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.
When I was a younger man, I desperately wanted to be the next Ernest Hemingway of poetry: a rugged outdoorsman and adventurer extraordinaire who happened to scribble meaningful words. I think every writer goes through that phase sooner or later. George Saunders, for example, regularly confesses to a time in his life when he was striving for his prose to mimic that of “Papa.”
I haven’t fought any bulls or driven any ambulances overseas, and surprisingly enough, even though I reside in the Sunshine State, I have never landed a giant blue marlin (or any other large saltwater fish, for that matter). However, once in a great while, I encounter an opportunity that combines Hemingway’s two great loves: travel (usually in natural settings) and writing.
Such was the case in 2016, when I spent 16 days in Lisbon, Portugal. From the food to the language to the music to the memorable landmarks, that city and its surrounding areas made me feel like the reincarnation of some Lost Generation member — enjoying the days and nights in a European setting, chatting casually about artistic concerns with like-minded others. Even now, certain Lisboan influences still enter my work from time to time.
And this summer presents a similar (though more domestic) opportunity. For one week in early summer, I will be attending a writer’s retreat in the Cumberland Gap area of Tennessee. The natural splendor of the area combined with solitude should produce some favorable results. My plan is to work on poetry for half the week and prose for the other half, but we’ll see what the muses have in mind. I have two manuscripts in the works, and there’s no telling where creative isolation may lead.
Another perhaps more Hemingway-esque event that I’ll be helping lead this summer can be found at the Marywood Writers Retreat in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. While there in July, I’ll be leading poetry workshops and also serving as an unofficial fishing guide — A “fish with the poet” event has been planned, and, having never fished in Wisconsin previously, I’m excited by the prospect. Granted, I’ve caught plenty of bass, bluegill, sunfish, catfish, and other freshwater species south of the Mason-Dixon, but that’s a whole other world, from what I’ve been told. (Note to anglers — please feel free to drop good fishing advice in the comments section below if you’ve got it. I’ll trade you my “best” poetry advice.)
But whether I’m reeling in the big one or attempting to pen a masterpiece, I am hopeful that the spirit of Hemingway — the spirit that seizes the world by its lapels — will work its magic. And I hope that you too, reader, will find joy and inspiration as warmer months finally arrive. To good times and good writing: Cheers!
Rather than talking about resolutions, goals, or similar subjects, I thought I’d highlight a few things that definitely won’t make a difference to your success as a writer in the 365 days ahead. Here we go:
1.) STUFF — I love fountain pens. I am particularly fond of Waterman pens from the City of Lights, Paris. When you write with a Waterman pen, it feels like history and beauty are both surging from the nib. No, I’m not being compensated to say this. Regular followers of this blog know I’m enamored with these products. But I am not so infatuated that I cannot write with anything else.
Thinking that a certain desk accessory will make you a better writer is the beginning of counterproductive hours. Yes, it’s nice to have lovely things from Levenger or other high-end bookish vendors, but at the end of the day, tools are only as good as the person using them. Stuff, no matter how cool it seems, will not magically transform you into an author.
2.) BEVERAGES — Whether it’s coffee or alcohol, the old stereotype is that writers need their liquid fix. Stories are abundant about Hemingway and his beloved whiskey, and certainly other canonized voices are made more endearing by tales of their imbibing. “Write drunk, edit sober,” the old (alleged) quote goes, but no writer worth his or her salt follows that maxim. Writing and editing both require clear thinking, and even too much caffeine can inhibit that process.
I’ll never forget the time I was on a writing streak and consumed three huge cistern-sized mugs of coffee in the process. My heart raced, my brain surged and buzzed, and my breathing became erratically elevated. Something like a panic attack ensued, and I learned the value of moderation the hard way. Today I drink coffee with a bit more care and deliberation. Drinks don’t make you more writerly — if anything, they get in the way.
3.) WARDROBE — Along the same lines as “stuff,” certain clothing choices also don’t make one a writer. Not too many decades ago, the fashion at poetry readings consisted of a black turtleneck and accompanying black beret. This ensemble, the thought went, demonstrated one’s cognitive and emotional “depth,” whatever that meant. Today we’ve eschewed the theatrics of such a “poet’s uniform,” but even now, if one isn’t dressing in a non-conformist way, there are some who assume from such superficial measures that one isn’t a “real writer.” Forget them.
Dress how you dress. I tell my students: There is no greater conformity than non-conformity because, well, you’re different just like everybody else. Assuming that eccentric clothing is going to get you a better platform for your work or more notice from key figures in the literary community is a bit condescending, as well. The assumption made is that people are too stupid to notice your words, and therefore, there must be some kind of gimmick to draw their attention. If your words are good enough, they’ll speak for themselves. No amazing technicolor dreamcoat is necessary.
4.) TECHNOLOGY — Sure, having a social media presence and a few high-tech toys can be helpful. But please don’t assume that your new iThing is going to mystically transmogrify you into Kafka overnight. Your cute photos on Instagram, your witty observation on Facebook, your wry humor on Twitter — all these make zero impact on your actual writing. It’s fine to create a persona online, but at the end of the day, the words you write will define you, not the keyboard or device you typed them on.
