There once was a famous poet (Robert Penn Warren, I think) who said something like, “Poetry is found in the living of life.” Obviously I’m paraphrasing there, but I’m doing so to make a point.
Recently, like so many other people in this weird time, I was furloughed from my full-time university teaching job. I have another three weeks or so before the furlough is supposed to be over, and even that expectation may prove false — who knows?
In the meantime, I’ve been devoting myself to other endeavors: my podcast, for example, or the Skillshare classes I create. But this past weekend, as my in-laws took my sons for a sleepover, my wife and I undertook a different venture: Kayaking.
If you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I’m a pretty outdoorsy guy. I camp, fish, shoot sporting clays, and generally enjoy being in nature. But kayaking makes your mind different every time you go.
About this time last year, I was serving as a faculty member at the Word and Community writing retreat in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. While there, I kayaked almost daily. I’d set out at dawn and cross Trout Lake, visiting a small island in the middle of it. Some days the wind made the lake choppy, and staying stable was challenging. Other days, the water was like glass, the paddling was easy, and the big-windowed houses on shore seemed to smile at my presence there as loons sounded their cries in the distance.
That kayaking was different from the trip I took this weekend. For one thing, while at last year’s retreat, my mind was in a very “literary” place, and it was busy seeking inspiration (almost artificially) in minute details and newfound sensations brought on by foreign geography. Inspiration was found, but only when I allowed my mind to relax and stop trying to force poetry from every ripple in the water.
In contrast, this weekend was less about the literary and more about escape — Getting away from my stalled professional life, from my pessimism, and yes, even from my poetry. As much as I love writing, it has the propensity to consume me, too.
But what does all this have to do with Warren’s quote, you may ask? Kayaking is perhaps one of the best examples to demonstrate that writers need to go and do, not just write. The canonized masters of the 20th Century weren’t just sitting in their studies, thinking lofty thoughts and scribbling philosophical diatribes — they were men and women of action, and through those actions, they found literature.
Even if no immediate epiphanies arise from an activity, it is the living of life, not the recording of it, that counts. So often in our present, we think of travel and events in regards to their photographic potential. How will this trip or this exercise look on social media? Maybe it’s time we started enjoying things simply for their essence again. Rather than speculating about what kind of poem, story, essay, or photograph something will create, can we just live? Because I can promise you, if Warren is right (and I believe he is), inspiration will come to us. When our minds are clear and our worries are fewer, the words will arrive. In the meantime, there’s a new day ahead. Let’s seize it.
With all due respect to Marie Kondo and other “organization” experts, I’m not making my space utterly devoid of stuff. Here’s why: Stuff has history. Stuff is full of inspiration, and sometimes it can make us think in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t. And finally, stuff has meaning. If a thing has beauty as well as function, then it ceases to be what some experts would call “clutter.”
Now before you call Hoarders and report me, let me say that there’s an extent to everything. My study is not overflowing with so much junk that I can’t even move, let alone think. But I do have a number of objects that I keep because of their inherent aesthetic value. Here, I’d like to talk just a little about the items I hold dear as a writer, and how my practice might suffer without them.
Good pens are the frontline workers of the creative life. When smooth ink is flowing freely, filling good paper with artfully rendered words, the whole experience of writing is improved. I prefer old-school fountain pens because they connect me to generations of great minds well before our all-things-temporary present. Watching a crafted nib do its work motivates a writer to do his work in an equally elegant way. On my podcast, I talk about how connecting to things by touch can result in artistic revelation, thereby generating more output (writing or otherwise). Good fountain pens are probably the prime examples of this idea in action, and they’re good for Socratic Journaling, another idea explored on my podcast.
Some of the stuff I keep has sentimental value. My Great Uncle Hy was a swell guy — he was a businessman through and through, and over his lifetime, he did well for himself. One relic of his that I’ve kept is the translucent heavy green glass ashtray he used when smoking his after-dinner pipe. While I’m not a smoker myself, I use it these days to hold the aforementioned fountain pens and other office sundries. It catches the light the same way it did when I was a boy and became fascinated by its color and brilliance. The memory of Uncle Hy and his industriousness keeps me going when I feel like slacking off.
Some things call out to you when you see them. Such was the case when I saw this little faux ivory box at The Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa. It holds paper clips and thumbtacks mostly, but it also reminds me to stay true in my direction. Its weight is pleasantly permanent, and opening it is always an experience filled with possibility, even though I’m well aware of what’s inside. There’s a kind of Indiana Jones mystique about it, so yes, it stays.
