What is your most recent writing project, or what is a piece you’ve had published recently?
What I learned in graduate school—I did an MFA in poetry and PhD in contemporary literature simultaneously—is that I’m most productive when I have multiple projects going. This summer I have been finalizing a co-edited collection (Reading and Writing Experimental Texts: Critical Innovations, Palgrave, Fall 2017), pulling together a book of what I’m calling domestic prose poems (an excerpt of the project appears as “Mother Time” in Literary Mama, and drafting (again) a memoir-in-essays that is about home life and domestic labor as a single mother by choice. My most recent critical work is a hybrid essay on Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
What are some of your writing habits? (Do you write at a particular time? Do you write every day?, etc.) When you are sitting down to write, what is the first thing you do?
I do write every week day, usually in the morning, as soon as my kids are off to school. I usually start with a quick warm up in either poetry or prose and then move on to more deliberate drafting; if I have an editing project, and it’s not a teaching day, I often do that work in the afternoon. This summer, after reading Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space (which I highly recommend), I’ve been experimenting with different spaces and practices, with moderate success: for example, walking around the track at the gym and then sitting down to compose and then another few laps, etc., or standing at the kitchen counter, which is the right height for me for a standing desk. I also really like the app “Coffitivity” to create a coffeeshop white noise without the distractions of real cafes. Mostly it seems what’s important for me is time of day; while I can write any time of day—and used to do most of my work as a student at night—my mind is definitely sharpest in the morning, before the interruptions of household and job. I’ve also become increasingly aware that while I’d like to be able to do things like meet a friend for lunch and then get back to work, I don’t; social interaction of any sort simply takes too much energy for me as an introvert. I don’t answer the phone, check email, etc.
Do you have a dedicated work space? Do you write in your home or do you prefer to write elsewhere? Can you write while traveling?
I have a desk that I love with a chair that is less than ergonomic; this didn’t matter when I bought it but now, about ten years later, it certainly does. It’s also moved locations, as my ‘home office’ is now my son’s bedroom. The result is that I don’t use it except to store things and keep the printer. I work mostly at my dining table, or in a recliner (I use a laptop for most writing), or standing at the kitchen counter. When I was in graduate school I’d sit in cafes and write longhand in a notebook; sometimes I remind myself of this. I have a condition called ulnar neuropathy—similar to carpal tunnel but affects different nerves—and both typing and writing hurt after long sessions. This undoubtedly affects my productivity, and why taking a physical break—like going for a walk—helps substantially.
Yes, I can write while traveling if I do not have my kids with me, as for a conference; I find AWP and the like very inspiring for that reason. I wrote a good chunk of the revisions for The Baby Book at AWP. Someday I’d like to try a residency, though it seems to me that those are set up for folks without children or major household commitments and who really don’t need that space to get away. Perhaps there’s something to being out of the house, though? Someone should do a study on productivity of writers who stay at home and writers who work while away at those sorts of retreats. I do have a theory.
What are the most pressing demands for your time, energy, labor (including emotional labor)? How do you pay the bills/financially support yourself? What has worked best for you in terms of balancing those demands with writing?
I am a single parent of two children (ages 5 and 13) so they require a fair amount of emotional labor in time, as does my paid job. Currently I’m an associate professor of English at Michigan State University; both in official and unofficial capacities I’ve done the duties of the director of creative writing, including programming and curating reading series, acting as faculty advisor to our undergrad lit magazine Red Cedar Review. I also collaborate with the nonprofit ART of Infertility, and we’ve done a few writing workshops around the body and reproductive trauma. It’s a lot to manage. For a few years—mostly when I was trying to conceive my son and when he was an infant—I didn’t get a lot of writing done, beyond projects that had external deadlines. It feels really good to be on the other side (of fertility treatment, of the tenure process, of first book publication, of early motherhood and sleep deprivation) and to be, for the first time in a long time, working on new material. In terms of the question of balance, I am pretty ruthless about protecting my schedule and compartmentalizing. That’s not to say that things don’t come up unexpectedly, but I’m very careful about saying ‘yes’ to requests on a timeline that works for me.
What are the ideal conditions for your creativity? Do you have any writing rituals? Or any non-writing rituals that feed your writing life?
I appreciate this question as it’s never really occurred to me to think about “ideal” conditions. I think I’m mostly pragmatic. . .like, how can I get work done given constraints of time and life. I suspect my practices will be different once my children are grown (would I, for example, be inclined to write in the evenings, as I once did as a student?) That said, I do know what will sabotage me: breaking up a writing day with socialization, forcing myself to work on only one project, putting off writing until after a day of teaching, meetings, etc. I protect my energy as well as my time.
What self-care practices do you have and what, if any, routines do you have surrounding them? How does self-care relate to your writing life?
This relates to the above for me. Confession: I have to say I loathe the word “self-care,” for reasons I haven’t fully figured out. That’s not to say I don’t believe in taking care of the self (both physical and emotional); like, I do not read material of any substantial length on any screen of any kind. It hurts. I get semi-regular massages to work out what I’ve taken to calling “the spot of evil” in my shoulder, which I get from writing (and grading!); I prioritize sleep; I eat pretty well. Is that self-care? Perhaps. I’ve also become increasingly aware as a parent that my needs for quiet are really high. Teaching, mothering, attending meetings, etc., require similar energies. I’ve had the summer away from a lot of it; that’s been good for me and my writing, and a privilege I recognize.
Robin Silbergleid is a poet, memoirist, and literary critic. She is the author of The Baby Book and the memoir Texas Girl and co-editor of Reading and Writing Experimental Texts: Critical Innovations. She is associate professor of English at Michigan State University, where she teaches courses in literature and creative writing. She also collaborates with the international art, oral history, and portraiture project The ART of Infertility.