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Following my muse

Sam, people ask me, how do you decide what to write each day? Okay, maybe I just imagine that people ask me that. I think one person asked me a related question. But How do you decide what to write about? is a good question. It’s also something else that I’d like to think more about. And so you’re stuck with this essay.

Each day, usually somewhere near the end of the day (about 8:30 or 9:00 p.m.), I sit down to write my daily essay. On some days, I’m exhausted, or at least tired enough that I don’t think I can write deeply about a subject. On those days, I look for a topic I feel like I can write about without much time or effort. Fortunately, I follow a practice that I think most writers follow: I have a notebook in which I list possible topics. (I put notebook in quotation marks because it’s mostly just an electronic list of notes.) For some topics, I just have a word or two. For others, I have a full paragraph introduction. And for yet others, I have a series of notes. I generally haven’t thought in advance which essays will be easier to write, so I look for the one that calls to me.

On other days, I’ve been thinking about a topic all day, and I’ve put together an approximate outline and even some sentences and phrases in my head. When things are going well, those essays then flow fairly freely. On others, even though I’ve been running through ideas all day, when I finally sit down to put word to paper (or, more precisely, fingers to keyboard or bits to wherever it is bits go), it just doesn’t work. Once in a while, I force it anyway. On others, I use one of my other approaches.

On some days, I have other writing that I feel like I have to do. It may be that a student (or a prospective student) has written with a question, and I combine writing the essay with answering the question. On others, I have a memo I want or need to write. And so the essay and the note are one exercise in writing. However, in these cases, the essay and the other writing are never identical. Some times I need different tones. At times, I find that I write more in the essay because the essay lets me think through the issues involved. Also, I’ve found that few people really want email messages or even memos that are as long as my essays.

As you probably know as a long-time reader, I also use these essays to think through topics that I find complex [1]. Those topics are usually things that come up in my day-to-day work. But they also come from a variety of other sources. Even an off-handed comment from one of the boys can become something I want to reflect on.

For better or for worse, I sometimes need these essays as a form of therapy. They allow me to rant about things that frustrate me [2]. I’d hope that I found writing such essays liberating and healing, but they rarely are. Nonetheless, they are fun to write. Essays also allow me to reflect on things I appreciate in life, such as family, friends, colleagues, students, alumni, and more. I find that writing such essays can improve my mood.

There are even a few planned essays. I know that at the end of each month, I’ll write something about what I learned in that month. I know that on October 31, I’ll write about the Tigger suit. I expect that on November 11, I’ll write about Walt Kelly.

But in most cases, I do the same thing I do when I’m looking for something short to write: I look through my notebook. Usually, I find something that’s appropriate, whether I want to write something uplifting, or to rant, or to explore a topic more thoroughly, or to help students think more about my discipline or the institution, or even when I don’t know what I want to write.

In almost every case, something just seems right [3]. Perhaps my muse leads me to the topic. And that seems appropriate. If these are musings, I should follow my muse.

[1] Yeah, just because I find them complex, it doesn’t mean that are actually complex.

[2] Tenure allows me to rant in public.

[3] Or write.

Version 1.0 of 2016-10-16.