A Poem That Got Me Moving

It’s 4:30 5:30 am and I am at my desk.  It’s dark, still, and there’s a bite in the air that tells me summer is drifting off to some other hemisphere. I have made a pot of tea, tucked under a cozy that was knitted for me.  There is a metal pitcher half-filled with milk, and a sugar dispenser and a spoon and a tub of Greek yogurt in case I get hungry.

I do not particularly want to work.  In fact, I actively do not want to write.  I should have been up an hour ago, but we were away all weekend and I had that extra glass of wine and stayed up one hour too long, looking up ways to (organically) kill the aphids devouring my beans and brussels sprouts. My rebellion is in the sleeping an extra hour, so I must start writing. Soon. I delay it by making the first cup of tea, and drinking a little of it while I read the book of poems on my desk, ten poems to change your life again and again, by Roger Housden.*  I flip it open randomly and read Leonard Cohen’s Leaving Mt. Baldy, and a line leaps out:

“Thank you, Beloved,”
I heard a heart cry out
as I entered the stream of cars
on the Santa Monica freeway

And I close the book and turn to the computer and open the writing file.  I will only be able to write 300 words, maybe, or maybe only even 100.  Sometimes lately, I can write 1000 words before I make tea for Christopher Robin, which makes me feel buff and writerly superior.  300 will make me feel like I want to wake up earlier tomorrow, and for one long moment, hands hovering over keys, I feel despair well up, and judgments roar: only 300 words! Why even bother?

But the poem stills those voices, at least for a moment.  It is about the dailiness of spiritual practice, living now, in this reality.  The reality is that I slept in awhile, and there is nothing that has to be perfect this morning.

The poem gently reminds me that this is not about being perfect this morning, or any morning.  It’s about showing up and writing my pages, day after day after day.  Sometimes, the words are heavy, each one weighing 70 pounds, and I have to drag them into place, dropping them with a loud noise—thunk!—onto the page.  Other times, they flow from me so fast they blur together, individual water molecules turning into a stream, even a river.  Sometimes, I turn in a book and everyone raves about how good it is.  Sometimes, they complain that I didn’t do it the way I did last time, or I put in too much sex or not enough, or the language was bad.  Or it is The Best Book Ever Written.

None of that matters, at least not when I wake up to do the work at the time of day that is offering the most productivity for me right now.  Early, early morning, when no one will call, when the Internet isn’t so urgently begging for my attention.

I show up, that’s the only promise I make.  I show up and I put my hands on the keys, and let the work move through me onto the page.  I don’t judge. I don’t try to make a tender, child-book into an adult too quickly.  I don’t roar at the awkward phrasings. I gently knead it, touch it, season and see it.

If I do that, day after day after day, doing the ordinary, everyday thing of being here, at the page, at the appointed time, I am doing the very best I can do.  Sometimes, I’ll arrive here a little too tired, a little too grumpy, or full of nasty judgments of my shortcomings (of which there are many).   Still, a writer writes, and that’s what I do.  I put my hands on the keys and I write the next sentence.  I add a word in that paragraph, remind myself to check a fact, take a sip of tea, and pretty soon, the world dissolves and I’m writing.  This morning, at 5:45 since I rebelled against 4:30, and that’s fine.  I wrote some words, actually more than I expected.

And that’s how books get written.  One word, one sentence, one session at a time. A writer, alone, facing the page.  Bravely.  Or grumpily.  It doesn’t matter.

How do you show up for your writing? Has a poem ever changed the trajectory of your morning? 

*Which also contains the poem Gate C-22, by Ellen Bass, brought to my attention some years ago by our own Therese.  It is one of my very favorites and really worth reading. Treat yourself.




About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. says

    “Sometimes, the words are heavy, each one weighing 70 pounds, and I have to drag them into place, dropping them with a loud noise—thunk!—onto the page. Other times, they flow from me so fast they blur together, individual water molecules turning into a stream, even a river.”

    Yes. This. A hundred times this. And the thing is, we just never know which it’s going to be until we show up and begin.

  2. says

    At 5:30am you should have been up an hour ago? Wow – that’s dedication. Nothing could get me out of bed sooner than I absolutely had to to get to work on time – not even writing.

  3. says

    Such a tender post, Barbara! I think we all need to be reminded that our writing time needn’t be perfect or idyllic. It merely needs to be.

  4. says

    This is so beautiful that even though I’m actively trying to rest, not write, I want to open a fresh document and make a start. Thanks for reminding me about Gate C22. I love that poem to pieces.

