keenan norrisI’m on sabbatical from my teaching position at Evergreen Valley College for the entirety of the 2016/2017 school year. While life still goes on as unpredictably as ever, the sabbatical itself is proving to be the perfect vehicle for productivity. It’s the safest means of going off the grid that I think exists outside of utilizing all that trust fund money I don’t have and selling my majority share in that wildly successful company of mine that doesn’t exist. In all seriousness, I feel really privileged to have this time away from teaching to write, to read, to explore some new creative directions for my work and to assess and re-develop my teaching strategies. 

One of the more curious features of sabbatical at Evergreen is that among my responsibilities, I must keep a daily log of my progress toward fulfillment of the sabbatical contract. (Yes, there is a sabbatical contract; sabbatical does not mean a work-free several-month hiatus in the Bahamas.) This log, while probably unnecessary for anyone with the determination to write a book in the first place, still is not without some value. Looking back at it after a couple months, every day filled with some sort of recorded labor, is a lot like I imagine looking at video of myself asleep would be. I’ve always told people, because it’s true, that I don’t remember much of my writing process. I write. It happens. It’s on the page. I don’t go into a fugue state and I’m not channeling gods nor demons, but I do try to relax when I write. While it cheapens the effort involved to say that the words just appear on the page, because they don’t, it would likewise be an over-complication to say that elaborate preparations precede my daily writing periods. There are no mantras, no rituals; maybe a little pre-reading to relax my mind a little, but that’s about it. I feel that my best writing is the result of relaxation, of letting thought glide into expression. If much of what is wonderful to us as readers is reading writing that seems like the pure product of the writer’s mind, the question becomes “How do I get there? How do I collapse the wall between the analytical and expressive, between writing and thought?”

My log looks like this:

11/13/16- Writing essay on election 8-11AM

11/14/16- Writing “Post-Mortem Morning” 8PM-Midnight

11/15/16- Writing “Post-Mortem Morning” Midnight-6AM; submitted “Post-Mortem Morning: Oakland and the Remains of the Left” to Slate

11/16/16- Finalized “Post-Mortem Morning: Oakland and the Remains of the Left” and submitted it to Los Angeles Review of Books; interviewed for Marin Headlands Fellowship; visited Cogswell College and delivered lecture on creative writing

11/17/16- Writing Chicago essay 3-6PM; received edits from LARB for “Post-Mortem Morning” 1

1/18/16- Writing Chicago essay 4-7PM; attended writers group

11/19/16- Revised and re-submitted “Post-Mortem Morning” to LARB

11/20/16- Writing Chicago essay 6-10AM, 4-6PM

So it goes.

What I’ve learned about my writing schedule from reading these logs is that there is no schedule. I tend to write in the mornings and late at night— except when I write throughout the middle of the day and don’t do any morning or evening work. I seem to write for three or more hours each day, whether weekends or week days; there’s a pattern for you. This domestic journal might make it seem that I come to my sabbatical task here and there, flittingly, when I feel the urge, when I can work it into my schedule. Read another way, it can seem the sketching of an obsessive:

11/14/16- Writing “Post-Mortem Morning” 8PM-Midnight… 11/15/16- Writing “Post-Mortem Morning” Midnight-6AM

You take your pick; I won’t object either way, though neither makes me seem very sane.

These rabbit holes open up every week or so, I notice, looking back at my logs. It’s always like this, a half a day lost to time where all I’ve done is forget the world in order to write of it vividly, intensely, without interruptions save for a glass of water here, a boiled egg there. Mine is, in these moments that stretch into hours and become days and make stories and fashion essays and form the outline, the detailed contents, the final structure of books, a sparse existence. And of it, I have little memory. And isn’t that in itself something wonderful, that the mind, elusive, fleeting, writ in air and ephemera, is yet recordable, if only as a shadow of its true self, in our logs and our stories and the volumes that we put down?

Writ in Air
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Keenan Norris’s novel Brother and the Dancer is the winner of the James D. Houston Award and was also nominated for the inaugural John Leonard Prize for first books. Keenan’s work has appeared in numerous forums, including recent pieces on blacks in tech and college student-athlete ethics at popmatters.com, his essay on Oscar Grant’s murder in BOOM: A Journal of California, and “Ben Carson, Thug Life and Malcolm X” in the Los Angeles Review of Books. His short stories have appeared in Inlandia: A Literary Journey through California’s Inland Empire, New California Writing 2013, Eleven-Eleven, and the Santa Monica, Evansville and Green Mountains Reviews. He has also published peer-reviewed scholarship, most recently his essay “Coal, Charcoal and Chocolate Comedy: On the Satire of Mat Johnson and John O. Killens” in Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity After Civil Rights. He is the editor of the seminal critical work Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. His commentaries on that anthology and issues related to it have been featured in the Financial Times, Huffington Post and New York Observer. Keenan is a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fellow and think tank member and also serves on the editorial board for Literature for Life, a Los Angeles-based online literary journal, salon, and resource for educators K-12 designed to spark a love of reading and writing. Keenan serves as guest editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center. He is an English professor at Evergreen Valley College and is also a lecturer, teaching Black Lit and Creative Writing, at California State University, East Bay.

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2 thoughts on “Writ in Air

  • December 5, 2016 at 11:57 am
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    Very wonderful! And helpful. Thank you for sharing your schedule and musings.

  • December 5, 2016 at 10:33 am
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    So wonderful. The last sentence/question will remain with me, that something of ourselves is recorded, but that writing is discipline and absence, in a way, from the world, from immediate memory and yet that the writer is and has been in that. Fully.

    Thank you.

    Laura

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