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When All Else Fails: Do Something Different

Flickr Creative Commons: Teresa Grau Ros

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” —Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I don’t know about you, but writing fiction is not coming easy for me these days. Hell, living is not coming easy for me these days. These are hard, scary times. Writing fiction requires the ability to imagine people and places and events and feelings beyond my immediate experience, and, like many of us, my immediate experience demands so much of my time and attention and energy there’s not much left for anything else. Work, family, social distancing, racial justice, violence, the pandemic, politics—how many things can jostle for attention all at once in the human psyche? I don’t know, but it sure feels like at least six too many right now. So when my friend Julia called last month and asked if I wanted to meet via conference call once a week to discuss poetry and share poems, I thought, I can’t think about one more thing. But then I thought, maybe I can do just that.

And now, six weeks in to writing a poem a week, I feel that this small, regular act of creation is keeping me moored. I wrote a poem about backpacking. I wrote a poem about social distancing. I wrote a poem about a childhood memory of stargazing with my father. I wrote an onomatopoeia poem about a frog. I wrote a welcome manual to sadness in poetic form. I wrote a poem about writing poetry. I’ve written rhyming poems and free verse and sonnets. I’ve explored ghazals and pantoums and villanelles (look them up; I had to). Writing a poem a week is a small, do-able thing, one that reminds me that my creative brain still works. And in these trying times I’d recommend finding one small creative act of your own that you can do each week, aside from your fiction. Art, poetry, dance, music—whatever it is, just try it. It’s a good respite from the hard, immersive work we all do as writers, for several reasons:

You don’t have to be invested in the outcome. When I’m writing a novel, I’m always writing, then reading and rereading with a critical eye. Will readers like these characters? What will my agent think, or my editor? Is this as good as my last book? As good as my first book? With my poem a week, I’m completely free of thinking “this needs to be good.” I don’t think of myself as a poet; I don’t plan to publish my poems or show them to anyone (except my poetry club partners, Julia and Martha), and if I write a bad poem it doesn’t bother me; if I write a good poem I’m pleasantly surprised. It is a JOY to write without any thought as to what will happen next. It’s creating for the pure pleasure of creating.

You can train muscles that will make you a better writer. The assignments we’ve given ourselves in our little poetry-writing group have included writing a poem that included five onomatopoeia words (words like “slash,” “murmur,” “thump”). I was surprised at how including vivid words like that seemed to push all of us into using more active verbs and stronger words throughout. In another assignment, we made a list of things that can get broken (your phone, your heart, a teacup) and the ways things get fixed (a repairman, time, glue) and then wrote a poem mixing them all up. It was good to suddenly find brand new metaphors, to think about other ways of looking at things.

You can expand your creative world. Over the last six week I’ve read dozens of poems, out of curiosity, or looking for inspiration. I’ve encountered poets and poems and even poetic forms I’d never read before. The incredible power and beauty of the language of so many of these poems and poets has opened my mind to all kinds of ways of using words.

You can get something done. I may not have started a new novel, finished the editing on an essay I need to do, or deep-cleaned the kitchen, but I did write a poem this week. It feels good.

Finally, here’s one of my poems. It was fun to write, and I wish you all the joy of finding the fun in your own creating this month.

A Quarantine Poem

I shall not write a June poem
A June poem should shout joy;
I’ll wait until December
Then all my skills deploy.

I’ll wait until December,
When the days are brief and dark,
And sit beside the fire-glow
And write about a lark.

And my sweet words will rise up
And fly about the room
And settle on the windowsill
And then burst into bloom.

Have you explored other forms of writing or creating lately? What works for you?

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.