  5. says

    Oh my, I just read Gate C-22 and it made me cry and now I have to get that book of poems. Barbara, I love your post! I love the quiet morning times when I write. And often poetry helps me focus on writing spare, impactful prose. It makes me feel wonder!

    • Lisa says

      That poem made me want to be that woman and helped me remember times my husband made me feel like that woman. Thank you for the link.

  6. says

    Thank you for this post. I always love reading your words and these today most especially. Today, I woke up and sat at my keyboard and decided I was tired of thinking. For today, I am just going to be present for those things that cross my path, one of which was your lovely post. Treasures are all around us if we only have eyes to see. Have a very blessed day!

  7. Leah says

    Barbara, this was just what I needed this morning, for as you wrote, this is how books are written. Indeed it is. One word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, book…. The magic is in the showing up and pushing forward.
    Thanks for the push this morning.

  8. Becca Wilder says

    Barbara, I love the way you use words. It is always a moving experience to read your writing, whether it is here on the blog, your Facebook updates, or your wonderful books (which are among my favorites). Thank you for sharing as much of yourself as you do.

  9. says

    I love Gate C-22. And I too find that the lines of poems resonate in my head, moving me long after I’ve read them.

    The poem that changes more than my mornings is one that I’ve lost. All that’s left to me is the memory of a few lines. If I could somehow find that poem and read it again, credit the poet, I would. It’s about a loved one who is dying. The poet writes that if he could stand, hat in hand on a street corner, begging for unwanted minutes, he would.

    That fuels me.

  10. says

    Beautiful. I woke up at 5:20 to write and felt the literary equivalent of constipation. Now it is 6:32, and I have read your post, and I am inspired to start sewing words and sentences together. Which is, of course, how a book gets written, how a story gets told.

    Thank you, favorite person I have not yet met!

  11. says


    Inspiration is not always at flood level, it’s true. Here’s something I teach in my Fire in Fiction workshops about finding inspiration in every writing session:

    Ask, in the scene I’m working on right now…what’s the strongest emotion felt by the POV character? When in my own life did I also strongly feel that same emotion? Detail that moment: objects, sounds, the trigger, the twist of the knife or surge of the chorus, anything you remember with clarity. Give those details to your character.

    The wellspring of inspiration is our hearts, convictions and memories. We can tap into those at any time. Inspiration is us. And we’re awake and present every morning, even at 5:30am.

    Of course, you might want to switch from tea to coffee. Just sayin’.

    • says

      Great suggestion, to go to that emotion we know and feel ourselves.

      On the coffee, I have to pass that early in the morning. And this is English breakfast, PG tips, so it’s not exactly lightweight stuff.

  12. says

    Thank you for writing such an inspiring post. Reading words of wisdom like yours helps a neophyte like me to keep on trying, beginning over and over and over again.

  13. Carmel says

    This is the poem that encourages me: “I show up and I put my hands on the keys, and let the work move through me onto the page. I don’t judge. I don’t try to make a tender, child-book into an adult too quickly.”

  14. says

    Beginner or those with a few books or plays or poems under our belts, it is always the same. An act of faith. Thank you for this post on this morning. It was a gift.

  15. says

    Oh goddess, YES.

    My current WIP is a slower write than usual, and I have to keep reminding myself that each book demands to be written in its own way, at its own pace…and that 300 words every day eventually ads up to be a book in the end. But it is hard not to be impatient with myself and with the words.

    It definitely helps to know you’re out here struggling too.

    Please pass the tea…

    And here’s something weird…the number captcha was my 4-number access code for my bank card. How on earth did you know it? LOL

  16. Aimee says

    Wonderful post. I’m at the point where I’m supposed to be revising my novel. I never thought it would be this hard. I gave myself a break as I was drafting the novel, reminding myself, “It doesn’t have to be perfect; just get it down.” Now, my job is to perfect it and it’s so hard. Thank you for this encouraging post that reminds me I’m not alone. And that continuing to work is what I have to do.

    • says

      I’m right there with you, doing the same thing–and then I have to revise the novel I wrote before this one, which I know is a mess and has paaaages of comments from my beta. It will be hard; as much as I want to improve it (and doubt I will perfect it in this go), I’m dreading it. But we’ll both have stronger books once we do it.

