Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 5, 2012

A Candle in the Writing Room

It’s the season of new calendars and resolutions, and I’ve been cheering in particular for those who aim to make this year really count as writers. Gail Gauthier is doing a blog series called Time Management Tuesdays. In a soul-searching post called Defining Work, Jo Knowles chronicles some of her transition to writing as a full-time job, and remembers the purity she felt starting out immersed in stories she felt she had to tell. Kelly Fineman wrote an inspiring short blog series on commitment. Some friends are trying Freedom for the Mac, and others are dedicating days and times for different sorts of writing.

I’m learning from so many thoughtful people, but ideas about schedules, vows, restrictions, or even themes weren’t sounding like just what I needed. I was thinking I’d forget the whole renewal notion.  Things weren’t so bad. I was writing, even through a rough week. Then, looking for a book on my shelf I put my hand on one I wasn’t looking for, but which I thought would move a friend who shares my grief about someone who’s very ill. I knew this book wouldn’t make our sorrow any less, but it was still worth giving and reading. Flipping through the poems, I realized that rough, inexact beauty, the kind that’s inseparable from truth, often keeps me moving forward in hard times, and maybe that’s what keeps me going as a writer, too.

Here’s my simple plan — and I don’t have to count words, hours, anything. I’m going to slowly move forward with my winding and unwinding project that won’t be finished until I can make it as beautiful as I feel the subject deserves. Each day, I mean to nudge a page, paragraph, or line to be a little more elegant, tender, or spacious. I’ll  work until I can celebrate a few words that fit my own definition of beauty, which others may call gritty, plain, boring, or even unfit for human eyes. There might not be much overlap with what’s pretty, but something more along the lines of carols in an over-decorated hospital room. An awkward beauty, like we sometimes feel bearing chocolate or flowers, which we know aren’t enough.

This plan to add a smidge or layer of something that wakes up my eye keeps the focus between me and the paper or screen. I’m approaching it like the form of meditation I sometimes do — very gentle, western, undemanding: when thoughts stray, just quietly, guiltlessly, go back through mess and mayhem and start again. Some days all I might manage of beauty is moving a not-quite-there sentence up to one that’s finished. Or deciding a scene whose potential I can gauge is triumph enough. My method is forgiving; maybe it’s middle child luck, but while I hold to certain standards, I’ve never been one to fall for perfection. I’m just hoping to plod my way into making something sparkle or hum a bit, and letting an edge or a small corner count. This is not about “you must,” dividing my scolding self from my creative one. It’s about rewards, right from the process, not failures or punishments.

So I’m forgoing new vows and schedules, though not bribes (offer me a latte, and I’ll give you an hour or two of words). I’m lighting a candle as I work as a reminder to keep creeping toward something that flickers, warms, casts a shadow that may look ordinary. Maybe I’ll later switch up beeswax and flame for flowers. Trying in life and in writing to see the whole. There’s news of illness, but also singing. There’s a scrap of paper by my elbow, with a phone number reminding me of a visit to be set up, and how I must listen in order to know what my friend needs, as well as being the person who’s clueless about what to say. And there’s a cardinal at the bird feeder.





  1. Thank you, Jeannine – this is beautiful

  2. Reminders, yes! Me, too! Sometimes it’s enough to get through the day. Even a little attention to our projects counts.

    • Sending best wishes for getting through your day, Candice.

  3. “not about ‘you must'”–exactly! 🙂

    • Trying to at least act relaxed, or get back to it when you feel poked. I loved your new year’s thoughts, Becky.

  4. Thank you so much for this. Sorry to hear about your friend’s illness and how hard it’s been recently to bear up with such bad news.

    “Here’s my simple plan — and I don’t have to count words, hours, anything. I’m going to slowly move forward with my winding and unwinding project that won’t be finished until I can make it as beautiful as I feel the subject deserves.”

    There are resolutions (which I don’t do), and there are goals and reminders — and then there’s following and trusting your instincts as a writer to serve your projects to the best of your ability. I’ve never seen how “January 1st” should be any different when it comes to living the life you want, creating what brings you joy, knowing in your heart what really matters. When people post impressive lists of resolutions, I tend to wonder why they haven’t been doing those things all along.

    • Thanks for the sweet thoughts, Jama. I’m so glad about the joy-filled life you’ve chosen as yours.

  5. I read & responded on your LJ blog, but this bears reading again. So lovely and true….

    • And I’m always glad to get a glimpse of you, Melodye! I guess I’m going to have to let go of my LJ blog one day, but it’s hard, so for now I’m cross-posting, which may make some people feel like they’re seeing double. Always imperfections…

  6. Oh my lord, Jeannine. Thank you!!

    • Sarah, I always appreciate your lovely enthusiasm!

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