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Busywork

Why any time spent with the page is time well spent.

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Around this time of year, my freezer begins to look like something out of Stranger Things. The door groans under the weight of the salmon spines, marrow bones, pork jowls, and chicken organs; the light flickers feebly behind stacks of blood-red tomato sauce and ghostly parmesan rinds. One wrong move amidst the heaps of unidentifiable vegetables could very well send you into the Upside Down. 

Every harvest morning finds me pleading with the aging appliance, begging its weary, overstuffed contents to accept just one more head of cauliflower from the garden, just one more batch of roasted cherry tomatoes before the first frost arrives in earnest.

In Alaska, we joke we don’t mind the dark of winter because it finally lets us get some damn sleep. But I find even when I’m up late with the midnight sun, working to preserve what we’ve caught or grown with our own hands, it never feels like toil or drudgery. The drudgery will come in midwinter, when the sun doesn’t rise until 10 a.m., and there is no possible way to treat myself with enough kindness. The work I do now is an antidote to that drudgery, a gift that won’t be unwrapped for six months. Come winter, I will count my days not in sunlit hours but in how many bags of bright pesto or chopped rhubarb remain in my frozen stores. When I can finally see the back of the freezer, move around in it freely, I’ll know that the green of spring is just around the corner.

My favorite part is turning would-be scraps into foundations for future meals. Leek tops and parsley stems are squirreled away for broths alongside chicken wingtips and spines. The rind of a good chunk of aged cheese enriches a future pot of beans. The crab shells we save today will flavor tomorrow’s chowder. 

It’s frustrating, sometimes, to step back and realize you’ve spent six hours in the kitchen to feed your future self and still have nothing to feed your current stomach for dinner. But I’ve learned no time spent there is wasted. I’m constantly discovering new techniques, brainstorming fresh ways to use old ingredients. And I’m always, always writing in my head, noodling plots or working through ideas as I chop cabbage or idly stir a sauce. 

It’s rather mortifying to admit how long it took me to realize that writing is the same: No time spent on it – not a single second! – is wasted, either. I’ve confessed in these very pages that I never was a big fan of writing prompts, which always felt too unproductive, too frivolous for my eyes-on-the-prize brain. Years of writing for hire made me recoil from anything without a defined audience, a deadline, and a point. Any time spent on the page should be spent swiftly traveling from Point A to Point B, in my remarkably un-fun opinion. I didn’t have time for side quests. 

Then I took a writing class where every week’s assignment began with a prompt, and even though so many of my pressed-for-time responses would never see the light of day outside the classroom, I still couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed them. What’s more, these silly side quests yielded so many treasures for my future projects. I stole from my old work with delicious abandon, easily weaving in great sentences from not-great works into my drafts. I fleshed out half-formed ideas into full-fledged essays in half the time. 

Prompts, freewriting sessions, exercises – these activities were the furthest thing from a waste. The words I wrote were stashed away like the rinds and spines in my freezer, ready at hand to enrich any draft at a moment’s notice. These scraps, too, were a gift to my future self, even if they weren’t yet ready to be published by my current one. 

I’ve spent these last long days of summer gleefully freewheeling through as many prompts as I can find. When winter arrives, and my creative stores are leaner, it’ll be such sweet relief to know how many riches I already have waiting in the wings, eager to be put to work on the page. 

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