I am gathering the notes, files, and pages of projects I have started, forsaken, and misplaced. After teaching for more than twenty-five years, many of my boxes and file cabinets contain syllabi, assignment handouts, and old student essays. Now that my focus has moved from teaching to writing, I am unearthing the beginnings of creative works that are scattered throughout the study: files of poems, portions of stories, scenes for multiple screenplays, pages with a line or two, or a paragraph, descriptions of places and people, boxes of mementos. In the garage, photos await my examination, an emotional journey I both desire and dread, but one that will produce more ideas, more writing.
I have multiple undertakings. I suppose I am experimenting with shifting the stones, making different configurations. Some days I work only on poetry, and other days a screenplay. I suspect that I may, in the next few months, immerse myself in a longer project, find a boulder in the desert and camp next to it for a long time. The options are many, and for that I am thankful, overjoyed, elated. You writers will understand, and many of you are there already, making steady progress on a novel, a play, or a collection of poems.
A thematic lamentation my friends often hear from me is the trouble I have organizing my papers. I collect books, articles, travel brochures, magazines, newsletters, chapbooks, pamphlets, mail. It piles up. The stacks grow. I sort, almost daily, feeling like Sisyphus.
My thoughts roam. I visualize a scene. Someone knocks at the door. It is the personal assistant I have wanted. She has a magical filing system and is able to organize all my papers, books, and writing paraphernalia in just a few minutes. Now I can find things.
On my own, I am nonetheless finding a way. Some days it is one thing only. A single stone, a steady focus, a piece of flash fiction, one poem. At the same time, I am learning Tai Chi from a friend, and he tells me that each time I practice, it is like writing a page. If I practice every day, I will have a substantial book at the end of the year.
I love river stones, and well, really, all kinds of stones, partly because they convey simplicity. I give myself simple messages: exercise, write, organize. It doesn’t sound so all-fired difficult.
I may never have the pristine study that I imagine, but I can gather, arrange, and rearrange the materials until I gain focus and clarity. Stone by stone, I can create something.
I would love to hear how some of you organize your work.
My other dream, beyond the magical personal assistant, is one described in a passage from Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life:
“I have often ‘written’ with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet” (46).
Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.