Friday, June 10, 2011

Being and Being Productive as a Writer

Odilia Rivera Santos

One of the complaints I hear a lot from other writers is that they don’t have time to write.
It isn’t a question of time, but motivation. Some of my favorite writers have written books in between chopping rocks in a gulag and a meal of gruel. Every productive writer has his or her own method for remaining constant as far as a writing schedule is concerned.
When I was teaching in an adult education program full-time, nine to five, and teaching part-time in the evenings, six to nine, I still managed to write for hours every day. I would write in the morning, during my lunch break, and during my commute to and from the day job to the night job. By the end of the day, I had completed poems, outlines for stories or novels or some essays to post on my blogs.
Sometimes, writers are looking for an ideal situation -- some Hemingway-esque cabin in Cuba with a hammock on the porch. But what really matters for an artist is to stay productive and to always seek ways of challenging ourselves to avoid getting in a rut. And the definition of ‘productive’ can vary; there can be flexibility in one’s view of productivity. I occasionally abandon the written word and spend time observing people or go to museums to visit art. Switching from the literary to visual has a way of dislodging me from any feeling of routine when I need to abandon routines, as useful as they are.
I took a break from submitting my work to journals in 2006 and just wrote.
Prior to this self-imposed submission break, I had done well getting my work in journals I respected, but I wanted time to develop long-term ideas and concepts without the interruption of an arbitrary deadline. In 2008, I decided to start a blog with the idea its subject matter would be intentionally unclear. I allowed myself to think on this site with very few visits until my aim came into focus. In the last five years, I have written plays, screenplays, short stories, hundreds of poems, hundreds of blog posts, and a novel of which I am proud. I began to submit work to journals again last year, but my relationship with faceless editors who choose whether to publish my work has changed. I always had an independent streak and realized both teaching and writing offered a modicum of autonomy, which I found very satisfying.
I give myself assignments in order to keep my productivity flowing.
Recently, I decided to organize some poetry readings; one reading was erotic poetry and prose and the other was on Puerto Rican identity, history and place, so I gave myself an assignment: write thirty pages of new material for each reading. I met my goal and now have a twenty-five-page manuscript, covering our migration from an island to the South Bronx, taking a trip to Cuba -- which was important because the culture was so similar to that of Puerto Rico when I was a child, and class issues. I am submitting the manuscript to a Latino journal today. The erotica collection will find a home as well.
There is something to be said for structure for any kind of goal one may have.

I give myself assignments and find this is the most efficient way to get ideas to flow. It appears the brain is quite adept at organizing information once there is a clear purpose. I wrote 365 poems on the subject of love for my poetry blog, 150 pages of autobiographical essays and even did some artist interviews as a means of keeping my writing interesting.
Socializing is important because we humans are social animals, but writing is a solitary practice, unless your plan is to write for a television show in which case, you would be sitting in a room with a bunch of people. Together, as you eat bear claws and drink designer coffee, you would build a show line by line, joke by joke, etc.
Regular non-collaborative writing can be very challenging for very social people.
Some people need applause and constant attention. I don’t. I love solitude.
Even though I love being alone, sometimes, I crave solitude with company and go to a coffee shop in order to be surrounded by people. I may be completely absorbed in my work and looking only at the computer screen but part of my brain enjoys a little ambient noise. I rarely write in silence. There is either music or someone talking while I write.
I go online and download podcasts on a variety of subjects. Podcasts allow me to ‘read’ while I write. I listen to programs in Spanish, French and English and also download lectures on subjects I wish to study. The life of a writer requires constant intellectual challenge so as to be able to write for a variety of audiences and to create multi-dimensional characters. Linguistic pliability doesn’t come in a pill or through osmosis. As I am writing this, I am downloading podcasts in French and some London Business School of Entrepreneurship lectures. After all, to write about something, you have to know something.

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My slim volume of nonfiction essays is published!
Latinalogue, Puerto Rican Nonfiction Part I


  1. "Together, as you eat bear claws and drink designer coffee, you would build a show line by line, joke by joke, etc." Badass.

    Me gustó mucho. Me identifico con muchas de las cosas que dices. En mi caso, me ayuda muchísimo ser un junkie de multimedia - un geek. Estoy de acuerdo con lo que dices es cuanto a la relación writing/solitude. I would also add a dash of healthy misanthropy and a taste for the absurd. That works for me. La vida hay que vacilársela como un charlatán, at least a lovable one. Eso me da combustible para seguir escribiendo. También me gusta escribir con música, a to' jendel, pero en el iPhone.

    Great post, Odilia.

  2. Gracias por leer, Miguel. Sí, yo sí sé ser charlatana. Eso me decía mi mamá de cada rato. Misanthropy -- so damn entertainin'
    Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan are two of my favorite books of all time.
    “To hell with reality! I want to die in music, not in reason or in prose. People don't deserve the restraint we show by not going into delirium in front of them. To hell with them!”
    - Louis Ferdinand Céline