This has been a big and gratitude-inducing year for me, with three books published or accepted for publication alongside two essays on teaching in two different anthologies and a personal essay, a short story, and several reviews in Orion and other journals. Two things have made it possible. One is a whole lot of plain old perseverance and slugging it out over time; The Hands-On Life and Eldorado, Iowa, my novel, were both initially declined by other publishers, and the ideas in The Hands-On Life have been stirring around for almost a decade (developed further by my teaching and by conversations with students, several of whom appear in the book!) The second is a writing habit that’s indispensable now, and that I teach my students. I call it “writing in buckets.”
The principle? When you get a new idea, or are working on different projects, you start a folder [on your computer, or in an actual paper folder – I use both at once] for each. Put a general label on it and just start throwing things in – bits and scraps from your notebook, printouts of articles, photographs, quotes you run across, whatever gives you a tingle of connection in your brain even if you don’t quite yet know why. Put a date on everything you throw in. (Notebooks and journals themselves work like mini-buckets; when I have written something informally there that feels like it wants to be part of a “real” book or story or essay, I’ll transfer it to the appropriate bucket.) Each of my books was mixed and formed in a bucket just like this.
This technique sounds really self-evident, but students working on big projects (Paideia research papers, senior projects, multiple revisions of creative work) find this approach quite freeing. It’s kind of like a Pinterest board, except less public. Early on, in fact, privacy can be indispensable to a writing project’s development. I can’t even tell you, the readers of the blog post, what my current buckets’ titles are (you’ll just have to trust me – they do exist.) I use the “bucket” technique for teaching, too, since I run across articles and information all the time that connect to things students and I are interested in. What’s really fun is when I open up the bucket and get freshly sparked by something I’d forgotten was there, and see fresh connections between things by surprise.
What’s an example? Here’s something from the teaching bucket. Many of you know or remember the Paideia research unit, in which each instructor chooses a different historical research topic for her class. Mine is based on James Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me, focusing on untold, mis-told, or little-known stories from American history. I keep a running list of things to offer my students as examples. Heard on NPR, stumbled across in a magazine or online newsletter, read about in a book review – they all go right in the bucket. I either print the article for a paper folder or (increasingly) save the article as a PDF directly to the appropriate folder in my computer. Looking at my “Paideia Research Unit” bucket now, I see stories about the first Native American to receive a medical degree, African American antislavery activists (free AND enslaved), “black Wall Street” in Oklahoma City, and an American soldier who was held as a POW in a Nazi concentration camp. Now, when my students are looking for places to start, I have clear articles to which I can point them – articles I would’ve completely forgotten if I hadn’t put them in the bucket.
Let me be clear: this wouldn’t have worked the same way when I was in my 20s because although I was writing a lot I didn’t have quite as much to say, or the ability to craft a big outward-facing, book-shaped idea. Writers, unlike gymnasts, racehorses, or fashion models, get better with age. I feel like I only really started developing something to say and a voice to say it in once my age started getting a 3 in front of it. This past birthday I turned 44 – and I am happier with and more absorbed in my writing life than I have ever been. But anyone can try this with their own projects – take it seriously, give it time, and keep your eyes open. "The dream will come to the man who is prepared to have the dream," Robert Penn Warren wrote. The writing brain works like a cement mixer – you have to keep it churning, even slowly. Keep paying attention and squirreling away your scraps, and they will add up. No matter how long it takes.