My leather briefcase was given to me by my mother after I received my first master’s degree. Over the years, it has been to Lisbon, Portugal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lots of other spots. It holds everything I need, and frankly, it has become an extension of me — rare is the day when I walk onto campus without it. It even smells like literature.
So there you have it — an assortment of objects and keepsakes that make my literary life a little more inspiring. Minimalists and Feng Shui practitioners take note: These items might not be totally utilitarian, but they absolutely influence my creative process. Maybe you’ll say I should be willing to part with some of what I’ve mentioned here — my reasoning is too maudlin or clingy for your taste. Therein lies the beauty of stuff: Shakespeare was right when he said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I enjoy beholding everything you’ve seen here. End of story.
Are there things that you can’t part with? Items that you’d feel a little more empty without? Use the comments section below to tell about your most cherishedor prized creative possession…
When I give readings, seminars, and workshops, I’m sometimes asked what my “process” is for writing a poem. That’s been pretty hard to elucidate until now. I just put together a new for-fun class on Skillshare here: Skillshare Poetry Class
In this course, I take students through the process of writing a poem. We begin with inspiration and how it gets generated, and then we proceed all the way through to the final, publishable draft of a poem. If you’re interested, I’d really love for you to join and be my “student.”
I’d also really like to see the poems that you create as a result of this class — Who knows? Maybe the next “Dover Beach” will happen thanks to this little endeavor…
I’ve got a new project amid all this quarantining and social distancing, and I hope you’ll give it a listen!
The Metacreative Podcast is intended to help people rouse their inspiration to write, create, and produce. This first episode details a process that has long worked for me: Socratic Journaling. It also includes a couple of really stellar poems that might help loosen some of your own reflections, which can also drive inspiration. Find The Metacreative Podcast here:
Earlier this year, I wrote about my “travel fast,” explaining how 2020 would be a year in which I would abstain from literary workshops, conferences, seminars, or retreats. My plan has been (and continues to be) allowing connection with my family to motivate and inspire new writing. Well, God sure has an interesting sense of humor:
“What’s that, son? You want to spend more time with your family? POOF! Here you go. I will enable you to work from home, school your sons at home, worship at home, give poetry workshops from home, exercise at home, and….let’s see…pretty much anything else you want to do — it’s going to have to happen within the four walls of your house. You’re welcome.”
Lest anyone think I’m making light of coronavirus, let me say that I’m not. I know that people are dying. I know that many are ill in ways they’ve never been before. And I know that a global pandemic is nothing to laugh about. We in the US are blessed to have largely first-world concerns that sound an awful lot like whining to those less fortunate. That being said, the situations we find ourselves in as locked-down Americans deserve a moment or two of levity.
Thus far, my boys, my wife, and I have: 1.) Put together jigsaw puzzles, 2.) Played countless rounds of Uno, Life, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit, 3.) Gone for hikes in the remote area near the creek, 4.) Ridden our bikes a couple of miles a day, and 5.) attended “online church,” an experience that has really expanded our definition of “sacred.”
But throughout all this, the discoveries we’ve made have been meaningful: My oldest son, a budding TikTok celebrity whose following is somewhere around 45,000, has been entertaining us with his theatrical abilities. He randomly performs stand-up routines, imitations, and monologues. My youngest son, the future architect/lawyer/billionaire, has been learning to code and has had extensive video conversations with his favorite cousin who shares much of his personality and interests. These two have their own “secret detective agency” and hatch plans via Facetime. Much of their dialogue has been inspired by the book series The Mysterious Benedict Society.
The hero during our isolation has been my wife: A healthcare worker, she goes to her clinic day after day, exposing herself to potential infection so that people can receive the care they need, now and anytime. When she returns in the evenings, she immediately showers and sanitizes to protect all of us. About a week ago, a known COVID-19 infected patient coughed near her. We’ve been watching and waiting ever since. Nothing so far, thankfully, but…the risk is always there. To exacerbate her situation, she’s also recovering from surgery that she had about three weeks ago. Without going into graphic detail, the operation was moderately invasive. Nonetheless, she presses on. She is our resident saint and our honored queen.
