what I learned in the high desert, and… some other stuff

Reader have you ever read The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza? It’s so great. As you might imagine, it’s a retelling of the classic Little Red Hen story. The cat plays the saxophone, the duck wears a swim cap, and the dog — well, as in real life, you’re never quite sure what the dog’s story is. The little red hen is always going to the store for pizza supplies “and… some other stuff.” But I digress.

I’m here to tell you about what I learned in the high desert. But first, let’s do a little wordless wednesday on Thursday:

library lunch hour

I spent yesterday in my favorite sunny corner of the library, trying to draft a poem. It was painful, but some days are like that. At lunchtime I went outside to gulp down a sandwich and some Emily — some solace in that. But I digress again.

So, a few weeks ago I went on my first-ever writing retreat (or conference? I’m not sure what to call it). It was in the high desert of New Mexico, where I’d never been before. Let me begin by confessing that I’m a nervous traveler. Call me crazy, but t just doesn’t seem right to me for human beings to be flying around 6 miles above the surface of the earth in a metal capsule. Every time I go on a trip (which is almost never) I’m always making Husband promise he will remarry if I die in a plane crash. I send important info — my passwords, a list of people who should know I died, funeral plans, letters to my children — to a dear friend, just in case. Yeah, I’m neurotic. But in the end I always go, believing it better to be deathly afraid six miles above the surface of the earth than to stay home out of fear.

So, I made it — wonder of wonders. I brought with me several stacks of poems, a small collection of rocks to stack in a tiny cairn at my bedside, photos of my family, and the good luck charms given me by my po-friends, C-1 and C-2. There was no cell phone service in the high desert, and I learned how absolutely blissful that was. There were about 20 other poets — my tribe! — in the high desert, and I learned how absolutely blissful that was, too. Eating food that was not prepared by me rounded out the triumvirate of bliss :). And speaking of bliss, here is the view out my retreat center window:

los Sangre de Cristos

I’ve been looking over my notes from the retreat/conference trying to think about what to share — I learned so much it would take a month to write it all down. I think the most important things I learned were  things I’d already learned, re-learned, and re-re-learned — but to hear them come out of the mouths of well-known poets and editors gave these insights new weight. These were insights I file under the label “writing life” or even just “life,” and here they are:

  • Follow your bliss (I believe Joseph Campbell coined this phrase?) Everyone in the room had done and tried other things. Many confessed to trying to leave the writing life altogether, but at some point had a kairos moment of “I must do this.” Whatever it is you must do — yeah, do it.
  • “At a certain point, you have to have the courage to believe you’re doing (the work) and not rely on the permissions of others.” This is a quote from one of the Very Famous Poets who taught at the retreat. It made me think of the time a former professor of mine asked me if I was planning on going to AWP. I was so surprised that she would think I was going — I was just a baby poet then. But I realized at that moment that no one was going to randomly lay the mantle of Poet around my shoulders, that if I were going to be a Poet, it would be because I did the work, and owned the life. So, whatever you must do, don’t wait for someone to tell you, “Now’s the time.”
  • Pay attention to how your own work is telling you about new ways of working. Pay attention to the hints at which direction your work wants to go next. Another VFP quote. It dovetails nicely with the obstacle in the path becoming the path, don’t you think? And it’s another great intersection of the writing life and any intentional life — valuable advice either way.
  • Don’t worry about what’s in fashion. Do what you do, and do it well. This is the advice we’ve all been getting and giving since middle school: Be yourself. Be yourself in your life, and be yourself on the page even if it’s not the way the Cool Kids do it. The Cool Kids can’t write your poems. You can.

So that’s it for now. I did also latch on (like a dog on a bone) to some good craft tips and submissions tips, which I’ll share in future posts. For now, can we get the last of the last organdization thing out of the way? That is, my master list of electronic files? This file structure is something I would’ve given my left arm for 10 years ago when I first committed to the writing life in a more serious way. But maybe we all earn our file structures by doing the work? Still, if this is helpful to anyone, I’d like to share it, so here it is along with some spilled coffee, notes to self, and other marginalia:

My basic file structure.

Okay, so now I’m very relieved to be done with organdization for a while. But one more thing before I go: Don’t think I’m always completely organdized. Piles form on my desk, then grow, then threaten to topple. Chaos often reigns. But, it’s good to have a system in place to fall back on when I reach my disorgandization threshold. Everything in moderation.

See you back here tomorrow for the roundup, and thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “what I learned in the high desert, and… some other stuff

  1. Sounds like a wonderful trip (totally get the neurosis of it all – I’m the same way before a trip) and you’ll be eager to do more of them when you can. Looking forward to future kernels you’ve gleaned from the adventure. Onwards!

    • I’m not sure I could go on living without coffee to look forward to every morning ;). Glad you found the post helpful — we all have to learn from each other!

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