Discipline, Structure, Momentum & Fear

I'm a procrastinator, to the point where it's almost obscene. I write many of my first drafts all at once, most in 2-3 sittings, usually within 12-72 hours of my due date. Don't tell anyone. I always make it in time, but there's something about the adrenaline that comes with pushing right up against a deadline that helps drop me right into the zone. I'm a junkie.

I have no discipline.

Or at least, I have no discipline without structure. I'm terribly ashamed to admit it. I graduated in December, but I attended a community college night workshop during this past Spring semester. I needed the structure. I learned a lot, and I had a great time. But my biggest reason for signing up was that I knew if I didn't, I wouldn't write...or at least, I wouldn't write anything resembling a complete piece.

If there's one thing---and actually there isn't just one thing, only a million things---that I want to learn during my MFA, it's how to structure "writing time" into my unstructured life. How to make myself responsible for it. How to make it an organic, unquestioned part of my life. When I'm in school, or when I have some kind of an outwardly imposed deadline, the writing happens. When I don't, I always find an excuse to avoid the writing.

The woman who instructed that workshop I mentioned earlier said something, towards the end of the class, that really stuck with me. She was recounting something that one of her MFA professors said to her. I guess she felt, at the time, kind of like I do now---like the problem was that she lacked the proper amount of "discipline." But her professor pointed out that she didn't lack discipline, at all. She was putting all kinds of hard work and dedication into other aspects of her life. (I won't tell you what, but let's say it was tap dance, for example.) It was the writing itself that was the thing, the problem, not the discipline. Realizing that changed the way she looked at writing's place in her life.

I think I'm the same way. Writing scares the crap out of me. It does.

It doesn't make sense, because I love writing. It's the thing that makes me tick, I feel most like myself when I'm in that writing "zone." But I'll do almost anything to avoid it, unless somebody else tells me that I can't. For instance, I'll write this blog post, which doesn't count as actual "writing." I'll organize my internet bookmarks. I'll read craft books, and tell myself it's part of the writing process. I'll scan photos, I'll read over old journal entries, I'll spend hours doing family history research. I'll clean out the fridge. Anything, anything.

Sometimes I meet people who don't have this problem, and to be honest, they kind of scare the crap out of me, too. I admire them fiercely, I wonder what it is they got that I ain't got. Courage? Maybe the Cowardly Lion is my patron saint.

I love love LOVED this LA Times article, below, by J. Robert Lennon (MFA fiction faculty at Cornell.) I see myself in it, so much. It makes me feel better about how ridiculous and hopeless I am. At the same time, it also reminds me that even if most of the time spent during "writing time" isn't actually spent writing, it's still important---crucial---to schedule that writing time in, somehow.

I need to learn to make that commitment, to put writing first. I want to, more than anything. I really believe that being in this MFA program will help me learn how to do that. My life will be centered around writing. And that's the thing---the more I write, the more I write. I've noticed it at several moments in my life. It's like momentum slaps my fearmonsters in the face, like I'm too busy to notice how terrified I am.

And when that happens, I write. And I like myself. I'm going to learn how to get there without the crutch of outside pressure.

Now's the part where you say: So what the hell are you doing?

Put down the blog, put down the blog!

What do they really do with all that time?
By J. Robert Lennon, June 21, 2009
Ask a writer what she values most in her creative life, and she is likely to respond, "Time to write." Not many of us have the luxury of writing full- time; we have spouses, families, day jobs. To the people closest to the writer, "writing time" may seem like so much self-indulgence: Why should we get to sit around thinking all day? Normal people don't require hour after continuous hour of solitude and silence. Normal people can be flexible.

And yet, we writers tell our friends and children, there is nothing more sacrosanct, more vital to our intellectual and emotional well-being, than writing time. But we writers have a secret.

We don't spend much time writing.

There. It's out. Writers, by and large, do not do a great deal of writing. We may devote a large number of hours per day to writing, yes, but very little of that time is spent typing the words of a poem, essay or story into a computer or scribbling them onto a piece of paper.

Recently, I timed myself during a typical four-hour "writing" session, in order to determine how many minutes I spend writing. The answer: 33. That's how long it took to type four pages of narrative and dialogue for my novel-in-progress, much of which will eventually end up discarded.

Let's assume that this was an unusually brisk day. Let's estimate that, in general, I spend between 30 minutes and an hour writing, on days when I'm writing at all. What this means is that, even at my absolute peak of productivity, I am actively writing less than 5% of the time. Considering how many days of the year I don't write at all (most weekends, all holidays, teaching days, sick days, days of self-doubt, hangover days, bill-paying days), I could easily revise that figure down to 2%.

Should such a person, a person for whom writing consumes 2% of his life, even be called a "writer"? Given this logic, here are some of names by which I might more legitimately be referred:



bus rider

naked girl imaginer

child reprimander



But back to those four hours a day, during which, on those days when I do write, I am supposed to be writing. If I spend less than 25% of that time engaged in the act of writing, what do I do with the rest of it?

To answer this question, I surveilled myself during a recent writing session. The results are below.

8:04. Subject says goodbye to older son leaving for school.

8:05. Subject turns on laptop and sits on sofa in pajamas.

8:05-8:23. Internet.

8:23. Subject lets cat out.

8:23-9:07. Internet.

9:07. Subject lets cat in.

9:08-9:15. Really fast typing.

9:15-9:17. Subject makes toast.

9:17-9:30. Subject eats toast while rereading article in local paper about rural UFO cult.

9:30. Subject puts extra pair of socks on over extant pair of socks.

9:31-9:35. Deleting.

9:35-9:40. Re-creating deleted text almost verbatim from memory.

9:40-10:26. Internet, including 20 minutes spent writing, revising, and ultimately abandoning angry Internet message board post.