Our afternoons have been the most remarkable feature of this weird time: I’ve been reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with the boys. We each have a copy of the text, and via Audible, we have Tim Robbins reading the book to us. We follow along, pause to discuss and reflect, and analyze the book’s characters, plot, tone, and other details. Supplementing this study, we’ve watched old episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater, a t.v. show based upon the great author’s exhilarating short stories (see YouTube). The boys find commonalities between the novel we’ve been reading and the smaller bite-sized narratives on screen. This has given rise to discussions of our present society and culture, as one might imagine. It’s also allowed us to practice some amateur psychology on the characters Bradbury invented. My oldest son developed a five-step treatment plan for Mildred (Montag’s wife in the novel), for example.
Will this quarantine generate poems? Probably. I don’t plan to write about all the kinds of things that have occurred to so many others — how this moment demonstrates our universal humanity, how politics are utterly futile in times like these, how the family unit remains the foundation of our society. These big ideas, while true, will undoubtedly be overdone, and frankly, poems that are written with an agenda in mind rarely succeed as art.
No, my poems that will spring from this strange point in history will probably dwell upon subjects like those I mentioned before — the heroism of my wife, the creativity of my sons, the little day-to-day tasks and events that are breaks from our non-coronavirus life routines. Crisis, despite its horrors, is a rescue from the mundane. It shakes us from our civilized, programmed, humdrum existences into realization of our human fragility. For all of us, this epiphany has been, perhaps, the most monumental lesson.
I never intended for this blog entry to become a gratitude journal, and yet, as I look back over it, it certainly has leaned in that direction. There’s much to be thankful for, and that’s undoubtedly another lesson of this period. As we inhabit the most intimate spaces of our lives with those we hold closest, we re-learn the value of connection. We are reminded that, if everything else perished, our interpersonal bonds would matter most. Hold your dear ones tight, embrace the temporary inconveniences, and soon enough, we will all look back on this historical hiccup a little wiser, a little better.
When I was a teen, I regularly switched the locations of furniture and wall art in my bedroom. About every four months or so, I’d grow bored of seeing things from the same point of view, and so I’d shift my bed to a different wall, my desk and chair to another corner, my bookcase to a separate location, and so forth. My poor mother never knew quite what to expect when she entered, but I’ve learned that’s par for the course when parenting any teenager, furniture-mover or not.
The thing I liked about altering my room was this: I’d come in after school, temporarily forgetting that I’d made the shifts, and I’d see my room differently for a while. Whether I was lying in bed, sitting at my desk, or occupying some other space, the room seemed like a completely new and alien space. It was great, this secure disorientation.
After some time, though, I began to run out of options. I’d put all the furniture and decor in every possible space they could be. I would have to recycle some old ideas. Even then, shifting things around made my daily routine a little more interesting. I recall waking and taking just the briefest of seconds to recollect that I’d moved things; the room wasn’t the same, at least for a short while.
Last weekend, I conjured up this memory when I decided to rearrange my study. I’ve always been a fan of looking out a window while writing, especially if the view beyond is water, be that a pond, a lake, or an ocean. But lately, the view had grown stale. I was tired of seeing the same thing, not unlike when I was a teen. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I began dragging furniture around upstairs, relocating my heavy desk, bookcase, footlocker, and large reading chair. When I was done, I’d created a whole new space with a more open feel. Ta-da! Fresh perspective. Maybe my adolescent self wasn’t such a bonehead after all.
The other result of such a shift is cleanliness. In order to rearrange, one has to clear the space in question of clutter. Despite whatever we artists might say about our right-brained, pile-generating, free-wheeling sense of organization, structure and order are (sigh) more conducive to producing good work. I think of my stepdad’s workshop when I’m situating my environment: Every screw, nut, bolt, nail, and drill bit had its own home, and while I’m no woodworker, having that kind of fastidious attention to detail is admirable.
What will come from this new arrangement? Hopefully some new poems driven by new thoughts. One can never tell, but I’m eager to see if an unfamiliar view will enhance my creativity. If I could speak to my former self, I’d say thanks for the inspiration, kid. You really were onto something.
It’s that time again: Parents prepare to send their kids off to school for the next go-round, hoping that this year will be the best so far. Teachers eagerly decorate classrooms, plan vivid and engaging lessons, check class rosters, and pick apart data.
