Art Credit: Rana Tahir.
Reflecting on Tupelo 30/30:
Permission to Not Write
The month of October was a whirlwind. On top of teaching at Pacific, substituting more, and helping run the OPA conference and other tasks, I decided to apply to be a part of the Tupelo Press 30/30 challenge. Each month poets are selected to write 30 poems in 30 days and help raise funds for Tupelo Press. I had applied back in August, and was accepted for a slot in October.
Longtime readers of the blog know that I have participated in NaNoWriMo often in the past, only getting to the 50K word count one year (and most of it was writing I ended up tossing out). I wanted to see if I could write every day as a poet.
In the end I learned, like I did with NaNoWriMo, that while I could write a poem every day for 30 days, I don’t necessarily need to. That realization has been very liberating for me.
Anyone who has been amongst writers know there is a certain camp that believes a writer should write every day. There are many writers who I admire and call friends who believe this, and it works for them. For me, I felt like I was lacking; I wasn’t a writer of high caliber because I could go weeks, even months without writing. I had always feared that maybe writing isn’t for me.
It is natural to compare ourselves to others, and I did so frequently. Over the years I’ve been training myself not to and instead have been focusing on how to create a sustainable writing life for myself.
It first started with publishing credentials. I was upset that I couldn’t publish poems much at all, in fact between the poem published last month in bahr magazine and the poem published in Print Oriented Bastard’s first volume is a ten year gap. I had all but given up on every publishing until I reoriented myself. Part of this came from learning more about the publishing industry and understanding how much luck factored in. This is not to say people who publish frequently are just lucky, but it takes time to figure out an audience and where to submit. Until that’s figured out, it all really feels like a crap shoot and in my weaker moments I tried writing what I thought would sell and then ended up not writing at all. You can see how that spells disaster for any writer.
Talking with other poets and friends, I was able to reorient myself. I’m now at a point where I’m at peace with the possibility of never being published. My focus is more on the quality of my work. I want to write rather than be published. This may sound like a no-brainer to some who are reading, but to me it was something I needed to work through.
After attaining peace with my publishing fears, I still had another chip on my shoulder: I didn’t write every day. Hearing about people who did write volumes each day, I began to compare myself again. I did this first with fiction, and thought the 30 days of NaNoWriMo would build the habit in me to keep writing every day. While I did sit at the keyboard and string words together, I wasn’t happy with what I wrote at all.
Part of the comparison was just trying to live up to a past self. When I was fourteen years old, I was obsessed with writing and did in fact write every day. I would even spend lunch time at school in the library to keep writing, carrying my work on a floppy disk everywhere. I finished a “novel” in a year. In reality it was 177 pages that will never, never see the light of day. Still, when I think back on it and those days writing, I remember the joy I felt. That “novel,” its characters, and world, will always hold a special place in my heart. To this day it is my happiest memory of writing.
So here is 20, 25, 30 year old Rana comparing herself and her life to her fourteen year old counterpart. She could write every day, why can’t I? In reality fourteen year old Rana: had strict parents and wasn’t allowed to have a life; she was often a loner and preferred it that way; and she came from privilege meaning she didn’t need to work or do chores or really have any other responsibilities aside from school and some family obligations. Fourteen year old Rana could write every day because what else was she going to do? Then 16-18 year old Rana went to a fancy art school where she was supposed to write often. Then 18-21 year old Rana went to a college where she majored in writing. Again, what else was she going to do?
Contrast that with my older post-college self: I have multiple jobs, am volunteering on a nonprofit board, have to clean and cook for myself, pay bills etc. I am adulting… a lot. But there are many writers who do all that and more and still manage to write every day. I remember seeing this comic that I can’t find now but I believe it was based on a Charles Bukowski quote (maybe?). The comic was an illustration that showed a man preparing his perfect office space to create art and the basic message was that if you wanted to create art, you would do it anyway regardless of your circumstance.
