.

    • dmarshall58

      You state it perfectly when you call your writing tasks “self-assigned.” It’s funny how tasks you want to do become tasks you have to do. Most of my life, I’ve been a runner and know what it’s like when it becomes easier TO run than NOT to, but this situation seems different. With writing, I’m not into the training as a way to appease guilt. To extend the analogy one last time, I just want to race… and recognize that I have to do some training to be ready for it. Otherwise, I might not train at all.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. –D

  4. Pingback: Your Serendipity @ Thursday Thoughts « Margo Roby: Wordgathering

  5. dmarshall58:

    I came across your blog a number of months ago and have been periodically reading and enjoying it since then. I was taken by your phrase “an ‘occasion writer’ in need of an assignment, a task, a deadline, a product due…”

    Writing does not come naturally or easily to me; it never has. One reason for starting my blog was to meet that occasional deadline and to see if I could amuse some people along the way. Personally, I hope for neither habit nor fear. I find that I respond better by written word than by speech (how archaic) but I struggle to piece together the right reply. While it would be nice to elevate my prose, I’d settle for expressing myself more easily and more quickly.

    • dmarshall58

      My aspirations aren’t unlike yours, I think. Most of the time, I’m searching for the right word or moving text from place to place trying to reach my exact meaning. Sometimes I consider what it’s all about and, like you, I need writing to do that–speech won’t do. Though I’m not always sure what I’m replying to, I’d love to find the right reply.

      In other words, all my grand ambitions–when I have any–arise from the same simple expressive urge to communicate… and amuse, if I can. Yesterday, talking to one of my students about an in-class essay, I heard myself say, “It’s supposed to be challenging.” Though we might wish that weren’t true, the results redeem the struggle. Best of success, and please visit and comment again. –D

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