  17. says

    As last night’s writing session was a series of lifting 70 lb. words, I am so glad I read this today. I sometimes wonder why we have writing sessions like this, and other times we can barely contain the words. It’s an ebb and flow.

    • says

      I never know why, either. But the fact is, it’s not just writing. Everything is like that. Sometimes, I love to cook. Other times, it feels like a pain. Somedays, a hike is easy, sometimes it isn’t.

  18. says

    Wonderful post, Barbara! I also love Donald’s comment: try drinking coffee! :-)

    There are quite a few poems/quotes that inspire me every time I read them. And in fact, I usually end each of my blog posts with a meaningful quote. BUT, the poem that always hits me like a ton of bricks is the one by Joseph Campbell:

    “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

  19. says

    Lovely! And so true. I have to remind myself to get out of the way and just let the writing happen. Thanks for the reminder today.

  20. says

    The general consensus is that this is a lovely post and I completely agree. You hit the mark for everyone here. I’ll be checking out Housden’s book – it sounds like a nice inspiration to keep around. One of my favorite poetry books to get me moving is Morning Poems by Robert Bly. I can open that book to any page; it never fails to make me see how to celebrate the everyday in extraordinary words.

  21. says

    thanks for the wonderful post – it was exactly what I needed. I’ve been trying to kill off a character in the opening scene of a new proposal for three days now and I just couldn’t seem to get it right. After reading your wise words, I was reminded that first drafts aren’t perfect, that getting the words down is what matters and that if I can see the story in my head, I can somehow get it down on paper. I got my pages done and tomorrow I’ll add to them…no doubt they’ll need a good rewrite, but that’s okay too.

  22. says

    Running behind on comments today. So happy this struck a chord with some of you. It made my work day easier, too.

    And I’ve decided to read poetry more often, too. It seems to open something in me.

  23. says

    Thanks for a very inspirational post. It reminds me of that old Woody Allen line: Half of success in life is just showing up. Indeed. We must write even on those days where we are just not feeling it. 100 words is better than none. I really needed this right now. Thanks again.

  24. says

    I needed this post. Yesterday night was an unexpected one of those mornings for me, and I didn’t get as much revision done as I’d wanted. But I showed up, and I got some done, and more importantly, I think I made a lame and difficult couple of paragraphs less lame, so that is progress.

  25. says

    Funny, I just wrote on something similar. I’m a simple woman, though. Instead of a beautiful poem, what inspires me (and I posted) is a silly Sesame Street segment from long ago: Don Music, the famous song writer, is struggling to compose a song but gets stuck on a rhyme. Kermit, of amphibian fame, helps him out and in the end, the song is entirely different than anticipated. But in between, as he struggles with his art, poor Mr. Music pounds his head on the keyboard in desperate frustration.

    Yes, yes. This is me. Just write. One hundred, two hundred words. And what I end up with may be entirely different than what I had anticipated. In the between times, as I struggle to coerce words into a semblance of order, I may give myself a concussion on my keyboard.

    Thanks for sharing your time and meditations with us.

  26. says

    What a thoughtful piece this is! I am writing this in the late evening, window open, and I am reminded of the cool morning air to come. Thanks for sharing the links to poetry as I so enjoy reading them.
    The crickets are plentiful this year, a real chorus outside my window.
    Happy early morning start!

  27. says

    This is me. Right now. Maybe a poem, maybe a post like this, maybe a hummingbird lingering on my withering autumn butterfly bush. And I’m inspired again to write even one word. Rework one sentence. Like an afghan which does not collect rows of warmth unless the hands work the needles, neither does the manuscript become a book unless I graze my fingers along the keys.

    Thank you!

  28. Evelyn says

    Thank you, thank you and thanks again for the wonderful poem C22. It speaks very personally to me, as I have been inspired to write again after meeting and coming to be with my first love after 46 years without a word. I have also described our first meeting in Paris in front of the Opera in a poem. Yours is filled with the passion which was very real to me. I am inspired to try again.

  29. says

    I’ve been having trouble getting any words done lately. This was helpful. Thanks.
    I adored both of the poems for different reasons.
    I used to follow a poet who was determined to be elusive and her beautiful words profoundly effect me.

    This Listening

    It’s a kaleidoscope in my mind.
    Inner swirls into outer.
    Outer breaks apart into light shafts.
    Your eyes slide into mine
    till I look out from your soul
    and you dance within mine.
    The day moves into my bones
    and birds live in my blood.
    Their songs sing as my pulse beat.
    We live in this listening.

    Zen Oleary