Redefining north.

Writers on Writing #20: Lori A. May

Writers on Writing #20: Lori A. May


The Not-To-Do List

Every morning is the same. Brew coffee. Assess to-do list. Commence project. Fail.

I have deliberately sabotaged nearly every day of my writing life with my to-do list. It is aggressive. It is unrealistic. It demonstrates my illusions of grandeur.

Yet I continue to carry on this habit, this self-punishment. Because it works for me.

Some writers carve out an hour or two of writing time each day. These are the lucky ones. Most have to defend this time against competing responsibilities. No one "finds" time to write. It is demanded. Removed from the day. If we don’t protect that sacred hour, no one else will do it for us.

Yet, even with my leisurely lifestyle and casual teaching load—which grants me nearly limitless hours of freedom to write—I must still defend my time. I must still fight those competing elements—laundry, Facebook, the ever persistent thought that a nap would re-energize me.

I know myself. I know I cannot nap for less than a two hour block. Three is preferable. But, if I want that nap, that reward and promise of renewal, I must first earn it. I must first wear myself out. I must first attempt the impossible to-do list.

No matter what advice I receive, I cannot bring myself to trim this list of (largely self-imposed) expectations. Every morning, I glance at the impossible and know I will complete little of what I set out to do.

Some would find this tactic self-defeating and discouraging. I, apparently, feed off the madness. I feed off the challenge to accomplish an unreasonable amount of goals for the day: write a draft of one essay; edit a series of poems; write an article for a magazine; finish a book review for a journal; back up my files; clean my desk; reorganize my bookshelves; clean the house; write an email to my editor; read for an hour or two; go for a walk; flesh out idea for new project; get groceries; update website. This is about the usual level of delusion I face each morning.

Before turning off the monitor for the night, I sigh. I copy and paste and move today’s leftovers to tomorrow’s to-dos. I list them in priority sequence (which is not to say that’s how I handle them) and again I wake up to the growing list of goals.

It was Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting alternative results. I agree. Yet, for me, this madness works because there are results. I may not clear everything off my list each day, but the pressure to accomplish something works for me.

I am the person who would avoid the one thing on my to-do list if there was only one thing on my to-do list. I need pressure, but I need options and variety. I need freedom. Sure, these items are priority sequenced, but I will avert authority and do whatever appeals to me in the moment. I am both in control and out of control. And that’s what keeps me moving. That’s what keeps it unpredictable and offering different results, even when I approach the day the same way, every morning.

Every morning is the same. Brew coffee. Assess to-do list. Commence project. Succeed. Nap.

Lori A. May is the author of four books, including The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Continuum 2011). She has contributed to magazines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, and American Road. Her poetry and literary nonfiction have appeared in  Phoebe, Caper Literary Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Steel Toe Review, and qarrtsiluni. Her website is

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