On Being A Tugboat
July 28, 2020 § 152 Comments
I was going to let this anniversary go unacknowledged.
I must have known it was a big deal. I wrote it in my calendar. One year out. July 26th, the day I took the decision to sit down for a specific amount of time, on specific days every week, to write. No matter how I felt or what else was going on.
For one solid year I have been sitting down, for a specific amount of time, on specific days of the week to write.
I wasn’t going to mention it. But that’s just false modesty. And feeling shy about outing yourself is counterproductive when you’re in the business of writing personal essays.
You might be wondering how I did it.
I had some help. From the Tucson Writer’s Table. What we do, is write. For two hours. Together. At a table. Every Monday. After fifteen minutes of pre-work chitchat, there is no talking allowed. That’s it.
Up until COVID our companionable silences were held amidst the roar of a busy neighborhood restaurant. Now, we Zoom—to say hi and bye. In between, I write. I’m not sure what everyone else is doing. We keep our cameras off.
I have kept this Monday night date for almost 3 years. Without fail. Nothing interfered with Writer’s Table. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I duplicate this at home? Imagine, getting even more done.
But first, I needed a hanger for my office door.
I got stuck here for a while. Writing “do not disturb” on a piece of cardboard didn’t quite do justice to the commitment I was making to myself. Three weeks and a trip to Kinko’s later I had a laminated door hanger featuring my alter ego—the tugboat.
Tugboats are slow, and their pace is steady, no matter what they’re pulling along behind them. I’m slow and it’s okay. It’s all going to be okay. I can do this. I love my door hanger.
When it’s out, I’m never disturbed.
I’m never disturbed period, because I no longer try to write in the run-up to kitty feeding time.
As I moved into a less sporadic writing routine I could see how I’d undermined myself in the past by, for example, waiting to sit down until I was certain to be interrupted by a starving cat.
But there is a time of day when my personal alertness peak intersects with household quiet and that’s when I write. Even if I’d rather be doing something else.
My former habit was to be seized by inspiration, crank something out, over-edit, and stop. Until my writing partner shared some amazing thing he’d composed and asked, anything new from you?
I was episodically committed. I got used to not writing for ever longer periods until, eventually, I stopped jotting down the very thoughts that ignited these “seized by inspiration” cycles in the first place.
I’m not special. What I read in books about writing is also true for me. I have to be sitting down and doing the work, so I’m available when the story arrives.
And no, I’m not going to tell you how many hours a week I’ve added. But here’s what I think: the perfect time commitment is located midway between resentment and contentment.
I have hundreds of idea files on my computer. And a book draft. I used refer to these as “unfinished projects,” a phrase that fills me with shame and anxiety.
Today, there are no unfinished projects.
There is only what’s next.
This is new.
Because I am working steadily, I know I’ll get to the ideas and drafts that I want to finish. Eventually.
More importantly, there is always something next. Which I start while I’m still editing what came before. No more work gaps.
All of this has made me more confident and less fragile in the face of rejection. Which has also increased because, hello, I have more work to submit.
I could have scheduled writing years ago, instead of lurching between production and procrastination. But I was afraid.
Fear has helped me get to jobs on time, adhere to deadlines, remember promises I’ve made–to others. In fact, it keeps me perma-stressed, lest I forget something and cause disappointment or distress or inconvenience for another person.
And fear is what kept me from writing regularly. Fear of prioritizing myself.
By taking this scheduled time for me, I’d be less available. I’d be saying no to other people. Disappointing them. And I have. I’m here to tell you it’s possible to do that and not die.
In fact, I’m happier.
Now, I’ve had a taste of discipline. I can see that it will take even more discipline to write and edit one entire book. I’m in awe of you book-writing people.
And I’m in awe of me. In the past year I’ve written amazing stuff I can’t believe I came up with. I’ve written terrible stuff. I’ve felt really stoked to be writing all of it.
I don’t wish I was writing someone else’s story anymore.
Sitting down to write on a schedule has healed even this. I’m no longer comparing myself to writers who are writing, and publishing, the beautiful things I wish I had written. But didn’t. Because I was not yet committed to being a tugboat.
Kirsten Voris is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Embodied Healing: Survivor and Facilitator Voices from the Practice of Trauma Sensitive Yoga (North Atlantic Books) and her essays have appeared in Sonora Review, Hippocampus, Superstition Review, and others. Follow her on Twitter @bubbleate.