A lot has been going on over here behind the Magic Mirror: some of it writing-related, much of it big and exciting life changes and I promise to explain more soon(ish) 🙂
In the meantime though, I wanted to reach out to my wise and talented writing siblings, my Vermont College of Fine Arts classmates, The Darling Assassins, to see if they had any writerly wisdom to share.
I asked them: what is the biggest “lesson” you learned in Vermont?
Now I am excited to introduce you to the powerful Monica Roe and her wise answer to my question. Read on, enjoy the views and see for yourself why I love her so.
Take it away, M!
THE PROBLEM WITH WHEN (AND THE CUMULATIVE POWER OF NOW), by Monica Roe
I’m just not feeling it today.
I won’t write anything good if my head’s not in it.
Today my schedule is crazy.
Any of these sound familiar? They’re familiar to me!
Hey, I like my sacred desk space as much as the next writer. But there are many days or weeks when that space is simply not available to me. When life gets in my way.
For about four months every year, I travel around the Alaskan bush as a physical therapy consultant for 16 schools in small villages off the road system. Think frozen tundra, -35 temps, the occasional bear or musk ox roaming through town. Four times a year, I remain almost constantly on the move for one month at a time—hopping from village to village on tiny planes, hauling a month’s worth of supplies in a backpack, sleeping on cots, bare mattresses, or sometimes on nothing but a spare gym mat in an unoccupied classroom, library, or closet. It’s wonderful, rewarding work.
But it can be tiring.
From those of you who may not be familiar with itinerant bush travel, it is anything but fancy. Personal space becomes little more than a distant memory. You get used to sleeping wherever, often sharing bunk space with any number of other itinerant specialists who may also be passing through the village. By the end of a month on the road and in the air, I sorely miss my home, my husband, and my cherished and peaceful private writing space. I’m dirty and sleep-deprived and unbelievably tired of scraping together yet another dinner from the dwindling contents of my backpack. Worst of all, though, that constant upheaval of daily travel can also make it feel nigh onto impossible for me to maintain a consistent writing schedule.
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a tough balance to strike.
My situation may be a bit more extreme than some, but I think this holds true for most of us on some level. We don’t always end up in the same place from hour to hour, let alone from day to day.
So what are we writers to do when life doesn’t allow us large chunks (or even small chunks) of time to sit at our desks and thoughtfully scan the horizon for a glimpse of that wayward, shiny-winged Muse?
I used to think that if I didn’t have that perfect space—both physical and mental—in which to write, I’d maybe just be better off waiting until I did have it. Until I was back home, until life calmed down enough for those perfect conditions to coalesce.
All of that changed abruptly when I entered the program at VCFA. Suddenly, I no longer had that luxury of putting off the writing until next week or next month. If I did not find some way to pound out those essays and generate those creative pages on the road, they simply would not get done. It was a tough transition to make, and I can recall more than one instance where I frantically finished writing an essay during a bumpy inter-village flight (including one memorable time when I also got airsick coming over a mountain range) in order to make a midnight packet deadline. It was not exactly how I’d envisioned working on my MFA.
But somewhere along the way, it finally sunk into my brain that my life wasn’t, in fact, two separate and non-overlapping halves of “writing” and “other stuff.” To put it bluntly, if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to be writing—regardless of which phase of my life balance I was currently inhabiting.
I’ll try again tomorrow.
When I have more time.
When I’m not dragging my backpack through three feet of snow to get to the airstrip.
When I can actually sit at my own desk.
The problem with when is that he’s a tricky little demon. Always dangling that carrot, promising that one day we’ll have the perfect time and the perfect headspace in which to sit down and pound out that masterpiece…or even that so-so first draft.
As an unexpected side effect of my time in the MFA program at VCFA, I have lost all faith in that sparkly and Puckish when.
I have gained a firm belief in the unglamorous and dependable now.
I am camped in a school and it’s evening open gym night. I will write 100 words now, even though I can hear the basketballs thumping right through the music from my headphones.
I am in my sleeping bag, lying on a mattress in a supply closet and desperately wishing to fall asleep so I can be at least somewhat rested in the morning. I will scribble one paragraph now, even though I cannot think of one interesting thing to say. Those nows, I have discovered, may be unglamorous and arduous at times. They may feel like throwaway writing, a waste of precious moments.
But those tiny little nows also do something amazing.
They add up. Become paragraphs and pages. Become chapters and messy first drafts. Even more important, they keep us in the game. The arduous, unglamorous, and massively rewarding game.
Stay in the game now. Get messy now. Even if it’s an airplane essay.
You just might surprise yourself.
Monica M. Roe is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at VCFA. She also holds a doctorate in physical therapy from Clarkson University and works as a consultant on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. Her YA novel, THAW, was published in 2008 by Front Street Books (she’s a very slow writer!). When she isn’t traveling in Alaska, she can often be found in rural South Carolina, where she and her husband run Old Swamp Apiary, a small-scale farm and beekeeping operation.