When the Writing Ceased

I’ve reflected before on periods when I wrote very little before regaining traction in my writing. In an August 2016 post, I shared how I regained writing momentum after teaching two classes in the same summer term.

But last spring, during perhaps the busiest semester of my teaching career, I basically stopped writing. (It feels shameful to see the last four words of the previous sentence. I am a writer, and I teach writing as my full-time job.)

It seemed as though every time I even thought about writing–even a brief poem–, it felt like too much work, work without any possibility of joy. And in the stands beyond those tall hurdles, an announcer droned on about all the grading and class prep. Granted, there were some moments of writing, but they were like the occasional Styrofoam food containers littering the shoulder of a rural highway.

There reached a point where I began to think that I didn’t want to write anymore. That I didn’t have any mental space left for it, and even if I did, that I had nothing to add. I entertained the (absurd) thought that I had lost the ability to write.

I knew that if I floated to the shallow lake shore of May, I would survive, although it didn’t seem conceivable at the time. As much as I enjoy teaching, I was surviving, clutching the boat of the semester that had overturned and was drifting to the distant shore. I didn’t realize how badly I needed May, the time off from teaching, the mental space in which to think a thought that wasn’t about composition or literature.

And so, as I shared a few months ago, I read a dozen books. And as I recapped before, I worked on some important writing projects.

From the end of July through the first third of August, I was “up north” for vacation. During those relaxing days, I wrote a little. I brought along a short story draft, working in a few thirty-minute bursts, and I brought the completed memoir first draft, though I only ended up reading through a couple pages. I read two literary journals cover to cover. I read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which I enjoyed immensely.

When the meetings resumed on August 14 (three days after I returned), I need to finish three syllabi, as well as the online components for those courses. Also on my mind was the desire to immerse myself back in a more regular writing regimen, to avoid the writing dessert of the previous semester.

Yet so it was that teaching drew me back to writing. I had forgotten how much my teaching is linked to my writing, and how much my writing informs my teaching. The two feed off of each other.

After meeting with my Creative Writing students that first day, I already had an idea for a piece, the first draft of which I discussed in my previous post. Now that I’m six weeks into the semester, I have achieved a reasonable rhythm, completing the second draft of that essay.

I already know what the next writing project is, something that is perhaps one of the highlights of my writing career thus far: preparing the final version of my first full-length collection of poetry. The virtual ink has dried on the contract, and my deadline is three weeks away. More details soon.

Advertisements

Writing as Discovery

Last week in Creative Writing: Prose, my students and I read and discussed pieces about the writing process, about why we write, and about writing as an act of discovery. Both sessions with these five eager writers were enjoyable. They are steadily gaining confidence and enthusiasm for our work together.

I’m reflecting on that week because of my own writing journey in a creative nonfiction piece about two of the most memorable days of life from 2008, two days that, to an outsider, would appear mostly nondescript. I’ve started exploring why these two days have impressed themselves so firmly in my memory.

Using one of my favorite writing surfaces—a yellow legal pad—I penned six handwritten pages during 15-minute bursts over five or six consecutive days. At the beginning of September, I typed those pages, making only minor corrections: the goal at the stage was merely transcription. I printed a copy and slipped it in the nonfiction folder of the filing cabinet that sits to the left of my writing desk.

On Wednesday of last week, the day between my two sessions of that aforementioned Creative Writing class, I closely reread that typed draft. Afterwards, I wrote a page of notes, preparing myself for commencing a second draft. I circled passages that I thought might be crucial points in the timeline of the weekend; I made a list of all of the weekend’s events, in chronological order.

The next day I met my students, and because we were discussing an essay about writing really awful first drafts, I decided to make myself more vulnerable, more transparent. Before class, I made copies of my piece’s first page. I circulated the handout towards the end of class and told them that I needed those copies back after they examined them. I said they couldn’t take a picture of my first page.

I hoped that they would discover something about me, about themselves, through my meandering opening paragraphs. The room, however, was quiet because of their silent concentration. Here they were, reading something that their professor had not edited. After a while, I spoke to them, telling them that when I reread that first page, I was bored, and that I thought the first sentence was grandiose and pompous.

Later that afternoon, I was sitting in a shaded back patio, that same first draft in front of me, my writing notebook next to it. My son was inside an art studio taking a drawing class, and I had the next 50 minutes to work on this same creative nonfiction piece. I reread my notes, along with portions of the draft, and then began jotting down more ideas, making another full page of notes.

It was in that further exploration, through the meandering in that relaxed state with the hum of a busy road nearby, the rattling of a large AC unit, and the continuity of a dry breeze, that I at last “discovered” a structure for the piece. I realized that in the roughly sketched four-page typed draft I had hinted at a way to tell this story. And then my notes became more energized and furious as I teased out the implications of the particular structure.

