Craft: Habits by Donna Steiner

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I spoke with some young writers yesterday.  They happen to be poets, and had just read a couple of chapters from The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser.  We were talking about establishing good writing habits, and one student said, “I always make sure it’s quiet where I’m writing, and I try to make sure there will be no distractions for at least 30 minutes.”

I recounted a story of my own, from some 20 years back.  I was living with a woman who, although wonderful in many ways, was exceedingly noisy.  Her shoes found ways of clattering on plush, carpeted floors; she banged pots and pans when cooking, even if only making toast; she sang when happy and hummed if unhappy.  I had a wonderful study that had a door, but I couldn’t tune out the racket.

One day I really wanted to work on some poems.  I decided to be proactive, and told my companion, as clearly and kindly as I could, that I’d be in my study for a couple of hours, and I’d be writing.  I’d be truly appreciative, I said, if the house were quiet during that time.  “Maybe, you know, you could not play music or rearrange the furniture or tap dance for a while…” I suggested.  “Of course!” she smiled.  “Go write – I’ll be quiet.”  I hugged her with relief, and settled in at my desk.

After approximately two minutes, I heard a very loud noise.  She was vacuuming – vacuuming!!  And she was right outside my door.  She was pushing the appliance in long sweeps, hitting the molding with a series of rhythmic bangs as she went.  As I flung open the door, she was singing.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I asked.  I may have looked somewhat deranged, aware that it was a stupid question.

“I’m vacuuming,” she said, smiling broadly.

“But I thought we agreed that you’d be quiet while I wrote,” I said, trying not to sputter with indignation.

“Oh!” she said.  “I didn’t realize you were including vacuuming in the things I shouldn’t do.”


I didn’t get any writing done that day, and I didn’t learn much from the experience. My companion continued to be noisy, I continued to be quiet, and if I wanted to write I had to find places where I wouldn’t be disturbed.

I shared a second story with my students, one that I heard a few years after the vacuuming incident.  It involved two famous poets who lived together.  I will call them Red and Blue.  Red required utter silence when she worked.  She would unplug the telephone, post notices on the front door telling UPS and FedEx and the mail carrier not to disturb her.  Blue was under strict orders not to bother her, and all of their mutual friends knew that when Red was at work, that was it.  She was working – creating art – and nobody dared trespass on her oasis of silence.

Blue had a different approach.  He would start a poem and if, halfway through, someone knocked on the door, he’d answer it.  “Imagine it was a girl standing in the rain carrying a yellow umbrella,” he said.  “Well, maybe I’d add that girl or the rain or the beautiful umbrella into my poem.”  Blue delighted in the surprise that a disturbance might bring.  “The cat knocked some coins off a shelf when I was at a crucial point in this poem,” he explained, sharing a piece of his own work.  “So I added the coins!  They’re the best part of the poem!”  Blue was open to interruptions – indeed, he seemed to welcome them – and, if possible, he would use them to move his writing in unexpected ways.

When I heard this story, I took it to heart.  I began seeing my previous need for utter silence as a way of shutting out possibility.  I saw Blue’s approach as a way of opening to the world.  That may sound dramatic, but it helped me alter habits which were hampering my work.  I was getting very little writing done because I had imposed such strict standards.  By modifying my rigid expectations, I was able to proceed.


After I recounted these stories to my students, I suggested that they look at their own habits and the kinds of restrictions they’d imposed on themselves and their environments.  “Be careful of what you tell yourself,” I suggested.  “If you think you can only write at night, or in a certain café, or after everyone is asleep, or after having a drink, or only while music is playing, or when music is not playing, or only when you’re inspired, or only on weekends…”  I was watching the class as I spoke, and as I rattled off this list, one by one the students began to smile in recognition.  “If you tell yourself that you need a certain pen, or you can only write at the computer, or that you can only write with a deadline or only if you have a good assignment or that you can’t write poems that rhyme or you can only write poems that rhyme…”  I took a breath, and paused…  “If you impose boundaries like these, you may be limiting opportunities to write.  You might be killing poems instead of creating them.”

It was an anticlimactic finish, and a not entirely honest one.  Habits, of course, are crucial, they serve important purposes.  They can help a writer be more productive and more efficient; they can help us establish routines and even, perhaps, inspire us.

But I wanted my students to see that we can also thwart ourselves.  Saying “I can only write if X and Y and Z happen” might guarantee that X and Y and Z rarely, if ever, happen.  Young writers are coached to establish good routines and stick to a plan and be consistent and be persistent and become resilient; this coaching is valuable and is often the result of hard-earned wisdom passed from teacher to student.

Sometimes, though, it might be smart to answer the knock on the door or kiss the cat for causing a commotion.  I haven’t learned to embrace chaos and I’m not saying that interruptions or disturbances or general havoc always lead me to my best work.  But sometimes it might be wise to let the vacuum run or listen to a gleeful woman sing her noisy, magnificent heart out.

Donna Steiner with Lake Ontario behind herDonna Steiner is a contributing writer at Hippocampus. She lives in central New York, near Lake Ontario. Donna teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego and is a 2011 fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her essays and poems have been published in many literary journals. Her favorite writers are Anne Carson, Annie Dillard, and Anne Fadiman. There are many others, including writers not named Anne or Annie.

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  5 comments for “Craft: Habits by Donna Steiner

  1. I shared this with some other writers and poets I know. Thanks for the reminder that we sometimes need to think outside the box, break routines.  It’s sometimes exhilarating to throw habits out the window, even if just for an hour.

  2. Great thoughts. I have to confess that normally I don’t read craft essays because I think writers sometimes spend too much time writing and reading about writing, and not enough time reading great examples of their genre and actually writing… But this caught my eye and I’m glad it did. There are so many reasons not to sit down and write–not feeling ready, not having the right environment, having too much else to do… Sometimes you just need to shut up and do it. There’s no perfect time. I’m not a parent, but I love Anne Lamott’s quote in which she says something like: I used not to be able to write of there were dishes in the sink… Then I had a child. Now I could write if there were a corpse in the sink.

  3. I love the story of Red and Blue — there’s always a chance of a yellow umbrella.

    As a mom of little kids, and with a young puppy in the house, if I waited for quiet and calm, I’d never write. I rely on the habits I can, and make the best of the rest of it. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  4. Agreed. If you’re to into only being able to write under certain conditions, you’re being too uptight about it. And if you indeed have a regular habit of writing, then a little interruption won’t be that big of a deal because, even if it kills your flow, there’s always next time.

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