Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?
– Virginia Woolf, English novelist, essayist, and modernist literary figure of the 20th century, from Orlando: A Biography
I’ve been struggling to get everything that I want to get done on my personal to-do list, especially as I try to multi-task to speed the check-off process. Whereas in the past I would have argued that multi-tasking does indeed work, I have to admit that you aren’t fully invested in the current task when your thoughts are leaping toward the next task, which leaves you dissatisfied, especially with respect to any meaningful, quality writing. As a result, the e-mails that I need to get out are not coherent and the blogs posts end up as drafts without souls that are piling up unpublished.
A desperation began to set in as I wondered if I would ever complete a task that I had started. Every weekend for the past several weeks, I stared at my list in paralysis. Research and send out query letters for the first novel. Resist or give in to the urge to edit and revise the first novel one more time. Go back to researching and note-taking and outlining for the second novel. Read and read some more. Blog twice or at least once a week.
In the last several months, I’ve not had to work late nights or weekends – though an exceptional late night has been scattered here and there, and my days are packed with meetings and tasks with end-of-business-day deadlines. So I asked myself why I felt as if I were more stressed now with work, with everything, versus when I was burning the proverbial midnight oil for the last several years. I recalled the months of revising the first novel while keeping up with my grueling work schedule and being on top of my kids’ various extracurricular activities. I didn’t have an answer, which made me flip the switch for turbo multi-tasking.
So I sat myself down and looked at my “free” time. People don’t believe me when I insist that I’m a lazy person at the core and I need structure to keep me on the straight and narrow. Now was the time to incorporate that structure. As awful as it may sound to free spirits, especially creative free spirits, I wrote out a schedule, barring school and other meetings, extracurricular activities, kid sporting events, and so on. Weeknights I either read a novel from the huge stack I’ve created for myself of must-reads (I don’t like to read online; I insist on the joy of turning real pages) or do research for my second novel. Weeknights I find myself less able to write, so understanding this weakness I gave myself things I could achieve with a greater degree of success.
I devote my weekends to writing, either my blogs or exercises in poetry and prose to keep my writing crisp and muscular. While I read novels both for the pleasure of being immersed in a fictional world and examining the structure and character revelation, I realized I needed to read more poetry to keep the musicality of words in my head. Read more poetry. Every day. What made me come to that realization?
I came across a poem by American poet Christine Kemp that reminded me how much I admire poets’ ability to capture the largeness and the small moments of humanity and present it to us in a thimble. Every word is precise. Every word, every line, every thought carries the weight of so much more.
The poem that captured my attention is Kemp’s “The Things That Keep Us Here,” which I offer the first two stanzas (since I can’t print the whole poem out per copyright laws; Google the title to read the rest of this gorgeous poem):
I wouldn’t call them dream times exactly,
those moments when the wind finds you
folding clothes or putting the milk away.
And all that was no longer is.
As if you stepped out from another life
you lived just moments ago. It’s the small
of the closet or the strain in that sonata
you listened to yet never heard till now.
But it isn’t now anymore.
Kemp really captured the ordinariness of everyday life. And elevated it. Shined a light on it that made those acts startling. You are caught off-guard and yet this is your life. The here and now. The yesterday, which will never be again. The present that you can be in and yet feel it rushing away from you like water, sand, and wind. Never to be recaptured whole. And there you stand being in the present. Helpless. Amazed. In awe.
I marvel at poets, their ability to pack so much in each word. Someone once said that if they knew where poems came from, they’d go there. I surely would. Poems are mysteries to me. They are a foreign language that I am struggling to speak and understand, which is something I once told, in exasperation, to the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Karl Shapiro, who taught a poetry workshop that I was honored to be in while I was an undergraduate at UC Davis.
But it doesn’t matter in the end whether I fully understand the poet’s message. It’s the sensation in the brain that matters. It’s the fact that carefully strung words that feel so natural and dynamic are making the neurons in my brain fire like crazy, a mini fireworks. And reading a good poem satisfies me. It makes me want to read another one. But read it slowly because poetry is like the finest, most intense dark chocolate that you can only eat and should only eat in small doses to fully appreciate it. More importantly, reading good poetry makes me want to write, makes me want to be careful with how I say what I want to say. So, a poem a day, every evening. My writer’s routine. Check.