This is quite possibly what Alfie Kohn and friends are trying to derail in the next generation by discouraging punishment-and-reward systems for kids: grown women with star charts on their bulletin boards.
But having grown up in the era of classrooms papered with giant half-inch grid tagboard, each line with a child’s name, each name with a row of happy stickers or blank spaces, I can’t shake it. What can I say: filling in squares turns me on.
A writing teacher whose ideas I’ve written about before, is a big believer in writing for a small amount of time (say, 15 minutes) every single day. Making yourself do it, she says, keeps you in the right place mentally, is a small enough commitment to be attainable, and opens up the possibility of writing much more.
Last June, this practice helped pull me out of a serious funk. For several months, I did it, and it added up. I wrote a handful of good poems, a couple of which have recently been accepted for publication. I polished some old work. I built my stack of poems to the point where I could easily enter some contests that require not just a poem or two but a “manuscript” (a word that makes me kinda shake in my boots, and also laugh, and also feel just a little proud).
My stack of poems—er, my manuscript— has even won me the chance to write for more than 15 minutes a day. In October, I’ll be spending two weeks (!) at a cabin a few hours north of here, taking in the biggest lake in the world, writing all I can, and living off the generosity of some amazing folks who make beautiful places available so that artists can have uninterrupted time to work.
I heard that thrilling news in May, and since then I have written almost nothing. I’d faltered in the routine beginning in December or so, and just about the time I heard about this award, I dropped it completely. Partly, I’m putting it off. Why bother with that 15 minutes when I’ve got the 2 weeks out there on the horizon? But I know I need to keep up the daily writing—to prime the pump for those two weeks, to keep the habit for after, and for all the reasons it’s a good idea in the first place.
Partly, I’m afraid that, having received this exciting recognition, I’ve somehow forgotten how to really write, or that (and I imagine this will be familiar to many of you writers) my best poems are behind me, or were flukes, or that actually by now I have nothing good left to say.
But now, having spent enough weeks ignoring the problem and enough weeks berating myself for not just up and writing again, I’ve got the graph paper! It is, intentionally, an ocean of blank squares. I am disproportionately satisfied by the simple act of filling in a quarter-inch square, but I also want to imagine, and keep in front of me, the amount of time that’s out there for the taking. When 15 minutes feels like a trudge or a chore better swapped out for a quarter-episode of Glee or a bit more sleep, looking at the next 1,344 days is going to remind me of where I can be three and a half years from now, and what I will have done if I stick to that one little pixel per day.