Stuck Like a Wooly Mammoth in the Tar Pits of the Mind
Confession: I have not written in three weeks. We left Costa Rica in mid-February after 10 weeks of exploring and researching, then traveled to see our families–first in New York and Boston, and then in California. I barely had time to grade lessons for the distance-learning school at which I teach, much less craft a decent essay or article. Right now, I feel stuck . . . mired in a sort of mental muck from neglecting to put pen to paper every day. I’m a professional writer. I should know better, right? Not so much.
Last week, we visited the La Brea Tar Pits with its museum which I’ve been frequenting since I turned five. With almost as much fascination and fear as I felt all those years ago, I pointed out to my daughter the statues of the Wooly mammoth family–one parent and child frozen in mid-trumpet on the bank while one parent stood immobile in the tar. “Is that the mother or the father who’s stuck?” Maia wanted to know.
“The mother,” I said automatically, without bothering to bend and check gender. The mother, who’d been so concerned with getting her kid fed, watered, and home-schooled on their journey that she neglected to carve out an hour for herself. Poor Mammoth Mom–this was probably the first time she’d been out alone in ages, just trying to do a little foraging and maybe enjoy a little tete-a-tete with a Giant ground sloth, when suddenly she found herself surrounded by sticky black goo.
I’m reading a book for review in The Writer Magazine right now–Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, by Kate Hopper. Halfway through it, I’m struck by the courage of the authors she’s excerpted. Not only do they make time to write–they leap into the murky waters of writing about their child’s disabilities, their birth traumas, the sweet and excruciating memories of their own mothers.
The mom-writers in Hopper’s book remind me, in the midst of this fallow period, that I’ve spend 15 years cultivating effective writing habits that I can return to as soon as we settle down again in two weeks. I’m not truly stuck. Rather, I’m like the plastic figures that Maia’s been dropping into the pretend tar we bought her at the museum gift shop . . . momentarily stymied, but able to be plucked from the muck and cleansed and set on my path once more.
A few of my favorite habits:
- Carry a small notebook and pen whenever possible
- Write a little every day–doesn’t matter what genre–even a well-crafted Tweet can count!
- Read a little every day. Don’t have time? Keep a book on top of the toilet tank. Really.
- Take several sensory breaks a day–no matter what you’re doing, ask yourself what you smell, hear, taste, touch, and see in one minute.
- Really listen to and look at people and animals. Note inflection, body language, facial expression, accents, etc. This is all potential research.
- Query an article, review, etc. and get yourself a deadline. I have a colleague who sets up his author tours before he even writes the book!