Ada Limón’s Advice for Writers on the Move

Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Qu.

It’s evening and I’m packing for an early morning flight to New York City. Tomorrow I’ll join a large reading focusing on love and hope (something I need more than ever these days), then I’ll host a reading celebrating the work of the writer Rigoberto Gonzalez. I’m used to travel. I can even say I like it. Though, packing always stresses me out. I never know what to wear or what to bring. But I manage to do it because, well, because I have to. Somehow I have to pack, wake up before dawn, and get to where I’m going, and so I do it. This isn’t that unlike writing. It’s hard and you never feel like you’re getting it right, or doing it with finesse, but if you want to get somewhere, you do it anyway. You have to.

When I tell people I’m a writer—a poet at that—they often think of me tucked away in Emily Dickinson’s yellow house strenuously working on putting words together as if my life depended on it. But the truth is, almost 50% of my life is on the road. And because of that I’ve learned to write on the road and I learn to change the way I think of my time. It used to be that I thought of only the time I spend typing on the page as my writing time, now I think it’s all of it. Writing is all of this life. If I’m doing laundry, raking leaves, getting the car fixed, working on a deadline for magazines, or making an avocado sandwich, I’m still writing.

That’s not to say that it’s as important as putting the work in, bowing down to the desk and cranking out drafts, but life is still part of this art. Sometimes I think the travel actually helps with my writing, because I’m constantly allowing myself to be off-kilter, see a new view on the world, a new town, a different plane window. The contemporary writer today is a writer that’s on the move and multitasking. But, even though, all I want to do sometimes is write for hours in my green pajamas and read on the couch until I fall asleep, the travel keeps me engaged with the fact that all of these words serve a purpose. They are connected with real people outside of the walls of my brain and body.

I admit to craving a hermit life and my down time is often spent in glorious isolation eating pistachios, reading and writing, and going a little mad. But the readings and performances and gatherings mean something. Especially now, when the world feels so fractured and brutal, there’s something kind of spectacular about a group of people gathering to hear words, to be changed by them, to want to connect to something outside of themselves. On the road, in cities and small towns around the world, I get the honor of meeting people who aren’t writers, but readers. They come out to hear work and stay to chat not because they’re looking for writing advice, but because they love and buy books like others order and obsess over Netflix movies.

I guess what I’m saying is, sometimes it’s good to leave the house. Even when life feels really hard and the world feels like it’s something hostile and unwelcoming, it’s good to pack up your things, bring a book for the plane, maybe write a poem on a Delta Airlines cocktail napkin, and go somewhere where people are celebrating words. It’s part of the job as a writer. We get pack what we can on to the page and then pack ourselves into the world.

Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and was named one of the top five poetry books of the year by the Washington Post. Her fourth book Bright Dead Things was named a finalist for the National Book Award, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky. Limón teaches poetry in Queens University of Charlotte’s master of fine arts in creative writing program.