I am writing this in the parking lot of Walgreens, where I just purchased a couple of manuscript mailers, a new brand of anti-frizz serum for my hair (hope springs eternal!), a discounted day-after-Easter bunny (solid milk chocolate, fifty cents), and a small tablet of light purple eye shadow. Now, this is the life: I can apply the eye shadow in the rearview mirror and check how it looks (too light), eat my chocolate bunny without sharing, and write.
Every once in a while, people who come to my writing workshops ask me how I’m so productive. Because I’ve been published, they think that I must have superior work habits. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people who ask about my productivity are inevitably parents who work full time and can’t seem to squeeze in the requisite twenty minutes of writing a day between board meetings and Little League. They blame themselves. They imagine that if only they could get up a half-hour earlier in the mornings, or manage their time better, they too could be published and happy.
I’m sure that somewhere out there is a writer with such superb work habits, but I am not that person. I am lazy and teach part-part-part time and spend the rest of my day reading clothing catalogs and complaining on the phone to my girlfriends. If I did have children, I would probably forget to feed them.
For me, the answer to the question “When do you write?” is easy: I write when I’m avoiding some other important task. For example, this essay is being written on April 23, and my taxes are not yet done. I also write when the bathroom needs cleaning, when the garden needs weeding, or when I’m skipping an important meeting. Paperwork is always good for a poem. When my California Poets in the Schools contracts are due, my muse gets particularly busy.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had trouble with transitions. I don’t mean the usual life transitions of birth, death, divorce, moving — everyone has trouble with those. No, I mean the little transitions, like the one between waking up and putting my feet on the floor. Or between turning off the car and going into the house. Or between getting out of the shower and getting dressed. You can see why life has been very, very hard for me.
In order to soften the cruel blow of moving from one environment to another, I have developed the habit of reading anything I can get my hands on. Indeed, I can be observed all over town, perusing week-old newspapers with great interest. Occasionally, however, there’s nothing to read. That’s when I pull out my notebook and write.
The best place to write, I’ve discovered, is in parking lots. The parking lot of the gym is exceptionally good. I can avoid working out and begin a poem, all at the same time. It’s like divine inspiration: just the thought of a StairMaster looming inside puts the fear of God into me. The words tumble out of my pen faster than I can catch them.
All around me, fit people are lugging gym bags, toweling off their damp hair, and speeding off to their next appointments while I sit scrawling page after page of what may someday become a short story. Healthy, energetic newcomers zoom into the vacant parking spaces, but my spot in the far back corner remains blissfully taken. My teal blue ’93 Geo Prism is not going anywhere.
If my writing is going well, I can skip the workout altogether and drive straight back to my house, where my computer waits for me to type up a second draft. Otherwise, at some point I must reluctantly put down my journal, open the car door, and face the world outside. One foot in front of the other: good, good. One has to talk oneself through these things, especially if one spends a lot of time writing, which tends to make one a funny kind of person.
Once in the gym, I give the receptionist my card, get my locker key, and proceed directly to the lounge, where I drink coffee and read the paper or watch Oprah. For some strange reason, although I’ve belonged to the gym for years now, I haven’t lost any weight. A gym membership may seem like a waste of money when my pants size has stayed exactly the same, but when you figure in the millions of dollars one can make from poetry, it’s definitely worth it.