Avoidance and Writing: The Roberta Mickel Method

March 3, 2017 § 22 Comments

zz-040By 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.

A Review of Joey Franklin’s My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married

December 22, 2015 § 3 Comments

By William Bradley,jf

As I type this review on the Sunday before Christmas, I realize it’s probably unlikely that it will be published on The Brevity Blog before Friday. That’s too bad—Joey Franklin’s My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married would make a perfect gift for just about any literate person on your Christmas list. In this collection of essays, Franklin comes across as an affable and reflective person, and I have a hard time imagining that there are people out there who might not like this book.

I have only myself to blame for this review being posted so late in the holiday season—Dinty W. Moore proposed that I write this review back in October, and the review copy arrived at my house in the first week of November. But there is always an excuse to not read, right? For me, it had to do with my job as a local government reporter for a small newspaper—we had the November election, and then election follow-up, and then year-end city council and county commissioner meetings where budgets were debated and established. If this paragraph bores you so far, just imagine how tedious it was to live it. I would frequently finish writing my articles at around 11 p.m., then crawl into bed, look at Franklin’s book on my nightstand, and think, “Tomorrow, Joey. I promise” before turning off the lamp.

But then a funny thing happened. I actually started reading the book. People often compliment good writing by saying “I couldn’t put it down.” That wasn’t my response to these essays. In fact, I frequently did put the book down in order to think about what I had just read. The best of these essays—and I think three or four of them are so excellent they’re all jockeying for “the best” designation—practically compel the reader to reflect on them.

I admit, I’m an easy mark for essays about marriage and love and stuff like that. Like Franklin, I write about my relationship with my wife quite a bit. But I don’t think the issue here is just “I could relate to this book,” as some of my former students might have said. In fact, I don’t relate to a great deal of this book. For example, Franklin writes of his first kiss with the woman who would become his wife: “Five months we’d been dating, and I hadn’t kissed her yet…” When I read that sentence, I thought, “Wow—I wasn’t sure Emily and I were even officially dating until we’d had sex at least a dozen times.”

But frankly, the phenomenon of “relating” to a work of art is grossly overrated—it suggests that the purpose of art is to reflect our own experiences and biases back at us rather than challenge us and expose us to new ways of thinking about and being in the world. So though I do not “relate” to all of Joey Franklin’s ideas and experiences, they resonate within me deeply, because he renders them with such eloquence and beauty. Seriously—I challenge any of you reading this to take in his essay “In Their Ears and On Their Tongues” and not find yourself moved by his reflections on culture, sharing faith, facing disappointment, but finding a type of strength in faith regardless. I suspect even Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens—both outspoken atheists—would read this essay and have to concede, “Yeah, that’s just astonishingly beautiful.”

So it’s 11:20 on Sunday morning right now. I’m going to email this review to Dinty and hope that it reaches you before you have finished your holiday shopping, as unlikely as that may be. But look, even if you wind up reading this on December 28th, you probably have someone you forgot to buy a gift for, right? Or maybe someone who surprised you with a gift, who you now feel like you are obligated to purchase something for, maybe with an awkward, apologetic lie like, “I ordered this weeks ago, but, you know, damn post office.” I propose that this book should be that gift. No doubt, Joey Franklin—man of faith, Boy Scout leader, devoted husband and father, and all around decent guy—wouldn’t tell such a lie himself (he takes a particularly strong stand about the importance of honesty in nonfiction writing in this collection’s title essay), but I won’t tell if you don’t.


William Bradley procrastinates.

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