tough going, neutral practices

doesn't this look exceedingly neutral?

doesn’t this look exceedingly neutral?

Hello, Reader. I’ve been trying to write this post since yesterday morning at 5:30. So we’re dispensing with ‘wordless wednesday’ this week so that I can feel I’ve accomplished at least one small thing!

First, let’s just get this out of the way: Poor Edith.

Also, thanks for all your insightful and encouraging comments on keeping one’s chin up. My inner optimist is back in the saddle!

And now. Have you seen the Muse lately? I hope she’s at your house, because she sure isn’t at mine. I confess, despite working my way through the 21- day antidote, there’s not too much exciting stuff happening at my desk so far this year. I’ve yet to hit my stride.

[I pause here to say, I think I forgot to mention that *in no way* am I trying to complete the 21-day antidote in 21 days. So much for doing the exercises “exactly as stated.” I’m just working away at them as often as I’m able to until I’ve finished all 21 prompts.]

Anyway, yes, tough going here at my desk lately, and so I’ve been thinking about neutral practices. I learned about neutral practices from Genine Lentine. My understanding of neutral practices is that they areย  things we can do, bits of work we can undertake, that can advance our writing but that we’re not highly invested in on an emotional level.

For me, things like drafting, submitting, working on fellowship applications, creating mini-manuscripts — these are emotionally charged tasks: I care about the outcome; I want to do it just right; I feel like something important is at stake. These tasks are not neutral practices. Lately, even my fairly-neutral practice of morning reading and writing has not felt very neutral. When I’m at loose ends, when the writing is like slogging through a marsh, when I don’t feel settled enough or don’t really have enough time to enter the space of really writing, here are some things I do that advance my writing but don’t feel hard or emotionally weighted:

1. read and make wordbanks (These are lists of words that I pull from other people’s work, then try to use in my own. Longtime readers will remember that I learned this trick from Sandy Longhorn.)
2. read and make poem-maps (these are maps of poems I use as exercises; more here)
3. just read
4. page through my active revision folder and note edits
5. page through my writing notebook to capture ideas and scraps of language
6. make an Obsession Packet

What, you may ask, is an Obsession Packet? An obsession packet is a bunch of material on a topic that one is currently obsessed with all put into one place for further use.

Who knows where obsessions come from? But lately I’ve been obsessed with survival (and not-survival) stories, particularly those of South Pole explorers, and also one not-so-run-of-the-mill shipwreck. I’ve been reading, taking notes, makin’ copies, jotting down bits of language, questions, page numbers, ideas for further reading, etc.

I’ve always done this (read voraciously, take notes, jot down ideas), but what I haven’t always done is then put all that material into a usable format for later. Then all that time and potential inspiration are lost. Over the last several months, I’ve been trying to capture the material so that I can return to it later.

I have no idea whether these Obsession Packets will ever lead to anything, such as a particular poem or series of poems. But my artist’s hunch is that they’re worthwhile in one way or another. The key, of course, is to return to them later.

So, back to neutral practices: For me, it’s been really helpful to have the concept of ‘neutral practices’ in my writer’s tool kit. Other neutral practices that Genine has mentioned are: (1) collecting scraps (words, images, photos – whatever) of things that somehow grab your attention, and later going through those scraps to see what might emerge; (2) “writing” via redaction: beginning with a source text and taking words away as a means of creating a new text.

Do you have any neutral practices that you rely on when the going’s tough? If yes, I invite you to share them in comments. Thanks for reading.

For more from Genine Lentine, visit her website here. Here books are available here, here, and here.

10 thoughts on “tough going, neutral practices

  1. Obsession packets! I love that way of formalizing (and preserving!) a practice I’ve always called “piles of stuff.” My desk has many. And honestly, if I don’t start writing about a pile of stuff, it often gets scattered around and eventually shoved into a drawer and well….Yeah. My “world flood myths” piles of stuff and “asteraceae family of flowers” piles of stuff served me well, but please don’t ask what’s happened to my “history of paper” and “Lilith” and oh, gracious, those poplar trees (don’t ever ask about the poplar trees!)….Yeah, it’s time to make some packets!

    I love your talk of “neutral practices.” I don’t know how hard it is for most writers to permit themselves not to write, but I need to formalize THAT practice, too. Last week, between the twin mostly-self-imposed pressures of Important Editing and Important Book Review Writing, I had to flee, Edith-like, from the altar of Important Literary Things, and not draft. Instead I decided just to read some great poetry books I had not yet allowed myself to open. (Jeannine Hall Gailey’s She Returns to the Floating World, and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, if you were wondering!)

    I was allowed to read it with a pencil in hand, which eventually led to using the pencil on the book and in my notebook–but I wouldn’t even call it taking notes. I just had a little conversation with myself in the notebook under a heading which was the title of the book. Sometimes I copied a good word (word bank? Not quite–though I love that idea–thank you Sandy Longhorn!), sometimes I noted a technique I saw the poem using, sometimes I just asked myself a question about something I’ve been writing that somehow the poem I was reading made me ask, or a question about life or the body or the poem I was reading, that the poem made me ask. I don’t even know if I’ll go back to the notes (but I probably will)–not for any formal study or review or anything. Sometime, when I am ready to draft again (not this week!), I’ll probably flip through and hope a question will spur something. But I do/did not require myself to write anything at all. I think the lack of requirement keeps it neutral. And of course I wrote something anyway, because if you put a pencil in my hand and an incredible book in my lap, what do you expect?

    And also, poor Edith! But she got up for breakfast. I have a feeling I’m still under the covers, not drafting. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Sally,

      I have Piles of Stuff too! And yes, making Obsession Packets is my attempt and trying to make use of them. I love your reading with pencil in hand, and the little conversation with yourself in the notebook. I’m adding it to my list of neutral practices (because usually I read with pencil in hand and there is no little conversation, there is only Reading With a Vengeance, which as you may surmise can tend toward the not-neutral). Brave Edith, getting up for breakfast. I’m sure I’d have stayed in bed. Hey! Breakfast! Neutral Practice! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I really like this idea of “neutral” practices. I’ve been doing The Artist’s Way and writing 30 poems in 30 days, and I’ve hit some real walls. My work doesn’t feel as strong to me. So much self-doubt is creeping in, but it’s nice to know that I could do something like research or read as a counterpoint. I might try doing things like that next month when I’m probably going to want a break from writing.

    • Glad the idea of neutral practices feels like it might be helpful. Oh, the Artist’s Way. I definitely do not have a neutral relationship with the Artist’s Way, but it did help me to find a very important practice in my writing life — my morning reading and writing — which is not morning pages, but which works for me. Good luck! Hang in there!

  3. Pingback: Drafting poems 10-16 & Rejections | poetry & effrontery

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