Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Writing will always take you back

Antony Gormley, Feeling Material II (2003)

I have a thing I say to myself, and to writers I know who have hit a dry spell that they can’t seem to emerge from, and it is this: Poetry will always take you back.
When one has been a long time away from writing, the blank page is daunting. There’s just too much white. Every mark we put down seems to stain it.
I remember a Christmas day a few decades back. I’d walked behind my house through a stubbled, harvested farm field toward the railroad track that formed its border a few hundred yards away. It wasn’t particularly cold; I wore shorts and a light jacket.
And then the snow came. It came sudden and hard, and I was blinded by it. My only course of action was put my head down, turn around, and follow the direction of the empty furrows back to my far-off home.
I trusted those grooves to get me back, just as I trust my lines of writing to get me somewhere. If we lower ourselves to the page, it meets us back, and it becomes a field where anything can happen.
A lot of people have advice on how to get the words going again. (I’m one of them, actually—I’ve written many posts containing writing prompts.) But starting to write again is a simple matter, if not an easy one. We just have to write.
I like to draft longhand, so for me, it’s literally a matter of moving my hand and arm over the page. Ink comes out; the page is defaced, so just like that, a source of consternation is behind me. At first my motions are mechanical and forced, my letters crabby and precise. I have a habit of crossing out those first sputters of language, and not just drawing a line through them, but obliterating them—scribbling over the offensively bad writing until not even the merest tittle shows. This is part of it, though—scribbling just another way of moving the pen.
That’s the trick, see—it’s not to be brilliant, but it’s to allow something to come through. After weeks or months away from writing, whatever presence is on the other side of that pen, looking up through the still pond of the page, has stepped away. The sound of our scratching beckons it back, and eventually, if our heart is pure, it offers us a crumb—a good word, a phrase, an image. 
And then we’re off.
Put in more practical terms, we have to write in order to write. Writing isn’t magic; it’s just slapping down some words. Most good writing happens in its revision anyway, but we can’t revise nothing. Moving the pen, or moving our fingers on the keyboard, gives us something. And we go from there.
For me, it really is as simple as this. The way to get back to writing is merely to write. After a few dusty gerunds or infinitives shake out, the pump begins to prime, and whoosh—out comes a lovely noun, and it’s one you hadn’t thought of in a while, one with the perfect sound. Tuba. Crypt. Syzygy. You hook your wagon to that word and it carries you … somewhere. And wherever it is, it’s always somewhere new.
I think we imbue writing with the wrong kind of voodoo. It isn’t fickle; it doesn’t leave us. It really does reside in us, always, and it can emerge if we make a path for it. The real magic is that writing begets more writing. The main thing that keeps it from happening is that we can’t easily find the time and the solitude to let it flow. 
Once we do find ourselves in the position to receive, we sometimes make one of two mistakes: Either we take an agenda to the page, and our plans don’t compel us, or we sit down and file through our mental Rolodex of potential subjects, and nothing there demands to be written about.
I like to rely on chance when I’m writing. A phrase here, a word there—these can lead to some surprising conjunctions, and the interest generated by an unexpected melding of ideas takes me past my panic and into … a poem. Or a proto-poem? 
At any rate, it’s a start.



  1. A reassuring and fun read! I love the analogy of following the familiar furrows back to the house in the snow storm. The timing of this post is perfect, as I'm wrestling with a dry spell. Thanks, Karen!

    1. Thank you so much for the feedback! I hope you get over the dry spell soon. I'm in one myself, but plan to change that soon. :)