“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. [Read more…]