Writing Lessons: E.B. Bartels

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from E.B. Bartels, a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter @eb_bartels—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

EB Bartels - headshot

Photo: Janna Herman

Usually, when writing, I practice what I call The Withholding Method:

You wake up—time to write. But first you want coffee. STOP. Have you written a sentence yet? Write a sentence, then make coffee. Now you want to drink the coffee? NO! Write a paragraph first. Funny, you’re hungry? You’ll need a page before foraging for a snack. You chose something salty? Too bad. No water until you have two pages. Now you want to take a shower? HA! Maybe after 2,000 words. Go to the bathroom only if you feel good about your work.

I am not exactly easy on myself. As my winter break winds down, I am beating myself up. I carried home every draft from my thesis workshop planning to edit all 138 pages. (I also set unrealistic goals: I listed nine books to read over break, one being Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin—a mere 1,128 pages.) The drafts have been sitting untouched on the desk at my parents’ house since December 21. I arranged some books around them to avoid looking at the dust that settled. I’m a monster, I think. I had six weeks—what the hell have I been doing? Family commitments in December and a week on a West Coast adventure, yes, but I should have been more productive.

This is when I remind myself of the most important thing I’ve learned, something that, once known, seemed so obvious I was embarrassed it hadn’t clicked until halfway through my MFA: even when you’re not writing, you’re writing.

I took a class this fall about teaching writing, and between talk of grading and facilitating workshops, we kept returning to our own writing techniques: cutting up and rearranging drafts, reading work out loud, rereading the preceding sentences before restarting. You have to understand how you write to help others write.

But then my professor asked what else we do while writing. People talked about their phones, Facebook, making elaborate snacks, napping. I added my roommate knows when I have been home “writing” because the whole apartment gets vacuumed. I joked I prefer to scrub out the toilet than write.  But what are you doing while you are vacuuming, on Facebook, eating? he asked. Wasting a whole lot of time, I thought.

My professor then told us about a time when he was asked to give a speech. Despite hours at a blank page, he could not figure out what he wanted to say or even a title. He threw up his hands and took a shower. Only then, surrounded by hot water and soap, everything clicked: he had the title. He knew what to write.

And so came the epiphany: when I’m vacuuming, I’m thinking.

Discipline is good, but abuse is not. Let yourself stare at the wall, refresh Twitter, or wrestle out the vacuum. Spend six weeks immersed in family, friends, and travel, thinking, observing. Listen to the coffee percolating. You may not know it, but you’re writing then, too.

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