Avoidance and Writing: The Roberta Mickel Method
March 3, 2017 § 21 Comments
By Judith Sornberger
You would not believe how many things I’ve done today to avoid beginning this essay. (Except, if you’re a writer, you probably would.) I say writing means more to me than just about anything, but I would do almost anything some days to postpone putting pen to paper (including going shopping for a new, magic pen), especially when it comes to breaking the ice on a new writing project. This morning, for instance, I called a friend to commiserate on how little we’ve been writing. Then I scrubbed a pan that had soaked overnight in the sink, grocery shopped, stopped in at my local bookstore to check on a book I’d ordered (knowing full well it couldn’t have arrived yet) and, of course, had to browse. Then I went through my closet, wondering if it might be time to donate everything below size sixteen, my current size, which caused me to go for a power walk.
Usually, I procrastinate until the need to write becomes stronger than my fear and consequent resistance, which can take days or even weeks. But today I suddenly remembered the Roberta Mickel Method, named—by my sister and me—after our mother, its first practitioner.
Mom worked half-time as a bookkeeper, a job she loved. One reason she enjoyed it was that working outside the home two-and-a half days made the other two-and-a-half weekdays at home especially precious. Nevertheless, on those at-home days, there were plenty of at-home tasks she didn’t particularly enjoy. That was where her genius came in. After making her to-do list, she would choose the least appealing task, let’s say cleaning bathrooms, and tell herself she only had to work on it for half an hour. Then she could do whatever she pleased for half—or sometimes even a whole—hour. In summer that might mean sitting on the patio with a cigarette and a Diet Pepsi, tilting her head back so the sun bathed her face. In winter it might be tucking her feet beneath her as she read on her gold velvet couch.
Before retirement, I delighted in almost every aspect of college teaching—dreaming up exciting new courses, choosing textbooks, planning class sessions, and especially interacting with students in the classroom. But I constantly bemoaned my lack of writing time. And I hated grading papers, putting off starting to read a batch until the students began timidly asking when I might return them. I usually claimed to be reading them very closely, when the truth was that I hadn’t been able to bear removing them from my briefcase.
Wish I could say that I was writing instead of grading. But mostly I was puttering around the house, cruising Facebook, or deciding tonight was the perfect time to try that new and complicated recipe for paella, necessitating a two-hour round trip to a store that carried fresh mussels. At least I later wrote a poem about making that paella.
Then I would agonize on the phone to my sister who would remind me of the Roberta Mickel Method. By that time, I’d have collected so many papers that thirty minutes of grading wouldn’t have made a dent. So I’d set a timer for an hour, grade like a madwoman, and, when it buzzed, I’d go for a walk, read, or maybe even begin a poem. Since writing wasn’t my most loathsome chore, it rose to the category of reward.
Yet it feels wrong that I would use the same method to get going on a piece of writing that I’ve used for grading, especially since, once I get started, I love to write (some days more than others). Mom’s method provides a doorway into the place where writing can become absolute bliss. I tell myself all I have to do is buckle myself into my writing chair and work for half an hour, and, most days, I’m still spreading ink across the page an hour or two later. For to begin, whether you’re cleaning bathrooms or writing, is always the hardest part. As Goethe (second only to my mother in the wisdom department) famously wrote: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
Take now, for instance. I began scribbling away on this essay at 1pm, telling myself I’d work for half an hour. Now it’s 2:30, and I’ve written, relatively painlessly, and somewhat joyously, an hour longer than planned. If Roberta Mickel were still alive, I think she might be cheering.
Judith Sornberger’s newest poetry book, Practicing the World without You is forthcoming from Cavan Kerry Press in 2018. She’s the author of one full-length poetry collection Open Heart (Calyx Books) and five chapbooks, most recently Wal-Mart Orchid, winner of the 2012 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize. Her memoir The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany was published by Shanti Arts Publications in 2015.