So here I am, having begun that second draft with a much clearer sense of where I’m headed, aware that this piece will likely be much longer than I originally thought. But it is through these discoveries and surprises that I find joy as a writer. I never know how something will turn out. I never know the shape it will take. And that is part of what keeps me writing poems, short stories, essays, blog posts. I’m too busy meandering and discovering to ever become bored.

On Regaining my Writing Momentum

During my first semester in the PhD program, I wrote a piece entitled, “Writing and Teaching: Only Together Do They Satisfy.” The next semester, I presented the paper at graduate-student conference, where it was well received. The premise of the paper was that my teaching “fed” my writing and that my writing “fed” my teaching. So far so good.

Throughout my academic career in the 9 years since I drafted that piece, I find that I still agree with much of what I said then; however, I’m confident I could state my points more elegantly now. A good session of writing (even brief) before I teach is beneficial to me emotionally, growing my confidence. A good session of class (whether it’s Creative Writing, Literature, or Composition) compels me to the writing desk.

But this summer, I taught not 1, but 2, classes in the same term. Each class met for 2 1/2 hours a day, four days a week. “Finding” time to write (a doomed pursuit, I know) or even “planning” time to write (a much better approach) were set aside in the corner of my office. For 2 weeks I did not pick up a pen to write or revise anything; I did not type into a keyboard to compose a story’s opening scene, much less tinker with a line of poem.

For 2 weeks I withered inside, so much so that it was visible on the outside. To switch the metaphor, I was trying to keep my head above the waters of the mighty “2-Class River,” and I’ve never taken swimming lessons (literally or figuratively). So 10 days into those summer classes, I made an important decision: I needed to write something everyday, even if it was 10 minutes worth, or 200 words, or 2 stanzas.

At first, I felt as though I were a beginning writer. It was akin to returning to running after a couple weeks off. I didn’t know if I could do it (despite all the past experiences to the contrary). When I had finished writing two pages (two pages!) in a small notebook, the delight was comparable to seeing one of my poems or stories in print. It felt that good, yes.

Right now, I’m trying to build up my stamina again, much like the training I’ve done (and will do) for running races. I’m not ready yet for a 1-hour writing session, as much as I want to do on. Even as I write this, it’s been over 25 minutes, and fatigue is nudging me.

It feels so good to be back.

On the Pleasures & Demands of Poetic Form

I’ve been busy revising poems as a part of a summer research grant from my university. That time so far has been satisfying and productive. Last week, for some reason, I found myself using certain forms in three of the five poems I revised. Two sestinas and a pantoum.

With one of those poems, I observed a pattern of repetition in initial draft–a way of turning over the subject of the poem–and I thought, maybe this could be a sestina. And then I thought, that’s too much work. Over an hour later, however, I had succeeding in creating a sestina. (More on that form in a moment.)

My impulse and attraction to so-called “fixed” forms might be a holdover from my Creative Writing: Poetry course this spring. Students wrote in a variety of poetic forms, including some that use repeating lines: villanelles, pantoums, triolets. There is usually much initial resistance to these particular forms (as was the case this semester), but students eventually came to appreciate (and even enjoy) working in these forms.

A pantoum uses four-line stanzas (quatrains), with the requirement that lines two and four of each stanza become one and three of the following stanza. The poem can be any number of quatrains (but a minimum of 3), and the poem’s first and third lines return as the second and fourth lines of the final stanza, usually inverted. Some pantoums rhyme abab, and some don’t use a rhyme scheme. Poets, as can be expected, vary in their strictness of repetition.

I’ve written a handful of pantoums, but it had been a long time since I had attempted a sestina, a 39-line poem that uses six repeating end words. These six words recur in different orders in sestets (six-line stanzas) throughout the poem, and the poem concludes with a tercet (three-line stanza) that includes two of the end words per line. Part of the fun of the form is figuring meaningful ways to use each end word seven times.

(Side note: I’ve learned that if you start tweeting about how you’re writing in certain poetic forms that someone might challenge you to a duel. A friend saw my tweet and promptly challenged me to a sestina duel, picking three of the six end words, allowing me to pick the other three.)

Writing in a “fixed” form that uses repetition is one of my favorite poetic approaches. The form provides a structure, an architecture. a set of boundaries. After all,  writing–whether poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, a blog post–involves a search for form in conjunction with a search for subject.

Just as any writer, I have subjects and images to which I regularly return, and writing in a form that requires repetition often helps me shape my ideas, my words. I find these forms (and other patterns and forms–sonnet, meter, syllabics) often enable me to explore my ideas more effectively. In these forms’ demands, I (paradoxically) find poetic freedom.

Now to finish up the draft of a new sestina. How am I going to use the word __________ repeatedly to end lines?