When I was eight or nine, my favorite book was How I Came To Be A Writer, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. I was fascinated by her story about being my age and writing, and how she managed to make her life as a working writer whose books I loved. This is a “spill” I did two summers ago, just before I gave a talk about “the writer’s desk” at show:tell, a summer camp for teen writers and artists. In it, I tried to answer some questions about why I write, how I write, and what success means to me as a writer.
I’ve written since I was very young. Before I could write, I would tell my parents stories and they would write them down for me, or make cassette recordings. Did they do this because stories spilled from me and it was a way to focus my young energy? I don’t know. I have a story called A Walk in the Woods, which I must have told my dad at age 4 or 5, and which he typed up so I could paste it (backward) into an old calendar and draw the illustrations. (It’s a funny mix of the plot for Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, with a few horses thrown in and a cameo by my mom, eating a cheese sandwich with alfalfa sprouts. I think I hated alfalfa sprouts at the time and was working it out through story.)
When I began writing for myself, I would ask my parents for Mead spiral notebooks in bright colors from the drugstore, and fill them with poems. I liked to find a corner of the yard or the front stoop, away from the family bustle, usually at a quiet time of the day like just before or after dinner. Sometimes I wonder if the need for solitude and introspection came first, and writing simply became the means to facilitate that communion of self and bigger world.
My time on the porch was meditative, though I didn’t know anything about formal meditation. I sat and felt. I watched the light sink behind our suburban hill, lighting up the scrawny trees and washing the windowless sides of the stucco split-levels. There was some seed of fear planted in me, and a seed of tenderness and sweetness. I intuited that the world of adulthood that lay before me meant broken dreams. I was afraid of this, and I didn’t understand. So I sat on the stoop and tried to tune into this sadness and sweetness. I loved the light, the birds, the flowers, even though everything in my neighborhood was pretty ordinary and repetitive.
I wrote it down, poem after poem about sunsets, clouds, trees, sky. For most of my childhood and adolescence, I wrote rhyming poems. I followed rhyme schemes and syllabic patterns without thinking much about it, just adopting whatever I picked up from songs and the little poetry I read at that point (Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson).
Poem-making can be like braiding a rope and then climbing it, then continuing to braid as you go. The strange and mysterious part is how it bears your weight. You use it to bear your own weight. You are somehow held up even when you haven’t finished it yet. I write because making shape, form, sound, texture in language makes me feel supported and held in a world that can often feel unfocused, scattered, chaotic, confusing.
Growing up I filled notebooks with poems, occasionally revising them, sometimes making little books of the ones I especially liked. I didn’t share them with others at all. I wrote stories, kept journals, and read and read and read.
I think all of that early practice seeped into me and still shapes what I write, even though I mostly write in free verse, a loose kind of blank verse, or nonce forms—forms I make up as I go, and often deviate from as the poem dictates its own agenda. I think my attraction to rhyme and meter tuned my ear for opportunities to rhyme and make sound links, but I’m not often interested in adhering to a form in the finished draft. Sometimes I use form as a way to climb into a subject or a line. I’ll play with sonnets, haiku, villanelles, sestinas. Sometimes I’ll copy a favorite poem’s form, or write between the lines of a favorite poem. Sometimes, rarely, an exercise leads to a final draft that’s close to the original form assigned. More often, it’s a springboard to get my tongue loosened again.
I can be perfectionistic, and get temporarily obsessed by the time-card approach to process. How many hours should I spend at the desk per day? What time of day? So many writers insist on the same number of hours at the same hour, as a way to train the muse to meet you, to make a date with inspiration. I’ve courted this off and on during my life as a poet so far.
I don’t know what my definition of success is right now. I feel like it always changes. When I was younger, I assumed I would publish several books before I hit 30. Everyone said it would be difficult to make a living as a poet, but I mostly tuned them out and figured they just didn’t know I was destined for greatness. I would show them. I think there’s part of me that secretly still believes that (maybe everyone does?).
What I hold most fiercely to, and what hasn’t changed, is that writing is first and foremost a form of meditation for me. Especially when it comes to drafting poems. The best times are like a kind of self-hypnosis. Mary Oliver has written that she has come to understand that her job is just to pay attention. This is why I started writing poems and still write them. To pay attention. It becomes increasingly difficult to do.
“Writing is an act of attention. You are being conditioned all the time toward distraction and acceleration and away from contemplation. Fight it.” -Carolyn Forche