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.”