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A dear friend once described writing, the attempt to create something that might be considered art, as a life affirming act. I know that, for many of us, the campaign/election/inauguration and the recent threats to cut funding to the NEA and other cultural programs have blocked our creativity, have made it seem impossible at times to produce a single line. And without that spark, without that feeling that you are channeling something elemental through your words or your art, without that absolute magic that happens when something you’ve created feels just right, it becomes more and more difficult to get through the day. It makes it difficult to feel wholly alive.
I, myself, have been having trouble gathering enough focus to write, to really write, to get in the zone. But while I was thinking on this today, I thought about reading a friend’s work-in-progress, and it came to me that I am so lucky to have so many creative friends, to have so many writer friends who are willing to share their works-in-progress with me. I thought how wonderful it is that I can say, “I read _______________ before it was even published.” How cool is that? And I realized that reading other writers’ works-in-progress helps me feel centered again. It makes me feel that it is possible to create again. So I thought I’d share something I’ve been working on with you.
About two weeks ago, I wrote the line “I get your rain a day later.” That’s it. That is as far as I got with that thought for two weeks. I found that line again on Tuesday, and I sat down to try to work with it. I wrote about rain, how it hits different surfaces on my deck — the folded umbrella, the covered grill, the strings of globe lights — and then I wrote about smelling the rain coming. And it turns out that that was the thing I needed. I wondered what that meant. How do we smell rain? Well, it turns out that light rain releases aerosols containing dust and oils such as plant oils, and any wind pushes the aerosols ahead of the rain. So when you smell rain coming, you’re really smelling the dust and oils that collected on surfaces far from where you are. And I thought what a romantic notion it is that rain falling on a someone who is somewhere else announces itself to another someone far away.
That research brought me this gift of a word: “petrichor.” Petrichor is the name for the smell of rain falling on dry surfaces. Its etymology is equally wonderful: petra + ichor. Stone and the fluid that is the blood of the gods. I mean, come on! I get your rain a day later…AND the smell of it is the blood of the gods? Yes. Yes. Yes. Right now, all I have are notes, but I have a concept that I’m excited about.
And so I’m back to life.
What are you working on?
I don’t know about y’all, but 2016 was what I imagine being a meteorologist during a particularly bad hurricane season feels like. Category 5’s everywhere, crazy spaghetti tracking models, standing outside on a beach with rain pelting our slickers sideways and an ocean behind us where every wave has a face. An angry face. A face with foaming jaws cracked open and ready to chew.
Yeah. Like that.
But, there were good things, too. Like those fried green tomatoes at Willy Taco in Greenville, SC. Like watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with my kids at the theater where absolutely zero cell phones went off. Like getting a thoughtful letter in the actual mail from a dear, dear friend. Like lighting my grill on a sunny spring afternoon.
Oh, and I published a book.
So, yes. My very first book of poetry was published in October, and it has been a bright point in my life. Everything from the notification from the publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson, to editing proofs, to requesting and receiving blurbs, to working on the cover, to signing preorders, to the book launch on October 4th at Starlight Cafe in Greenville, NC, to all of the readings since the launch; everything has been wonderful, and I have been amazed by the things that can happen.
Here are 5 things I have learned:
The model in the photo that you and your publisher love and chose for your book cover could back out. You could need to come up with something else, quick. You could meet up with the fabulous photographer Dawn Surrat and spend a fun afternoon in an evening gown posing with her collection of insects and animal bones. You could end up with a cover you love even more, and a back cover even, and a new friend.
Be open to change.
You could be nervous as hell about sending out requests for blurbs to poets you respect and admire. You could send the requests anyway. They could agree to write the blurbs. They could send you their blurbs that say things that make you cry. In a good way.
Send the requests.
You could have lots of friends who are indifferent to poetry. They might even say they hate poetry. They could come to your reading anyway. They could tell you afterwards that hearing you read your poems out loud changed how they view poetry. They could buy your book. Or not.
Lots of people have never heard poetry read out loud.
Social media friends from high school and junior high and elementary school could buy your book. They could message you to tell you that your book is on their bookshelf in their home in Denver or San Francisco or Baltimore.
Knowing your book is on the bookshelf of someone you haven’t seen since you were eleven is pretty damn cool.
People who hear you read from your book could contact you to come and read at their bookstores, at their book club meetings, at their open mic nights. Famous poets could be at your readings and they could buy and read your book and then send you an email saying how they had “a helluva time” and then analyze one of your favorite poems from the collection that never got published in a journal but you didn’t change it because you love it, dammit.
