One of my favorite things to tell people is that I wrote my college essay about burning Easy Mac. For those of you who are good parents who wouldn’t dream of giving your kids processed foods, Easy Mac is instant macaroni and “cheese,” done after four minutes in the microwave. As a teenager, I once punched in an extra zero by mistake. About ten minutes later, the kitchen started filling up with smoke, and my siblings and I had to wait outside our suburban Atlanta house until it cleared out.
I like telling people this, because I imagine it makes me sound like a humble, loveable klutz, the way self-deprecating humor is supposed to. Similarly, when people ask me what I do, I say something along the lines of, “oh…I used to do [insert this and that], and I left that about six months ago, and now I’m doing poetry full-time, I guess, and isn’t it such a miracle that I’m not dead yet? Ha ha ha HA!” I say that last part almost every time, just to try to assure the other person that I, too, think it’s crazy and unfair that anybody should be able to make a living as an artist.
Of course, that essay wasn’t only about burning Easy Mac. I used the anecdote to talk about my fears of becoming the image of the Struggling Writer I’d seen stereotyped in movies. I had this vision of myself pacing around the house in my bathrobe, eating ramen straight out of the bag, mumbling nonsense into a hand-held recorder. As a high school student, I could tell that I was already well on my way to becoming a total weirdo who was incapable of interacting with other humans, or even using a microwave.
And here I am, seven years later, a “full-time writer.” I spend about half my time locked up in my apartment in the West End of Providence, Rhode Island, hunched over my laptop. I’m usually in sweat pants, sometimes a hoodie—in the winter months, my signature look can be compared most closely to a snowman or a manatee. I’ve felt better about my sweats since my partner and I started referring to them as my “work clothes,” but I have to admit that this part of my life is pretty close to the image I envisioned with terror when I was 17.
Luckily, the other half of my life is spent outside of my apartment (and my own head). Much of my work occupies the realm of spoken word poetry, also known as performance poetry (though to be honest, I think the only people who use that term are spoken word poets who want to sound more legitimate. Sorry guys). This means I spend about half of every month on the road, traveling to schools, universities, poetry slam venues, and festivals to perform and teach poetry. While it’s refreshing and soul feeding to have contact with other humans again, it also zaps all those precious hours of writing time. Most nights when I’m on tour, I barely have the energy to answer a few emails before turning on a nature documentary and letting David Attenborough’s voice lull me to sleep.
So, in a nutshell, where I write looks something like this:
In other words, about half of the time I write is part of some kind of routine, in my natural habitat, with hours of quiet time alone, a steady supply of strong tea, and an organized to-do list. The other half of the time, I’m jotting down a few lines here and there, in the downtime between shows, often somewhere that’s uncomfortably public.
In many ways, this haphazard way of living, swinging back and forth between chaos and rest, is the only way I can imagine living. After a few weeks of the whirlwind that is the poetry tour, all I want to do is put on my work clothes and hide in my room for days. After a big block of intense, solitary introspection, I start itching to share my thoughts with others. My friend Laura Brown-Lavoie, who is a writer and farmer, once drew a comparison between her two jobs by pointing out that both require moving back and forth between bouts of introversion (writing, growing vegetables) and extroversion (performing, working at the farmer’s market). And I think each mode of operating feeds a different part of the writing process.
People say “write drunk, edit sober,” right? (Do they? Did I make that up?) When generating material, I try to tap into the chaos of the world. Lately, the bulk of the writing I do has been in the ten minutes I give students to respond to a writing prompt when I’m teaching a workshop. Writing this way gives me just enough time to snag the thoughts that are already floating around on the surface of my consciousness – thoughts that are strange, incoherent, and thrilling. I find that my most exciting work comes out of this sort of tension, of the energy that’s exerted when I’m battling against something – whether that be time, a formal constraint, the distraction of a busy airport, or my own sleepiness.
Once the spark of a poem has been vomited out, I need time and space to make it into something worth reading. That’s where the sweats come in. I recently finished my first book of poetry, and spent many hours combing through my poems (often at the expense of showering). But editing is like drawing—I can lose myself in it for days at a time. And I think that’s the energy that editing works best in: contemplative, highly focused equilibrium.
This wild pendulum swing is what makes it possible for me to be a writer. Because the part of me that feared that I would become a useless hermit with bad hygiene habits is the same part of me that writes in order to connect to others, that still believes in the power of the spoken word. And the part of me that gets so excited about a project that she ends up eating Triscuits for dinner is the part that will make sure the work gets done.
In many ways, writing is the most full-time job I’ve ever had. I still think it’s crazy for anyone to be able to make a living off of art. Most days, it feels like an enormous privilege that “going to work” for me means pulling on my sweats, sitting at my desk, and writing about my feelings; or hopping on a plane and reading my poems out loud to a group of students in California. And it is a privilege. I have friends that pull long, exhausting shifts at factories, in restaurants, as janitors. I don’t delude myself into thinking these are equivalent forms of work.
When I’m feeling the most tortured about where or what or how I’m writing (or what I’m getting paid for it), I return to the words of the radical poet and printmaker Carlos Koyokuikatl Cortéz, who said “Do you want to make a living off art, or do you want to make a life of art?” To me, these words open the doors of what it means to live as a writer. Like letting smoke clear out of a kitchen, they give the word “writer” permission to unfold into an infinite number of shapes, to become what I (or the world) need it to be.