So I believed that if I really wanted to be a writer, and a great one at that, I should be writing every day no matter what. And over the years I pushed myself to do so on and off, cycling between being guilt-tripping myself over being too busy or exhausted to write and disliking the things I did write when I forced myself.
Last year, during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, I let myself rest. I think a lot of people had this same realization during that time: the stress was just too much, and it was ok to cut yourself some slack. It is a disturbing that many of us needed a worldwide shutdown to understand this. I let myself write when I wanted to, and let myself rest without guilt when nothing came back. The poem in bahr magazine took six months to finish, and it is by far one of my most favorite pieces of writing I’ve done in a while. It also became my first poetry publication in, again, ten years.
When I say that poem took six months, I don’t mean I was working on it every day. I worked on it on and off, maybe once every month or so, until the first complete draft was done. Then this past summer, in a workshop with Stephen Kuusisto, I got feedback for the poem that led to the final version that was published.
During that same time, I started writing a new novel (a revamp of an old idea I toyed with on and off). In about four months I had written four chapters (again not writing every day), and I’m excited about this prose. I love what I have so far and don’t feel the need to trash any of it unlike the 50K I would often throw out after NaNoWriMo.
Still, even seeing that when I let myself take my time I like the work I come up with, I still felt that pressure to write every day. I thought maybe some external pressure would help, so when I saw on Instagram that Tupelo Press was looking for applicants for it’s 30/30 challenge, I thought this would be my chance to build a habit of writing poetry every day.
About the program: The Tupelo team that works on 30/30 is great! Not only do they offer accountability, but during the month they host meetings with craft lectures, check ins, and prompts. They really are there for you to succeed, and I greatly appreciate the support they gave. The experience as a participant was great and I would recommend anyone who is interested to apply and try it out. This reflection is purely about my writing and habits, and not about the program itself which is fantastic.
So my goal was to write 30 poems in 30 days. I had hoped I would also develop a routine but between the inconsistencies of my substitute teaching jobs and my general disposition to break routines because of my mood/depression, that didn’t really come to fruition. But I did write every day. Sometimes it was earlier in the day, sometimes right after work, and sometimes I managed to squeeze out a poem just in time for the daily deadline. I. Wrote. Every. Day.
I look now at the body of work I produced and have made some realizations that will inform how I go forth in my writing life. Namely, I am in a place where I can give myself permission not to write.
When I look back on the poems I wrote for 30/30, I already know that many if not most are ones I will never touch again. Some for the simple reason that I don’t like them, some because I’m not sure where to take them, and some because in my desperation to write something every day I pulled from an emotional well that is mostly tapped out about things I don’t really feel the need to keep writing about.
I like the language I get when I take my time. I like working slow and letting ideas, lines, or images marinate until I’m ready to get to it. I feel my best writing comes slow, and that means periods of not writing. I finally get it now.
A friend of mine said something that stuck with me when I described my past month. She said, “writing every day and finishing a poem every day are not the same thing.” In essence, I think she is right. I think finishing a poem every day is a tall order for me, but I also don’t think writing every day is for me either. There are honestly some days, weeks, months where I can’t muster up anything worthwhile. So instead of writing every day, I think I just need to think about writing every day.
What I loved most about my Tupelo 30/30 experience was reading and thinking about poetry every day, which is not something I usually do. I like being reminded, in the midst of the humdrum of everyday life, that this is where I find meaning. Language is always around, ideas are always around. Fourteen year old Rana could spend hours listening to music and daydreaming. My Co-Star app has consistently been warning me that artists need time to do nothing but think over a bottle of wine, I guess it was right.
I’ve learned not to pressure myself to produce something every day and instead just focus on thinking about writing every day. And I hope, like with the poem in bahr magazine, that bit by bit the ideas will come together with the language and I can go on from there. In the meantime, if nothing comes, that’s finally alright with me.
Mood: tired but grateful
Currently listening to: crows outside my window