You never know who will be at your reading.
This book, and the process of the book, has brought me joy. I can’t wait to see what else I learn from this wonderful, slightly crazy thing called writing.
Sometimes, you need a good prompt to help you write that story, that poem, that essay...you know the one. The one that wakes you up at night. The one that scares the shit out of you. The one that must be written.
The Poet's Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux has a ton of great prompts and writing advice in it, but my favorite section, the one that has been most useful to me, is the chapter titled The Shadow. It is about writing what makes you uncomfortable, about getting "past the voices that tell you what you 'should' write, the voices that say you want people to like you, to think you are a good person" (57). I first read this book five years ago, and I have been trying to make myself uncomfortable ever since.
I love hearing how a story or poem came into being. When a writer says that the inspiration for a piece of beautiful writing came from a snippet of conversation overheard in line at Starbucks, or from misreading a billboard while driving, or from a pair of abandoned shoes at the beach, I am always fascinated. And the leaps that come after that initial inspiration, well.
A poem I am particularly fond of was published by the good folks at Cider Press Review this morning. I say particularly fond because it's one of those poems that announced itself, channeled itself through me like lightning, like light. And I am particularly fond of it because it was inspired by friends.
Here's how it started. I posted the following prompt to social media: What do you value most in a friendship? Here are the replies I got:
"Honesty." "Compassion." "Flowing conversation." "Many of my dearest friends live far away. I value our ability to pick up where we left off, that feeling that we've never been apart. Of course, that makes missing them when they're gone really hard." "Able to be completely myself, and ^. To be ourselves as if no time has passed." "I value that palpable easiness that is a hallmark of several friendships - that feeling where it doesn't matter what you do, it just matters that you are together." "honoring what's broken in us" "Unspoken understanding." "Unconditional acceptance." "I'm looking for a word that brings together all of these things for me, because, yes, all of the things people have said. Maybe connection. Or heart." "Trusting them enough to be completely myself, knowing they understand me, knowing they accept me as-is, sharing geek squee." "Gifts. I like when they give me gifts. Just kidding...everyone's pretty much summed my feelings up, so I thought I'd say something ridiculous and shallow just to inject something different!" "All these. ..plus a shared sense of wonder."
At first, I had no idea what to do. When I have no idea what to do, I try to write a sestina. Something about the form, the rules, helps me to begin. In order to write a sestina, you have to pick six words. So I picked the six words that stood out to me the most from the replies. They were: wonder, mask, broken, missing, gift, and heart.
And then I thought about Wonder Woman. About masks. About Batman. About secret identities. And then the poem struck.
My friends, this poem was inspired by you; it belongs to you. I thank you.
Today was my first weekday free after the end of the spring semester. So when my daughter's teacher texted me at 6:17am to ask if I could come in today to work on the class mural, I said yes! And fell back asleep for ten minutes, and woke up, and got the kids ready, and made lunches...you know how it goes. And then I was in the classroom facing a very large, very blank canvas drop cloth.
At my kids' Montessori school, Kidsfest is a huge deal. Every class chooses a country to study. They study it on and off all year leading up to one glorious, international afternoon of projects, food, activities, costumes, and dancing. This year, my daughter's class studied Sweden. They had the idea to create a mural depicting a Viking ship in front of which parents and students could take pictures during Kidsfest. My daughter popped up and said, "My mom's an artist!" Which leads me to this morning.
After a quick internet search for a suitable image, I took off my shoes and went to work. After about a half hour, I had the ship done and was working on the Vikings and all of their horned hats. One of the kids came over to look.
"Wow!" he said. "That's really good! How'd you do that so fast?"
I said thanks and that I was just sketching it out. They would do the painting later on. And I remembered the first painting I remember working on as an adult. I wanted it to be perfect. I spent hours on lines and shading. I trashed the whole thing, disgusted. At some point after that, an artist friend told me to stop trying to make my art look like something. To stop trying to make it look "real."
Kids (and adults!) learn a lot through observation. I hope that my daughter's classmates saw me being quick and messy, there on the floor of their classroom with my shoes off sitting in the middle of a giant canvas drop cloth, having a great time. And I will try to remember this more often in my own art and in my poetry: stop trying to make it perfect and just start.
So here I go. A new site, a new blog. I hope you'll come along with me!