Be a good steward to your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.
Poet Jane Kenyon intended these words as instructions for writers, a set of inviolable regulations to both promote and protect the creative thought process and the work ethic. Like most people who want to write - or pursue any kind of artistic lifestyle - I yearn for a set of rules to follow. I want someone to lay it out point blank, someone to give me a roadmap. Just do this and thus and so, and at the end you’ll have the masterpiece you want so badly. I want the protocol like the doctor in the emergency room, or the chemist in the laboratory. I want the boilerplate an attorney might use, or the set of formulas an engineer would employ.
In the sense that there are any such things for a creative person, I suppose Jane Kenyon’s principles come as close as anything to fulfilling that role. Protect your time. Have good sentences in your ears. Work regular hours. Be a good steward to your gifts.
Like anything worth doing, being a good steward to your gifts takes a conscious effort. It starts when I stop scheduling appointments in the morning so I can have that hour or two to work. It continues when I disable the internet (the 21st century version of taking the phone off the hook) and bring both dogs upstairs to my office so they aren’t barking at every other Fido, Max, or Maddie walking by. It’s fed by the inspiration in a select group of books on my desktop, the words of my “teachers” - Dani Shapiro, Katrina Kenison, Anne Lamott, Karen Maezen Miller - who stand before me with gentle encouragement and well-wishes.
Most often the things that derail me from good stewardship are the demands of ordinary life. The grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments, the dog whose hair needs trimming, the laundry that overflows the basket in my closet. These tasks are my job. They don’t pay the bills, but they keep our lives humming smoothly along, which is important for me. Truth? I am obsessive-compulsive enough that I need that full pantry, clear calendar, and empty laundry basket in order to focus my attention on anything else - like writing.
Or at least I think I do.
Good stewardship, the kind Kenyon talks about, must start with the belief that this writing thing is worth all the effort. And there is the most difficult concept of all. The belief that what I do matters, that the words I try to weave into a coherent whole can make something meaningful. That even if I’m the only person who feels excited about what I put on the page, it’s still necessary to spend the time putting it there.
What I need more than anything is an unwavering conviction in the value of my gift. Only then can I make the dedicated and concerted effort necessary to protect it, nurture it, fulfill it by following Kenyon’s prescriptions. And if I look at her precepts even more closely, I see that they fulfill most of my personal requirements for a good life, irrespective of writing at all. They are the backbone of a calm and collected way of being that is among my highest aspirations. Feed your inner life. Read good books. Walk.
Anne Lamott writes about this kind of life in the final pages of Bird by Bird. “This life of reading, writing, corresponding...is nearly ideal. It is spiritually invigorating. It is intellectually quickening. One can find in writing a perfect focus for life. It offers challenge and delight and agony and commitment. We see our work as a vocation, with the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood."
“In this dark and wounded society,” she concludes, “writing can give you the pleasures of a woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, ‘This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.’"
So here I am, in my quiet room at the top of the stairs, my notebook on my lap, my dogs napping peacefully beside me, surrounded by words of my own making and those of writers I admire.
This is my niche. This is where I live now. This is where I belong.
This is my gift.