One of the finest poets I know (who also serves as editor of a well-regarded literary journal) uses her Twitter account to track her success at running. She posts her times and distances, and very little else. She tweets few literary observations, even fewer politics. I respect a literary human who refrains from leveraging social media to advance her writing or publishing endeavors. It goes against the grain of common practice and demonstrates a level of confidence that exudes cool.
5.) OTHER WRITERS — At one point in my writing journey, I assumed that hanging around great minds would result in some kind of artistic osmosis. And while it’s fun and engaging to be around people with similar likes, I learned not to expect “networking” to be my golden ticket. So much time is spent at events like AWP pressing the flesh and engaging in awkward literary politics; that time would be better spent pressing ink into a legal pad or notebook. Not to minimize the importance of sharpening the saw (Stephen Covey’s term), but breathing the somewhat rarefied air of writing workshops, seminars, groups, and conferences does no good unless motivation and productivity result. The rest is just so much window-dressing.
Don’t expect mentors or friends with lit-cred to pave your way to success (however you may define that term). One’s own writing must do the heavy lifting. In business, friends in high places are essential, and to a certain extent, writing is business. But the thought that name-dropping will somehow result in acclaim or acceptance is fallacy at its finest. Aside from patting oneself on the back, mentioning famous friends or prestigious places serves little purpose. Classy writers just don’t do it unless they’re specifically asked.
I’m sure I could come up with other matters that won’t make one a writer, but these five points are a pretty good start. As we unwrap a new year like a gift, let us put words on the page and clarity in our minds. My mantra will be a quote from the great William Faulkner: “Don’t be a writer; be writing.” Happy 2019!
As a creative writer, I’ve done some pretty weird things to try to force epiphanies upon myself. Consider my sophomore year at the Frank Lloyd Wright campus of Florida Southern College, 1995-1996. Around this time, I took an American Literature class under Prof. Wesley Ryals. His course was challenging; he expected you to read copious amounts of writing outside of class, and when you arrived, he would hold deep discussions of the work, leaving those who hadn’t read (yours truly included) in the proverbial dark.
So I began reluctantly reading. “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne was on the syllabus, and I began to understand symbolism. Suddenly everything around me came to life with underlying potential — trees meant life and growth and progress, the sky above me foreshadowed the day ahead, and a million other everyday images I’d previously ignored glowed with further implications. We read other canonized authors like Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, and my “literary x-ray vision” for the world around me strengthened.
Right about this same time, I started seeking out spots on campus from which to write. I’d always dabbled in poetry and prose, but now, with this new heightened awareness, I felt especially motivated. I chose a bench somewhere near the freshman girls’ dorms and wrote about a dead white-barked tree covered in brown-black birds. The piece was awful, consisting of faulty formalism with heavy-handed rhyme and meter, but it was editable anyway.
I visited the balcony of the Student Life Center. It was supposed to be closed for repairs, but what are “keep out” signs to young men but invitations? From there, I looked out over Lake Hollingsworth at night, and took particular interest in the radio towers blinking their “dim, consistent red” while cars “looped a pool of silent black.” Egad. I think on these excerpts now and shudder, but they were a starting point. I began to conclude that, so long as I could get elevated enough or secluded enough, artistic revelation would follow.
And so I began frequenting the outdoor stairwells of Edge Hall, where education and religion classes were held (still are). In the evenings, the hustling spirits of the day were left there, but no one visited. Notepad in lap, I wrote about the rain and the wind, the hollow echoes of hard, narrow places. Sometimes the experience was good, but most of the time, I was trying too hard to squeeze the blood of inspiration from my turnip-brain. I’d leave with a legal pad full of sophomoric observations, and occasionally I’d return to them later and pick out some small detail that generated poetry. A few years after I graduated with my B.A., two FSC-inspired pieces would be included in Cantilevers, the school’s literary magazine, and one of them would win — get this — the Wesley Ryals Creative Writing Award.
What I learned from all this nomadic writing, though, was that a writer cannot prescribe himself a place for creativity. As my mentor Erica Dawson once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), you don’t just sit down somewhere and think Today I will write a poem about X. Epiphanies are elusive things, and placing yourself in solitude may help foster them, but there’s no assurance.
As a 19-year-old questing after sagacity, I never would have guessed that I would return to FSC years later to attain my first master’s degree in education, let alone that I would do so inside the very building where I’d written those stairwell stanzas. If someone had told me I’d complete that graduate program with a 4.0 GPA, I would have scoffed, considering my undergrad grades. Likewise, if some guru had said I’d have an MFA and eventually teach the very works that inspired me, I probably would have laughed.
But if some soothsayer had said, “Years from now, you will look out from the third floor of the Roux Library and still be inspired to write poetry,” I would have believed. Florida Southern continues to be a place of inspiration for me. I’ve been honored to adjunct-teach there a few times, but mostly, I like to return to the campus to see with older eyes that which I could not have seen earlier — genius under its eaves, history written into every column, and beauty in the youthful interactions of those with a whole future ahead of them. Such a place embodies potential, and potential is where revelation thrives.