As someone who spent 15 years in the secondary classroom before moving into higher ed, I distinctly recall all the dreamy potential that this time of year can represent for parents, students, and teachers — it’s a blank slate, a fresh start, and a million other tabla-rasa cliches rolled into one. It is hope and nerves. It is the smell of paper, the satisfaction of checked-off lists, and the promise of a brightly lit, welcoming space away from home. It is its own magic.
But the real work is about to begin. The daydream of clean faces, happy chatter, and new clothes will soon be supplanted by young people facing issues from abuse to homelessness (and more). The shiny technology and glossy posters will matter less than empty stomachs and forgotten texts. Teacher, what will you do then?
I don’t mean to quell the inspiration of a new year. I really don’t. Love those new stickers for your gradebook. Enjoy the cool, smooth plastic of fresh whiteboard markers. But also understand that the highs of August wear off quickly, and if you don’t love teaching and students, endorphins and dopamine will only last so long.
Teacher, I hope you are excited by those learners seated before you. I hope you are just as passionate about your subject as you have ever been and that your passion is virally contagious. I hope you have ideas for activities, strategies, and projects that will make Disney World seem dull. And above all else, I hope that the instructional fire within you burns bright All. Year. Long.
I wish you all this not just because I’m a parent, not just because I’ve been there, but because our profession (and our youth) need you now more than ever. Amid the bickering about pay scales, the ingratitude of an uninformed public, and the ever-increasing demands of governments large and small, remember your calling. Education isn’t just grading worksheets and administering assessments. It truly, truly is touching lives, leaving a legacy, and yes, making the greatest differences.
Maybe you won’t be a movie teacher like Jaime Escalante or Erin Gruwell. Maybe you’ll just be yourself, whatever that means. But you are exactly the person that at least one student is desperately seeking. Be the calm in their storm. Be the high point of their day. Be unforgettable.
America, its children, and its future are relying on you. We know it’s hard. We know there will be days of frustration, tears, and inimitable joy, sometimes all at once. Teaching means poetry. You chose this life, and we so deeply admire you.
Greet this year with greatness, and then nurture it, sustain it. You can do it, our children can do it, and tomorrow will be better because of it. This is your time. Inspire.
As I begin to conclude my time as faculty at Word and Community: A Writers Retreat, I feel it would be appropriate to reflect on what I’ve learned and gained here. The following are a few lessons I’ve taken from a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods with other writers:
1.) One’s creative impulse and personal faith are two halves of a larger whole. They work integrally with one another and often simultaneously.
2.) Solitude is great, but like everything else, it demands balance. Being by oneself for reflection and contemplation must be counter-weighted by relationship and interaction with others. Too much time in either community or isolation can be detrimental to creativity.
3.) Being on a body of water opens the mind’s gateway to metaphor, analogy, and critical perspective. The physical supplements the metaphysical when paddling a craft.
4.) Nature is necessary to allow the processing of events, truths, and ideas from our lives. Clarity is fostered by trees, trails, and the wild.
5.) We must go in order to return. Away is anywhere not home. Seeking simplicity through complexity leads one back to the familiar and the cherished. And these ideas are also interrelated.
In retrospect, I probably would not have had the time to better understand my craft and my self without this week in the woods. It has allowed me to write, edit, revise, teach, and most of all, relax. I’ve met others I won’t soon forget, eaten differently (and more nutritiously) than I usually would, and cleared away a number of mental cobwebs.
Tomorrow, I will return my rental car, board an airplane, and resume life as husband, dad, educator, and leader. But for these final hours, it’s nice to hear the wind through the pines, watch the ripples on Trout Lake, and hear the bird songs of a place unlike my native Florida. But it will also be good to get back there. Farewell, Wisconsin.
Once upon a time, there was a poet. He was ambitious, as poets happen to be, and he was terribly concerned with making a name for himself. All day every day, he sat around thinking about what his literary legacy would be, and how future generations would look back upon his work.
This was pretty funny, considering his work had only been carried in a dozen or so literary journals of modest reputation, and his first book had been bought by only a handful of family and friends. Nonetheless, Poet was quite certain that one day, his rhymes and stanzas would wind up in the hands of adoring students who would romanticize his life, documentary-style, and he would receive the reverential treatment of other great canonized writers.
Driven by his lust for immortality and renown, Poet began assembling his most recently published works into a collection. He’d already self-published one book (see “bought only by family and friends” above), and he’d even gone to a terribly expensive liberal arts college to earn the coveted MFA — which he reminded people regularly was a “terminal degree.” So he knew how to put a poetry collection together and how to find a publisher.
