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.
William Faulkner once famously said, “Don’t be a writer; be writing.” As I enter my third day of the Word and Community Writers Retreat at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin, I find myself having to recall those words regularly.
How easy it is to be overwhelmed by nature’s splendor and by the fact that one has been selected to impart poetic knowledge (even wisdom?) to aspiring writers of all ages. As I breathe in the clean air of the Northwoods, I recall that I have come here, yes, to teach and to help, but also to write.
On this Wednesday devoted to silence and solitude, my aspiration is to complete several poems that are presently in draft form. The bones are there, but they need muscle and life. I resolve to put more than this promising prose on the page — let there be poetry.
In the Christmases of my youth, my dear (now deceased) Aunt Martha always bought me a yearly subscription to a very popular writing magazine. Novice scribblers religiously scoured its pages for insights to getting published, receiving recognition, and of course, winning those all-important writing competitions. Article titles included such enticements as: “10 Secrets to Crafting a Contest Winner” and “Win That Award! Top Writers Tell You How.”
In the body of such articles, glittering generalities and pseudo-motivation reigned. Typical promises: If inexperienced writers simply use Times New Roman 12-point font, keep their cover letters brief, and “write with their heart,” they will magically become gold-medalist poets/short story writers/novelists/whatever. Other suggestions included such wisdom as, “Be sure to center and boldface your title” and (perhaps my favorite) “Don’t thank the contest sponsor or judge; it shows a lack of confidence.” Gee, thanks.
The unfortunate truth is, no one approach (or set of rules) will guarantee a contest win — ever. The world of publishing is incredibly subjective. What one editor or judge loves, another will hate (and vice-versa). You can “always submit your best,” as the old saw goes, and still come up empty-handed when the laurels are passed around. Such is writing life.
Just as writers learn to expect rejection, we also learn to live with losses. Defeat is especially disheartening if you paid a big submission fee. Of course, the good side of this issue contains another truth: Stick around long enough, and sooner or later you’re bound to win a few. Even little contests feel big when your work has won, and it’s gratifying to learn that someone somewhere (even at the tiniest of journals) has appreciated your work enough to award it.
I’ve been writing “real” poetry for about 20 years now, and in that time, I’ve had the joy of being nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. My 2014 book, Middle Class American Proverb, was nominated for both the American Book Award and the Florida Book Award. Yet for all these nominations, I’ve never quite ascended to the winners’ platform. I guess I could throw myself a pity party and moan, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” but truthfully, I appreciate just being nominated. In retrospect, a small-town poet like me getting Pushcart nods and similar tokens is a pretty big deal. Sure, I’d like to win one day, but poetry is a marathon, not a sprint or a dash.
And of course, this isn’t to say I haven’t won my fair share of contests. Going all the way back to 2002, I won the Wesley Ryals Writing Award for Poetry from my first alma mater, Florida Southern College. Later on, I was among the winners of the Robert Frost International Poetry and Haiku Contest put together by The Studios of Key West. My work has won me scholarships and partial scholarships to places I would never have traveled otherwise. I’ve also been a runner-up in America magazine’s Foley Poetry Contest. So, I’ve done all right. And if you stick around, you probably will, too.
Another advantage of time: I’ve served as a journal editor and a contest judge over the years, and those roles allowed me to see things from the viewpoint of a decision-maker. It’s tough to cull out writing that is “soooo close,” but inevitably it happens. Here again, what I liked wasn’t necessarily what others liked. The things I rejected would have been accepted by someone with different tastes. But in the end, someone has to be declared winner. Sometimes, just knowing you’re a finalist, a semifinalist, or an honorable mention can be motivation, and that happens quite often when your work is satisfactory.
Keep going, writer. Don’t get seduced by “secret formulas” or “sure-fire ways to success.” There’s a reason that the magazine my Aunt Martha gifted me every year recently filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. The allure of pretty-sounding logical fallacies and empty promises can only be sustained so long. For the devotee of words, everything will eventually happen the way it’s supposed to. That includes winning contests, getting published, and achieving other milestones. Don’t quit. Persist. That’s how you win.
For about six months or so now, I’ve been volunteering for a local arts organization. I’ve provided workshops, seminars, and even the occasional reading. Here’s what I’ve learned: The most rewarding part of being a poet is passing on the joy of writing to others.
Sure, that sounds trite, but it’s true. And it’s not that I hadn’t grasped this notion previously. I mean, I’m a teacher after all. But here’s the thing — teaching adults who truly want to learn the craft is a world apart from teaching English courses for a paycheck.
I get to have a good time discussing poetry and how to make it, and newbies find out a few tricks and techniques that perhaps they hadn’t considered. My favorite is the generative workshop, where we use various prompts to craft the beginnings of new work. That silent hum of concentrated creativity fills the room, and you can tell that vivid things are happening in everyone’s mental theater. It’s almost (cliche warning) magical.
And while I love my day job and all it provides, for sheer joy of teaching, it’s hard to beat the volunteer space. No grades, no homework, just genuine fun with words. I’ve also noticed that giving back a little something to the craft that has meant so much to me restores my passion for the written word. Watching people grasp the potential of poems reminds me why I do this work, and believe me, it is work. But it’s a labor of love, certainly.
