Not just the fresh start

Happy New Year! May 2024 bring you inspiration, time to write, and time to revise.

In December, I participated in an annual poem-a-day challenge. This is my happy place. It is also my anxiety. What if I can’t think of anything to write about? How, or with what, do I start? That concern begins on the first day–even when I come equipped with prompts and a project, an idea for a series. It’s the fear of facing the blank page.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Paul McCartney. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the documentary The Beatles: Get Back, Part 1. The footage includes a lot of bickering, but one moment stands out in my memory. While other musicians are arguing about, probably, everything, Paul is working on a little riff, maybe eight or ten notes. He plays it, then he plays a slightly different version, and again, and again, and again. He keeps playing with it, refining it. He didn’t come up with a genius phrase; he came up with a starting point and kept experimenting with it.

The word that comes to mind is noodle, to noodle around with something. The idea that you don’t have to come up with the right image or line or phrase on your first try. Get something, anything, down on the page or the screen, and then keep playing with it, keep noodling. See? Much less pressure.

If we’re going to revise through multiple drafts anyway, why should the starting point contain so much importance? Instead of the starting point, it’s just a starting point.

Here’s to the start of the year, and to the start of all your writing projects. What tactics do you use to begin?

P.S. Long ago, my friends in New Jersey were appalled when I slipped and said noodles instead of pasta. They ended up calling me Captain Noodle.

Digging into the mystery

two kittens and an open laptop.
The writing life: kittens and laptop, all on my lap.

Since knee surgery in February and then the arrival of kittens in August, I haven’t been getting outside much. I have called my yard my meadow. Now it’s time, or long past time, to break up the irises. They have tripled in number and area, and grasses have grown up between them, grown tall and gone to seed. This morning, I brought out the shovel and realized that I couldn’t tell where the rhizomes were. After pulling some of the grasses out, I could see enough to dig. My shovel went nowhere. My sunglasses (protective eyewear!) slid off. This wasn’t working. I brought out a trowel-claw combination and a hacker tool. The trowel’s tip had chipped off, rendering it not very efficient, but I made enough progress to see some roots. I even broke a piece off. I went back to the big shovel, trying to dig deep and far enough under to pry off a hunk.

The growth, the arrangement of the irises was a puzzle to solve, a mystery, and I thought about writing into the mystery. A poem might start with an idea, or a feeling, or an image, but then, as Richard Hugo points out in The Triggering Town, the poem must proceed from there, venture into unknown territory, or excavate down into the unknown dirt. Most of the time, it’s hard. The poetic shovel might hit a rock or a giant root. In my garden, those impediments must be negotiated. In a poem, an obstacle might become a door—a new direction into the mystery. Lately, I’ve been struggling with my writing. But this morning’s episode in the yard gave me hope. I can just keep trying, from new angles, digging a little deeper each time. Starting over as a path to success!

In the end, I made about a third as much progress as I had hoped—but nothing says it has to be finished today, just as nothing says a poem has to be finished in a day (and mine aren’t). I’ll come back, try to chip away a little each day, at the iris bed and at the poems, trusting that sometime, something will bloom.

Earlier, my poem Regarding Hollyhocks appeared in Cumberland River Review.

Currently, I’m reading two poets who taught this year at LiTFUSE:

Spelling Bee and poetry

During the past year (and a half), time has grown slipperier. Not in a good poetry way, but in a “feels like forever” and “blinked and two months went by” way. I thought I would refresh this blog in September–that annual new school year ritual that has stayed with me. And I blinked, and it’s October.

Also during the past year, I’ve started some new–and good habits, including playing Spelling Bee. If you aren’t familiar with the game, six letters are arranged in a circle, with a seventh in the center. The idea is to find words that include the center letter. Words must be at least four letters long, and you get extra points when the word is a pangram, using all seven letters. Some days, I start strong. Other times, I’m flummoxed from the beginning. Either way, I’ll reach a point where I’m grasping for answers. So I’ll experiment–choose the letters and see whether the game accept the words. Sometimes, these attempts are ridiculous. Sometimes, it seems it should be a word. In Spelling Bee, there is no penalty for wrong answers, so experimentation is easy–an adventure!

Why not in poetry? How can you play in your writing, in your poem? Imagine there are no penalties (what are the penalties?). What can you try? What fantastical image or sounds can you slide in to a stanza just to see what will happen?

For much of the year, I’ve been breaking poems–trying different forms, writing into and out of different tensions. Not just deleting my darlings, but investigating them. Trying to play, knowing that I can always go back.

And then this past week, I read Tony Hoagland’s essay “Tis Backed Like a Weasel”: The Slipperiness of Metaphor, and the part about some people just not having the gift of metaphor made me sad, because I suspect that I might be one of those people. So I decided to pair play with the idea of deliberate practice. Maybe, despite what Aristotle says, I could become stronger at writing metaphors. I can play at what I’m trying to improve. And it was fun. To really practice, I should probably have written a full page of them, every day. But I don’t like the word should, and it doesn’t sound like play.

What else I’ve been reading:

Forty-One Objects, by Carsten Rene Nielsen, translated by David Keplinger

Olio, by Tyehimba Jess