When the day came to submit his manuscript, Poet was shaking with excitement. He sent the book to publishers great and small, hoping oh so adamantly that one would see the merit and value in his clever diction and intense imagery. As luck would have it, one did!
This publisher was a very good publisher, too. The press had a 40-year history of getting poets’ work in front of readers and libraries alike, and much of the poetry it published was like that of our hero. Joy and elation filled Poet’s mind! How great! How rewarding! He could hardly wait to hold this new book in his hands. The manager of the press was very kind, and the cover art for his book was beautiful. Likewise, the pagination, the formatting, and the production quality of the book were all incredible. Before the book hit the presses, the kindly publisher had advertised its arrival through major outlets, and critics were eager to read it. Poet was as happy as he had ever been. The book sold several hundred copies, a very positive return for a new book of poems from a virtually unknown author.
As months passed, however, Poet began to think too highly of himself. After all, his work had now been published in “better” venues with bigger names, and established writers had been singing Poet’s praises. Surely he deserved to have his work seen and appreciated by people beyond his geographic region.
“London!” Poet exclaimed. “I must have my work published in London!”
The warm light of Big Ben flashed in his mind along with scenes of major publishing houses he had seen in magazines and in movies. If only he could find his own! London became an obsession — even England would do, if not the capital city. After all, the home of Byron, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Donne would certainly benefit from his writing as well. He was just as deserving as they, he told himself.
More of his poetry was picked up by magazines, contests, and anthologies (thanks somewhat to the book that had been put out by his good former publisher), and soon, Poet had a whole new manuscript ready to go. Rather than sending the book to his highly proficient previous publisher, though, Poet decided to go a different route (aside: consider this part “going off the path in the woods”, a la Goldilocks).
An English publisher had recently set up shop, and the manager of that press approached Poet. “What a nice manuscript you have there,” said the British publisher in exquisite queen’s English. “Wouldn’t it be delightful to have it turned into a book? I’m very qualified.” Publisher licked his lips and his eye gleamed.
“Yes! Yes!” Poet shouted without a moment’s hesitation. “My book will be published in [gasp] Europe!”
And so, Poet handed over his work, a collection of award-winning poems previously published in reputable magazines. New Publisher extended his claws, clasped the manuscript greedily, and slithered back to the deep, dark woods of unknown England.
Some months later, a book from Hickshire, UK arrived. Its interior was on cheap, plain white pages, many of the poems had been incorrectly printed, and the back-cover blurbs from prestigious members of the literary community were barely visible due to New Publisher’s poor design sense. Poet’s dream of overseas publication was becoming a nightmare. He could hardly believe his eyes! Moreover, New Publisher had not done anything for publicity or marketing of Poet’s newest manuscript, and so no one knew about it, aside from people who knew Poet already. It sold maybe 100 copies, and many of those purchases were “pity sales,” people who felt so badly for Poet that they bought copies just to ease his suffering.
If only he could undo this decision; if only he could go back in time and send this precious manuscript to a publisher that he knew would treat it professionally and artistically. But alas, it was too late. Poet’s bad decision would now haunt him forever, even when, in a few short months, New Publisher closed its doors leaving all its writers in the lurch, including Poet. What was he to do now?
With a humbled spirit and a wiser perspective, Poet began working on fresh poems. He sent them out to magazines, contests, and other venues, and soon, many of them found loving homes. In a few years, Poet had regained the ground he’d lost due to his own hubris. Editors recognized his name, contest judges identified his work by its unique style, and fellow writers appreciated his judicious perspectives. However, this time, Poet kept his ego in check. As the acceptances poured in and the award nominations mounted, Poet began assembling another collection. And this time, he swore he would not be lured off course by the promise of exotic publication.
Upon finishing the last pages of the book, he humbly submitted it exclusively to the publisher he’d known before — the one who had so richly contributed to his prior successes and victories. There, his newest book received a warm reception and all the editorial attention it deserved. The kind publisher was elated to see Poet return! The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller in the poetry category, it received multiple accolades and awards, and everyone lived happily ever after. THE END.
The moral of this story, boys and girls, is not to let your pride go before a fall. Beware the wolves and snakes of the publishing industry who capitalize on self-important people. Avoid falling prey to the traps and snares that Poet encountered, and you too will be wiser and happier all your livelong days.