On Not Writing

I’m writing a lot these days. Last night I turned in a draft of a poem for workshop that I’ve been working on for about a year and it might be even further from finished than when I started. It’s become “a poem that might be more than one poem,” says my professor thinking it will make me feel better. Or, “a long poem in many sections.” But I want to write short poems like Jane Kenyon! I want to be sparse and nimble like Rita Dove!

This kind of feedback is encouraging but also a little daunting, so after class I had to remind myself of some other wise advice: Sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is not to write. Instead, live. Take a walk, plant a succulent garden, visit the museum, build a blanket fort with your kids.

The idea is to do whatever it takes to fill the places inside you that make you want to write: your feeling places, your sensing places, your doing places. It might become material for your writing – like Cheryl Strayed’s hike in the California mountains that she turned into a best-selling memoir – or maybe it will just become a happier, more whole you.

I missed my Monday post this week, but now you know why.

The Best of the MFA: Workshop

 

In my MFA in Creative Writing program we take three kinds of classes: craft courses, seminar courses, and workshop courses.

In the craft courses we focus in a particular area of craft. In my most recent poetry craft class we concentrated our study on the line, the element of poetry that makes it most unique from other types of writing. You usually know a poem when you see it because instead of letting the margins of the page determine line lengths, the poet determines the length of the line.

In the seminar courses we focus on reading and studying the type of writing we want to produce or the body of writing from which our contemporary works were born. Next term I’ll be reading a lot of great poetry from the “middle generation.”

In the workshop courses our time is devoted to writing and responding to our own work. I generally write a new poem each week and submit it to my professor and classmates before we meet. They each take the time to read and respond to my draft – marking strengths and weaknesses, challenging each word choice, asking questions to clarify my meaning or the poem’s situation. I do the same for each of them.

Then in class we take turns putting our poem “up for workshop.” During this time the other students and the professor discuss my poem while I sit quietly and take furious notes. I’m not allowed to talk because what I want is to get their impression of the poem without my clarifications. I want to hear what a fellow poet sees in my poem as it is on the page.

I feel like the workshop classes are one of the things about my program that I can’t replicate on my own. I can read any number of fantastic books (assuming I have the motivation to do so) on craft. I can stay up-to-date on contemporary poetry by subscribing to journals, visiting the library, or even being online. I already have a recommended reading list full of “essential poets” that is longer than I will ever have time to finish. I can do all of this alone, technically. (I have to admit, if I wasn’t able to sit in class each week with my classmates, I would miss the conversations surrounding all of this reading though.)

What I can’t do alone is read my poems from an outside perspective. It’s kind of astonishing to me, really, how different a poem reads to someone else. Almost without fail, if I go into workshop feeling confident about a poem, it gets deconstructed in a pretty major way. And likewise, often when I feel that I have a weaker offering it amazingly finds a more positive response. (More about all of this another day.) My writing as improved the most as a result of these workshops. I love and hate them. But I wouldn’t be as proud of my improvement as a writer if I didn’t have them. I know that much.

And even though I can’t replicate this part of my MFA alone, that doesn’t mean it can’t be replicated outside of an MFA program. It certainly can. Just not alone. Good writers become good writers with help: a circle of friends, a classroom of peers, or even an online community of strangers. (More about this later as well.) It can be replicated outside of the MFA program, it just can’t be replicated alone. You can’t be your only reader.

It is a great myth of the writing world that writers do their best work in solitude. Maybe that is true at certain stages of the writing process: I can’t get a word typed on a new poem if my husband is looking at my screen! But the entire process can’t be navigated alone unless you only want to write for yourself. Then it would probably work just fine, although I’m much happier with my own writing after someone else has had a look at it and I’ve made revisions according to the best combination of our thoughts. It’s a fascinating form of semi-collaboration.

Do you let others read what you write? If you aren’t in a formal program, do you think you could find a workshop substitute? What would it look like?

 

My Mini-Me (On Being a Student)

Things I Like Doing As a Student:

1. Having written something worth looking at again.

2. Having completed a revision that makes a poem almost finished.

3. Talking about writing.

4. Reading.

5. Going to literary events like book signings and poetry readings.

6. Thinking about writing.

Things I Don’t Like Doing As a Student:

1. Writing.

I thought I might be sort of the special case here, but this is true for me. I like having written. I like bringing a piece to class that I’m proud of – even if it will soon be reduced to lots of crossed out words and revision suggestions. I like being inspired by published writers and talking with my writer friends about the great things we’re going to write. I like this stuff.

But you cannot fathom the myriad ways I can avoid actually writing during my assigned time. Anne Lamott is a sweetheart to tweet about it herself. Very often her morning messages are some version of “butt in chair.”

