during a Heart of Texas Writing Project Workshop on
“Teachers Living a Writing Life”
All of the following arose out of questions/”assignments” in the workshop:
Why do I write? ( 1}. Because I have to. 2}. to make sense of my world, 3}. to keep the world away, 4}. Keat’s Truth and Beauty, of course). As if a question like this can be answered like an advertisement hook to be read on a billboard as one drives down I-35 at 75 mph. I started writing poetry fervently as a sophomore in high school about the time my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. So in an easy psychological pass, I wrote because I was afraid; because I loved my dad; because I was a raging bag of anger, fear, love and confusion. I wrote, much like now, to make sense of all the troubles of the world I floundered about in, and to hold onto the seconds of ecstatic beauty I would stumble upon whenever I would look out long enough from my introverted, introspective, self-involved mind to see something other than myself.
I write whenever I can. I rarely have long swaths of time to write, especially in the last 20 years as I started teaching and raising my children. I learned to write in short bursts, whenever I could. Faculty meetings were always a good time. I used writing like I often use books, to block out the ugliness of the world. I have trained myself to write in the cracks of my life, the moments, always brief, which open up during the day. In the morning as I’m waiting for the coffee to brew, I will sit and work out an image or thought. Sometimes I write in my head, working out a line of a poem as I am lost in the repetition of the elliptical machine at the gym. Last year as I drove home eight hours after dropping my son off for his last year of college in Arkansas, I wrote an entire sonnet in my head, counting off the syllables with my thumb on the steering wheel and trying to memorize each line at 75 miles an hour. Finally I stopped for gas and wrote it all down in my ever-present green notebook. But most of the time I make time within the pulse of my day. I carry my notebook with me wherever I go, to the copy room at work, to Kohl’s as my daughter is looking at clothes. I don’t always write, but I have it with me in case I can write. I write obsessively. I have phrases that haunt me, rolling around in my head for years. When I am clueless about what to write, I will write these driftwood-like phrases down hoping that this time they might generate something and will finally leave me alone. I will read and re-read my notebook, looking over bits of chaff left from other moments of writing, sometimes I find a newer direction from these obscure signs to a brighter prospect.
Now as I sit here in this meeting with a larger block of time and the assignment to write, I find it difficult to come up with something to write about. I have trained myself to write in small openings, to reflect upon snippets of words, to follow a trend or contour of thought in vague directions and to trust that something will unfold. Now when told to write, I find it problematic. At the beginning of this block of time, I opened up my notebook and tried to work on and expand upon a couple of lines I wrote a few days ago. But it all seemed artificial and forced, so I moved back to the computer and started writing about how I write again. I think part of my problem today is that I feel compelled by the “writing workshop” to write: actually put words into my notebook, or type furiously on the laptop, like now; but writing is not just the physical act of writing, it is the thinking, the time to let “the mind track itself,” as Virginia Wolff said about the essay. Often my most enjoyable moments I have while writing come as I am just drifting among the wisps of thought that emanate from a line I have written. If I try to force the next line, it usually turns trite or maudlin, or clichéd. It is easy to go down the well-trodden path (like just then as I conjured up Frost instead of finding my own cow trail to wander along). I guess my writing ritual, to fold back into an earlier conversation this morning, is to allow myself to attend to my thoughts as if they mattered, but to also allow my thinking to go where it goes without too much direction from me. Yes, that sounds gooey and undisciplined, but also meditative. I try not to think too much about meaning or direction. I fiddle with sounds of the words, or I count syllables, or words, or lines, or focus with connecting a free associative image to another in a way that flows and seems to make sense in more than a surrealistic manner, without obsessing too much on the sense it seems to be making. I use the mechanics of the craft as a Mandela of a sort to take my conscious mind off the event horizon of the poem. I try to allow for the poem to occur without me, or my ego, getting in the way. Of course, that is all difficult and most of the time a complete lie as far as how I go about writing; but, it is something I attempt and when the work is going well, it is what is happening.