Recently I had a piece published by a journal that is edited by someone who has received, shall we say, “mixed responses” from the literary community. This editor’s political and religious views are certainly not “mainstream” in the poetry world, for certain.
That being said, I love this editor’s written work and [their] journal’s style. The fact that this person has been berated for unconventional beliefs is inconsequential to me as a writer. If anything, I admire the editor more for that willingness to stand on principles, whether I agree with them or not.
Nonetheless, I’m aware that in the future, my work being published by the editor’s journal may be a “dark mark” against my name. Guess what? I don’t care.
Too often writers inform their choices based on what is “acceptable.” I have reached a magical middle age where such considerations don’t enter my radar anymore. Good journal? Submit. Bad journal? Don’t. It’s really that simple. I don’t base my submissions on who nominates how many for which awards. I don’t look at percentages of rejections or acceptances. I don’t even give an inkling to a publication’s “prestige.” I send my work to places I respect. The end. Accepted? Hooray! Rejected? Keep going.
“But don’t you want to be on ‘the right side of history?'” my socially concerned friends may ask. My answer: Not especially. The annals of literature contain heroes and villains alike — those we’ve forgiven and those we haven’t. If I’m eventually judged by the same politically correct mob that hates the Fugitives but adores Ginsberg, so be it. Their sensitivity to prevailing mores has blinded them to a great span of sterling work, and frankly, my words aren’t for them anyway.
My poems speak of old-fashioned values, hard work, forgotten places, and flawed people. These topics exclude me from certain bookshelves, and that’s okay. Furthermore, it’s equally okay that my work is published in places that may one day “fall from grace.”
For today, my poetry is there, chosen by an editor who might or might not share my vision of the world. If that bothers you, dear reader, please heed this message: None of us is perfect. Let’s forego the hypocrisy of pretending that any man-made philosophy is fallacy-free and just enjoy the show. History will write (and right) itself.
I’ve written before about how this year will be one where I spend some time in other locales for the good of my writing (see “My Hemingway Summer” — an earlier post on this blog). When I travel even short distances for writing purposes, my brain begins making observations and connections that it typically doesn’t make during my everyday routine. For example, during residencies for University of Tampa’s MFA program, I would find deeper significance in even the tiniest of details around me. A pile of bricks I passed daily on my way to workshop became a poem. The creak in the stairs of Plant Hall wound up documented in another piece. Every minute detail seemed to come alive with literary potential.
1.) Small pocket notebook with cheap ballpoint pen: I stole this idea from one of my mentors, Peter Meinke. He has always advised poets young and old to carry something with them to record inspirations. First lines, striking images, and clever turns of phrase are just a few of the things I find myself scribbling into my small pocket notebook, and that happens more frequently when I travel.
2.) White, college-ruled legal pad and good fountain pen: When the inspiration strikes and the ideas are flowing into developed, coherent stanzas, this set of tools becomes my go-to. Whether I’m at a hotel room desk, a coffee shop, or in the middle of the woods, the old standby of writing by hand on a good, stiff pad remains an important part of my creative process. I may have mentioned it a time or two previously, but for fountain pens, I prefer Waterman Phileas models. A good ink in a unique color also helps — see Levenger.
3.) The latest copy of Poets and Writers magazine: When the muse has cooled and I’m thinking about more logistical matters (where to submit, what contests to enter, etc.), I like to peruse the pages of P&W. Their interviews are excellent, their prompts timely, and their resources consistently useful. Maybe it’s a Luddite reflex to prefer the paper copy of the magazine to the digital version, but it’s nice to be able to annotate, highlight, and even tear out pages when needed.
4.) A traveling library of a few essentials: There are some poets whose work manages to inspire me again and again: Robert Wrigley, Rodney Jones, Claudia Emerson, Maurice Manning, Kevin Young, and C.D. Wright, to name just a few. I usually pack a few volumes of poetry I admire to look over when I’m between sessions. Sometimes I read them for leisure, and other times I’m performing serious critical analysis. Either way, they work their magic.
5.) Technology? Well, maybe just a little… Before anyone gets the idea that I scribble monastically on parchment with a quill, let me say that I like my tablet-laptop combo as much as the next guy. But I try to steer clear of the screen as much as possible when traveling for writing purposes. Only when I’m truly ready to create a final draft of something or when I feel that courtesy dictates I should check email do I return to the glowing square of distraction. In the evenings when there’s time, I might post a few social media updates just to keep friends happy. But the whole notion of getting away is, well, getting away. I don’t even use the same brand of soap I do at home when I’m on the road. I want a complete contrast with my normal life. Toward this end, I also abandon unnecessary technology use. It cuts down on procrastination, and it lets me see the world around me more organically.
So, there you have it. Five things (or groups of things) I tend to carry with me on writing adventures. I’d be interested to hear in the comments what items you just can’t live without when you attend a retreat, conference, workshop, or seminar. Do you prefer a particular brand of coffee? Is there a doodad or whatnot you superstitiously pack? Whatever it is, I wish you great travels and great writing in the future. Here’s hoping for a highway full of words to fill our pages.
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.