10:26-11:14. Intense self-doubt.

11:14-11:31. Subject showers, dresses (including two new pairs of socks).

11:31-11:49. Really fast typing.

11:49-12:01. Bathroom break.

12:01-12:05. Frenetic typing accompanied by quiet sinister chuckling.

12:05. Subject saves file, turns off computer, makes sandwich.

As you can see, writing makes only brief appearances in that chronology. Indeed, it would be easy to make a case for "non-writing time" as an alternative, perhaps superior, designation for what is presently called "writing time."

The truth, of course, is that writers are always working. When you ask a writer a direct question, and he smiles and nods and then says "Well!" and turns and walks away without saying goodbye, he is actually working.


To allow our loved ones to know that we are working when we are supposed to be engaged in the responsibilities of ordinary life would mark us as the narcissists and social misfits we are. And so we have invented "writing time" as a normalizing concept, to shield ourselves from the critical scrutiny we deserve. Indeed, even writers who don't write fiction are engaged in the larger fiction of imitating normal humans whose professional activities are organized into discrete blocks of time.

If you have any questions, please write them on a postcard, slide the postcard between the pages of a library book, and return the book the library. I will get to them when I'm finished writing.

Lennon's most recent novel is "Castle." He teaches writing at Cornell University.

Racism is Alive & Kicking (And Apparently Shameless) in Philadelphia

I should be packing but I can't even think. WHAT. THE. F$!#.

Hearing about these kids getting kicked out of that pool makes me want to punch something. Philly needs to f-ing shut Valley Swim Club down.

I feel like my brain is broken. I want to punch something. This needs major coverage NOW.

, #valleyswimclub

RT @harrislacewell: You can email outrage about #racistpool to info@thevalleyclub.com

@elonjames : #TWiB! "Philly's Vally Swim Club Doesn't Care about Black People" - http://is.gd/1rsF4

RT @cinnamn RT @AllAboutRace: 60 black child daycampers kicked out of Philly pool b/c "they might change complexion of club" http://bit.ly/13IKFx

RT @AllAboutRace: Campers have new pool & Arlen Specter investigates discrimination claim. http://bit.ly/r8mIK #racistpool #racematters

RT @elonjames RT @karsh: You see this? http://bit.ly/r8mIK I'm glad the kids have a place to swim now, but Valley Swim Club is well exposed.

Here's the email I just sent to John Duesler at the Valley Swim Club. I wish I could have been more eloquent, but I'm still rattled. I think I made my point, at least. Please send one yourself.

to: info@thevalleyclub.com
subject: Racism is UNACCEPTABLE

To John Duesler at the Valley Swim Club---
I am shocked and appalled by your despicably racist (and utterly heartless) decision to throw those kids out of the pool and force the daycamp to take a refund. It's completely inexcusable. I hope you realize that your actions and the statement you gave were shamelessly racist. I hope to see national media coverage of this disgusting incident in the near future, and I hope to hear that you've lost your job because of it. I hope Valley Swim Club gets sued for discrimination.

Racism is UNACCEPTABLE. I'm just totally outraged. I hope you learn something from all of this.

From NBC Philadelphia

Dymire Baylor says he overheard a woman ask, "What are all these black kids doing?" when he and his freinds showed up.
Dymire Baylor says he overheard a woman ask, "What are all these black kids doing?" when he and his friends showed up.

Pool Boots Kids Who Might "Change the Complexion"

Campers sent packing after first visit to swim club


Updated 3:01 PM EDT, Wed, Jul 8, 2009

More than 60 campers from Northeast Philadelphia were turned away from a private swim club and left to wonder if their race was the reason.

"I heard this lady, she was like, 'Uh, what are all these black kids doing here?' She's like, 'I'm scared they might do something to my child,'" said camper Dymire Baylor.

The Creative Steps Day Camp paid more than $1900 to The Valley Swim Club. The Valley Swim Club is a private club that advertises open membership. But the campers' first visit to the pool suggested otherwise.

"When the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool," Horace Gibson, parent of a day camp child, wrote in an email. "The pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately."

The next day the club told the camp director that the camp's membership was being suspended and their money would be refunded.

"I said, 'The parents don't want the refund. They want a place for their children to swim,'" camp director Aetha Wright said.

Campers remain unsure why they're no longer welcome.

"They just kicked us out. And we were about to go. Had our swim things and everything," said camper Simer Burwell.

The explanation they got was either dishearteningly honest or poorly worded.

"There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club," John Duesler, President of The Valley Swim Club said in a statement.

While the parents await an apology, the camp is scrambling to find a new place for the kids to beat the summer heat.

UPDATE: But the kids will get to swim, thank goodness:

Campers "Complexion" No Problem for New Pool

U.S. Senator looking into accusations of racism


Updated 10:06 PM EDT, Wed, Jul 8, 2009. NBC Philadelphia

For kids in the summertime, there's nothing better than jumping full-speed into a pool to cool off. [...]

They just wanna swim.

So the staff at Girard College, a private Philadelphia boarding school for children who live in low-income and single parent homes, stepped in and offered their pool.

"We had to help," said Girard College director of Admissions Tamara Leclair. "Every child deserves an incredible summer camp experience."

The school already serves 500 campers of its own, but felt they could squeeze in 65 more – especially since the pool is vacant on the day the Creative Steps had originally planned to swim.

"I'm so excited," camp director Alethea Wright exclaimed. There are still a few logistical nuisances like insurance the organizations have to work out, but it seems the campers will not stay dry for long.

The banning has caused so much controversy that U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) plans to launch an investigation into the discrimination claim.

"The allegations against the swim club as they are reported are extremely disturbing," Specter said in a statement. "I am reaching out to the parties involved to ascertain the facts. Racial discrimination has no place in America today."