life, poetry, writers, writing

Bass fishing and Poetry

My sons and I catch a lot of bass. There’s a pond behind our home where we catch them (sometimes over and over again) and then release them. We’ve used lures, live bait, and a whole host of other options. We’ve also caught fish in all four seasons. When the cold weather comes, we just fish deeper to reach the warmer waters where these freshwater species tend to hang out. Welcome to Florida.

But one thing I’ve noticed is true for both poetry writing and bass fishing: The moment you stop trying so hard is the minute success visits. It never fails — if I’m “concentrating” on reeling in a monstrous fish, my line will stay slack for hours at a time. When I’m lost in a daydream about something totally unrelated to fishing, however, suddenly I’ve got more bites and tugs than I could ask for. The same is true for poetic inspiration; if I’m trying to “force it” too much (or be too “literary”), you can bet that future poems will stay safely in the cattails of my mind, away from any lure I may be jiggling to get them to emerge. But if I just go about my ordinary day-to-day tasks, epiphanies will come.

This observation is common among writers I know. When they go to literary retreats, workshops, conferences, and similar venues, they find themselves lacking inspiration, partially because they’re looking for it too hard. Only when we allow ourselves to relax, wander, and flow will we be visited by first lines or great ideas. There’s plenty of research to back this up too: Daniel Pink and other scholars have long known that creativity is maximized by mental ease and comfort rather than stress.

So, what’s the message? In writing as in fishing, let the good things come to you. The biggest bass and the most impressive poems tend to surface when we kick back, watch the clouds, and allow nature to take its course.

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poetry, Uncategorized

Keeping the Writing Window Clean

Every writer needs an inspirational view.
Every writer needs an inspirational view.

Those who’ve followed my blog for a while know that I have a “writing room.” Back in the seventies, this room was the formal living room, and after my second son was born, I transformed it into my studio (since I had willingly transformed my previous study into a nursery). In this room, we installed a large picture window that looks out across Lake Elbert. I do most of my writing in view of the lake.

But today’s post is less about the room itself and more about that window — the one that allows me to clear my head of other outside influences and reach a state of creative clarity. This morning, you see, I had to go outside to clean the window. Living on a lake means tolerating the Daddy Longlegs, dirt dobbers, and other occasional creepy crawlies that want to claim your open porch as home. But when they start to encroach on my view, then the gloves are off. As I was scrubbing, I realized, as many poets have, the metaphorical power of windows. Granted, this was not some new, earth-shaking revelation, but simply a restatement of prior knowledge: windows in literature have served as eyes, symbols of transparency or opacity, and they have taken on a wide range of other meanings, depending on the work’s needs.

For us as writers, however, our window on the world (both literally and figuratively) must always remain unclouded. If we allow streaks or stains in the form of distractions, worldly worries, or doubts about our abilities, then the inspiration stops. Just as the window works best when clean, so too, does our writerly vision work best when we free it from the dust of politics, society, career, and finances. Maybe your window is clouded with something else — grief or glee, negative or positive stress. No matter what the “smudges,” we as creatives must get out our mental Windex, and keep the view inspirational. Clean your window, reader. Your work will thank you for it.

poetry, Uncategorized

Epiphanies, part 3: The Reflection Epiphany

1990, Central Park. Chorus class trip with Mr. Barlow.
1990, Central Park. Chorus class trip with Mr. Barlow.

Every decent writer has some key memories that, when recalled much later, prove to be fertile ground for literature. Whether it’s a childhood recollection, a happy vacation from adolescence, or even a school-related flashback (see photo), every memory holds the potent possibility for springing to life in new writing.

In this case, I never really considered the smaller details of that New York trip from decades ago. While there, we had to ride buses to various venues. Being the small-town boy that I was, I had no familiarity with tokens and procedures related to mass public transit. As a result, I held onto my bus token instead of depositing it rightfully.

While digging through my sock drawer recently, I found that old token, and a million memories of that trip came flooding back: Broadway musicals, FAO Schwarz, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and so many other sights and sounds were generated by this one tiny piece of metal.

When I sat down to write about it all, however, I dismissed the tourist traps, the typical big-city experiences, and all the fluff of a trite “cultural shift” poem. Instead, I began to focus on the minutiae of that one moment, getting onto the bus without paying all those years ago:

NYC Apologia

Mr. Bus Driver, I didn’t know
where this metal disc was supposed to go
in 1990. I faked the deposit:
no token, just motion before taking
an inconspicuous seat beside classmates.

I know you don’t believe me.
Neither do I.

A bronze and silver guilt memento:
City of New York Transit System raised letters
round as a steaming manhole cover. This passage
pressed around an accusing bull’s eye – target
of my crime: petty theft by a small-town minor.

 

The piece in all its particulars, I believe, is far stronger than a “big picture” poem that tries to capture all the landmarks and sensations of a city too large to do justice in a single piece. Many years ago, Richard Hugo wrote a nice little guide to poetry entitled The Triggering Town. He encouraged poets to “adopt” a town they knew nothing about, approaching it as though they were someone who’d lived there for years rather than an outsider. This practice, he wrote, would allow a writer to generate new ideas and material. Indeed, it has worked for countless poets throughout history. New York was not my “triggering town.” But, its sensations, its differences, and its expectations from more than 20 years ago certainly gave rise to a piece that is unique. Only through artistic distance are we able to see some things for their truest significance. Like old farmhouse windows, the warps and waves in the lens of time give rise to pictures, that, while not totally accurate, make our human experiences more meaningful. The lesson for poets and writers everywhere? Look back to look forward.

poetry, Uncategorized

The Necessity of Interruption

So, this post probably won’t win me many writer friends. Be warned.

I have found over the years I have written poetry and prose that I am different from my colleagues in one regard: I actually prefer to be interrupted from writing.

Now, before all you secluded-in-solitude writers go nuts, let me clarify: My writing room has no “doors” to speak of. My children can come in at any time and speak to me, get hugs, whatever. And in retrospect, those interruptions have actually made my writing stronger.

Here’s what I mean: My brain actually has to work harder to power through the static and the outside influences, and thereby comes up with things that my brain at total ease would never think. In fact, when I’ve tried to write in areas that are too quiet (the library, my local college study room, etc.), I find myself encountering greater difficulty. There has to be some background noise, and it can’t be something like music with lyrics or that artificial white noise garbage. The sounds in the environment have to be things I know are real: the drip of the rain beyond my window (like right now), the TV in the adjoining room mumbling about…I can’t tell what, the coffeemaker gently whirring forth a stream of fuel, my boys playing pirates in their bedroom down the hall. These noises actually help me to focus better. And while many of my poet friends would cringe at the thought of such “racket,” I’ve found that writing locales without these sensations rob me of something. Maybe it’s the familiarity, maybe it’s a degree of undiagnosed OCD — I’m not sure.

Whatever the cause of this scientific fact, the thing that matters most is its effect. I know how and where I write best, and life’s little interruptions are as necessary as pen and paper. Do I still fantasize about being that “lone wolf” author who has blackout blinds and acoustic paneling just to ensure that his thoughts aren’t “tainted?” I suppose. But given my druthers, I’ll take my boys’ imagination-chatter and the soft hum of life in the suburbs over celebrity sanctuary any day.