Tomatoes and the Writing Habit
By Wendy Mnookin
I know how I should be writing: each day, day after day, so the words accumulate at a steady pace, so my writing mind gets into a groove. For years at a stretch, when my kids were little, I wrote every morning from the moment they went off to school till the minute they walked back in the door. No errands. No lunch with friends. That's what I needed to do to get the writing done, and I did it.
Now my kids are grown and gone. The demands on my time are different. I have one wonderful day a week with my young grandson, feeding cheerios to the flowers and generally getting on with the business of loving every minute of his life that I can share. I'm also teaching two days a week. I can't sit down at my desk every morning at the same time and work for a specified number of hours.
That's a problem, because I'm a creature of habit. And I do believe that my writing goes better when I honor that habit. But here's something else I've learned: I'm not only a creature of habit, I'm a creature of excess.
The other day, before I started writing, I went to the garden to pick tomatoes for a salad. The tomato plants are hidden behind tall lavender bushes, and I hadn't been out in the garden for several days, so I was unprepared for what I found: enough tomatoes to fill a large bucket.
I spent the morning picking and washing and chopping. The house filled with smells of garlic and onions--and the lavender that clung to my clothes. While tomato sauce simmered on the stove, I started on a few loaves of bread, because wouldn't some homemade bread be just what we'd want when we ate the pasta with fresh tomato sauce? So I set the sponge to rising,
It was a lot of cooking. It takes a while to wash and core and chop dozens of tomatoes. The kneading and rising of bread can't be rushed. I suppose I could have picked the tomatoes and left the rest of the endeavor for another day. But that's not my way. The tomatoes were there, in front of me, in all their red splendor, and they took over.
The way today my writing has taken over. I didn't spend the hoped-for several hours at my desk. I spent the day, trying to remember to get up every once in a while so my back won't protest too much when I finally put the writing aside. I gave myself over to writing, with no need to stop for kids or teaching or tomatoes. I didn't end up with the dinner we enjoyed the other night with a glass of wine, but it was a similar high--the high of immersing myself in something I love, freely, for as long as I want.
So what will I tell my Emerson students in class next week? I will encourage them to establish a regular routine of writing, to get into the writing habit. Because I do believe that most of the time, that's what works. I will also tell them not to fret too much if some other passion calls them away. If they are writers, their writing will also call, and they'll answer.
Wendy Mnookin's most recent book of poems is Dinner with Emerson (TIger Bark Press, 2016.) Her other books are The Moon Makes Its Own Plea, What He Took, To Get Here, and Guenever Speaks. Widely published in journals and anthologies, Wendy has taught poetry at Emerson College, Boston College, and at workshops around the country. She is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry. You can find out more about her work at wendymnookin.com.See other articles by Wendy Mnookin