Without fail, I put off writing until it cannot be put off any longer (as in, hours before deadlines). This is why I felt like I had to be a true student if I was going to become a better writer. Otherwise I just think or talk about writing, I don’t actually write.

I recognized (again) this unfortunate little trait in my daughter just yesterday. It was her semi-annual (or quarterly, perhaps?) tearful visit with me about why she thinks she should quit piano lessons (more on that here). And I lectured her and planned strategies with her and spoke life into her destiny as a musician, but what really made the difference was when I said, “You know, Ada, I’m the same way. I just hate practicing. But I love having practiced. It’s just the way it is.”

My mom calls it “disciplining your art” and it’s true even as much as it hurts. I am certain I would never have pursued poetry if I hadn’t had the opportunity to be “forced” into writing some poems and liking them. Also, it is true that when I actually do make myself write, I like the process. I like the words and how they arrange themselves into ideas and then how new ideas pop up from the words I thought were going to say something entirely different. It’s just so hard to do that. (I mean, the latest Downton Abbey is very likely available for streaming online at this very moment!)

Here’s to the Sisterhood of the Reluctant Practicers:

May our wills be shaped according to the means necessary to attain our desired ends.

May our spirits be encouraged even in our bondage.

May the fruits of our labor today be tasty enough to get us back in the chair again tomorrow!

Maybe what really helps is knowing we’re not alone. Thanks, Ms. Lamott.

 

*I should note that when pressed Ada is not actually interested in quitting piano. She wants to be a great piano player. She’s just interested in it being easier. She’s looking for a way to become great that doesn’t involve practicing five days a week. And, aren’t we all?

How About a Poem?

This week I read and studied a poem by Eric Pankey called “Lunar Calendar.” Go ahead and read it on the Poetry Daily website because I don’t have permission to post it here.

I wanted to look at this poem because I think it’s a good example of how poetry sort of works when it is working well, if that makes sense. This is one of my favorite kinds because it’s accessible on first read but gets better when you do two things: 1) Read it out loud, and 2) Study it a little closer.

Read it Out Loud

I wasn’t overly impressed with this poem when I first read it, but something about it seemed interesting. So during the time in our class when we are asked to bring up a poem from the week’s assignments for discussion, I decided to bring this one up. Sometimes I select a poem for this discussion time that I loved but other times, like this one, I choose a poem that I’m not even sure I like but that I want to know more about.

We begin the discussion by reading the poem out loud. As I did this in class – up until now I had only read it in my head – I realized the poem “sounded” beautiful. The interesting words, the way the consonants and vowels played together like dancers, the rythym established by the repetition. By the time I finished, we all sort of sighed after that closing line: “The moon, fluent in every tongue, remains mum.”

Even the end sound reverberated like a hum-m–m.

Reading a poem out loud changes the way you interact with it. Try it.

Study A Little

When first expressing my hesitation to choose “Lunar Calendar” for discussion, my professor pointed out that the poem uses the anaphora technique that is very common in poetry. Yet, I hadn’t heard the term or really noticed the form until this poem. Anaphora means a word, line, or phrase is repeated at the beginning of each line. It’s a way of establishing a repeating rhythm as well as a way of looking at a common thing in a new way.

In this case, the moon.

Pankey varies the line a bit, sometimes writing “The moon is” and other times using a stronger verb. The variation keeps the poem interesting. The repetition keeps it familiar. The anaphora provides a way to look at the familiar in new and unexpected ways. The first line, “The moon is a midwife who delivers a bundle of salt”, is gorgeous.

Besides the interesting diction/language, the poem also uses a set number of lines: twelve. This is where the title, “Lunar Calendar”, makes more sense. Twelve months in a calendar year. The poem seems to look at the moon in it’s different phases and gives images and metaphors that describe them.

So there’s your little poetry seminar for the week. What do you think? Did you appreciate “Lunar Calendar” more after looking it over a little more closely?

I certainly did. Later in the week, I used this poem as a model for a poem of my own. I chose a similarly familiar subject – the sky – and tried to follow Pankey’s pattern very closely. For example, when he used a metaphor for the moon, “June bug larva”, I used one of my own for the night sky, “pickled century egg” (the black egg in Chinese cuisine pictured above). When he used a scientific term, I used one that related to my subject. I wanted to imitate his moves so I could see precisely how he made the poem work so beautifully. I wasn’t as happy with mine as I was with his, but I did come up with some new and interesting lines.

This kind of writing, called modeling or imitating, is a common poet’s practice and one I’ve learned a lot from. If you are interested, take a poem you love and try the same thing.

 

*image credit: Rebecca Sows “The Century Egg” on Behance