I woke today with the best of intentions.
I’m on a writing retreat at the moment—just three nights at a local hotel, a good place for sleeping and swimming and eating reconstituted eggs and spongy sausage precisely from 6 to 10 a.m.
It’s also a great place to get work done—to catch up on grading and editing projects and to reacquaint myself with my own writing, including my poor, neglected blog.
My relationship with writing isn’t always a comfortable one. It’s almost like I forget how sometimes, and I could no more pick up a blue pen and write a poem with it than I could sprout tiny wings and breathe fire.
In fact, writing this very essay is part of my path back to poetry after a few weeks’ absence. This is my windup. I hope to follow it up with a pitch, hot and fast, right down the center of the plate.
I’m fine, by the way. I’m not anxious or depressed; if I’m a little overworked, that’s kind of normal for me, and it doesn’t keep me from finding a few hours in most days to write. I can’t cite a reason I’m struggling to write poems at the moment; I just am—and that’s a familiar place for me.
Some poets function in the way that I see fiction writers operate: They sit down in front of the page and see what kind of trouble they can get into, what kind of fun they can have. I’m just not that kind of writer. Poetry, for me, is a process of turning inward and drawing out what I’m thinking and feeling on the deepest level. Even when I do try fooling around—noodling, my instrumentalist friends might call it, running through scales and arpeggios, trying some finger studies—the process quickly takes me inward and becomes one of focused self-study.
Because I’m fairly contented, self-study should be a comfortable enough process—shouldn’t it? But the prospect of “going there” sometimes feels like too much for me to take on. It’s like a switch goes off and suddenly I can’t seem to do what I’ve done every single day for a month or more. I can’t write a poem. I have the paper, I hold the pen, but no marks hit the page.
During the course of a writer’s life, we get to know our own peculiarities. One of my own is this occasional exile from words. I feel as though I’m standing outside the village walls and no one will let me back in. I temporarily forget that there’s a wide-open gate. Of course no one is going to wave me through; it’s not even a real village, and at any rate, I’m the mayor of my own simile. But the feeling of exclusion—it’s awfully hard to shake that, even when it comes from no clear source.
Some people call this writer’s block. I don’t necessarily believe in the concept. What I’m going to do today is sit myself down in front of paper or screen and plunk down some words. They will very likely be terrible words, hardly-worth-reading words. They will not play nicely together; they will not express anything worth saying; they will not even sound particularly mellifluous, no matter how I rearrange them.
And I’ll add more words to the mix, and these words won’t be any better. But stacking up so many words—the raw material of poetry—will allow me to see where a few from up there and a few from down here might be ratcheted together in a surprising way, possibly even a pleasing way. More and more words will result in more and more possibilities, and maybe when I’m done, I’ll have a poem to show for it. At least I’ll know I’m doing the work, and I’ll be able to reasonably refer to myself as a poet. When we stop writing poetry, isn’t it more precise to refer to ourselves as former poets?
I went through a long period—about seven years—of not writing at all. That was different; that was the result of trauma and the need to heal. The thing about the long fallow period, though, is that I came back with so much to say and with true excitement for saying it. When I ultimately did sit down to write, I knew no hesitation, and the words came nearly effortlessly to mind, or maybe they bypassed my mind, troublesome lump that it is, and went straight to my fingers. I was shocked that returning to writing wasn’t hard; it was like falling drunkenly into a swimming pool—beyond easy. Unavoidable, even.
But today I’m entering that pool stone-cold sober. I don’t have the luxury of seven years. My life, by any reasonable measure, is half-over. My mind is possibly just past its peak, if measured in terms of difficulty remembering what I entered a room for. I have some things to say, and the time is now.
I’m going in.