It’s 4:30 5:30 am and I am at my desk. It’s dark, still, and there’s a bite in the air that tells me summer is drifting off to some other hemisphere. I have made a pot of tea, tucked under a cozy that was knitted for me. There is a metal pitcher half-filled with milk, and a sugar dispenser and a spoon and a tub of Greek yogurt in case I get hungry.

I do not particularly want to work. In fact, I actively do not want to write. I should have been up an hour ago, but we were away all weekend and I had that extra glass of wine and stayed up one hour too long, looking up ways to (organically) kill the aphids devouring my beans and brussels sprouts. My rebellion is in the sleeping an extra hour, so I must start writing. Soon. I delay it by making the first cup of tea, and drinking a little of it while I read the book of poems on my desk, ten poems to change your life again and again, by Roger Housden.* I flip it open randomly and read Leonard Cohen’s Leaving Mt. Baldy, and a line leaps out:

“Thank you, Beloved,”
I heard a heart cry out
as I entered the stream of cars
on the Santa Monica freeway

And I close the book and turn to the computer and open the writing file. I will only be able to write 300 words, maybe, or maybe only even 100. Sometimes lately, I can write 1000 words before I make tea for Christopher Robin, which makes me feel buff and writerly superior. 300 will make me feel like I want to wake up earlier tomorrow, and for one long moment, hands hovering over keys, I feel despair well up, and judgments roar: only 300 words! Why even bother?

But the poem stills those voices, at least for a moment. It is about the dailiness of spiritual practice, living now, in this reality. The reality is that I slept in awhile, and there is nothing that has to be perfect this morning.

The poem gently reminds me that this is not about being perfect this morning, or any morning. It’s about showing up and writing my pages, day after day after day. Sometimes, the words are heavy, each one weighing 70 pounds, and I have to drag them into place, dropping them with a loud noise—thunk!—onto the page. Other times, they flow from me so fast they blur together, individual water molecules turning into a stream, even a river. Sometimes, I turn in a book and everyone raves about how good it is. Sometimes, they complain that I didn’t do it the way I did last time, or I put in too much sex or not enough, or the language was bad. Or it is The Best Book Ever Written.

None of that matters, at least not when I wake up to do the work at the time of day that is offering the most productivity for me right now. Early, early morning, when no one will call, when the Internet isn’t so urgently begging for my attention.

I show up, that’s the only promise I make. I show up and I put my hands on the keys, and let the work move through me onto the page. I don’t judge. I don’t try to make a tender, child-book into an adult too quickly. I don’t roar at the awkward phrasings. I gently knead it, touch it, season and see it.

If I do that, day after day after day, doing the ordinary, everyday thing of being here, at the page, at the appointed time, I am doing the very best I can do. Sometimes, I’ll arrive here a little too tired, a little too grumpy, or full of nasty judgments of my shortcomings (of which there are many). Still, a writer writes, and that’s what I do. I put my hands on the keys and I write the next sentence. I add a word in that paragraph, remind myself to check a fact, take a sip of tea, and pretty soon, the world dissolves and I’m writing. This morning, at 5:45 since I rebelled against 4:30, and that’s fine. I wrote some words, actually more than I expected.

And that’s how books get written. One word, one sentence, one session at a time. A writer, alone, facing the page. Bravely. Or grumpily. It doesn’t matter.

How do you show up for your writing? Has a poem ever changed the trajectory of your morning? 

*Which also contains the poem Gate C-22, by Ellen Bass, brought to my attention some years ago by our own Therese. It is one of my very favorites and really worth reading. Treat yourself.

 

 

About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.