what ‘do your own work first’ means to me

Photo on 3-3-19 at 1.22 PM

Meet my to-do list

At some point in my writing life—I don’t remember when, but it was years ago—this became my mantra and my exhortation to myself: Do your own work first.

It may have been influenced by Mary Oliver, who once wrote in a letter something like, “I can’t meet with you, or anyone, in the morning… because that’s when I write” (I’m paraphrasing).

It may have been influenced by Robert Hass, who said, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in a half-hour a day.”

It  may have been influenced by the time in my life when I was sick and literally couldn’t write, couldn’t hold a pen in my hand, couldn’t press the keys down on my laptop keyboard, couldn’t even hold a book to read. I remember lying on the couch shortly after giving birth to my daughter, child number three. My mom was staying with us because I was too sick to care for the baby (or the toddlers, for that matter). I remember saying to her, “I hope I can write again someday.” Her reply: “Oh, sweetheart. I just hope you’re well enough to take care of the kids someday.”

I wished that, too. But also, I knew that someone else would always take care of my kids if I couldn’t. And that no one else could write my poems.

In that moment I felt a little monstrous, as writer- and artist-mothers sometimes do. But I also understood something: I understood what my Work was. I understood that if I didn’t or couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be Molly Spencer. That my life would not be my life.

Do your own work first.

Sometimes I’ll post it on social media as a reminder to myself and others.

Do your own work first.

Sometimes I’ll text it to a writing friend who’s feeling overwhelmed by all the obligations of life.

Do your own work first. 

Enough so that, occasionally, someone will ask me: What do you mean by that exactly? as someone did over the weekend. And here, somewhat edited now from a tl;dr text thread, is my answer:

//

First, it means to give up on the idea of balance and try to embrace, instead, what I call “the juggle.” I’m not someone who does well in a chaotic environment, physically or psychically. But my experience is that family life and trying to raise children to adulthood is often chaotic. Also, capitalism and our society’s power structures like to act as if they’re very orderly, but they are not: They send us bewildering and conflicting messages every day. So one important thing for me has simply been to accept that I may never feel balanced in terms of how I spend my time in this life, but I will keep trying to juggle so that what’s essential gets its time.

Then I had to figure out what really is my own work. What is the very most essential work? What work is it that, if left undone, I cannot be Molly Spencer? For me, it’s poetry. This is the Work, then. Everything else is just work.

Then I had to figure out what must be done to meet my obligations to others, many of whom I love deeply. I need to feed my kids, attend to their health and schooling, and help them find their joy(s) in life. I want to nurture certain relationships. There are laws, so I have to do my taxes. There are bills, so I have to work. And so on.

Which brings me to work-work, the kind they pay you to do. This kind of work could fill up an entire life, and capitalism and the power structures would like us to fill up our entire lives with it. I have a lot of conversations with myself about how to still do a good job at work, while also not doing everything I have the impulse/inclination to do at work, because if I did that, I would never do anything except work-work (tiny bit of perfectionism running through my veins).

This means I’ve sometimes gone into meetings less prepared than I’d like to be—that is, prepared but not over-prepared, since I seem to prefer over-preparing. I’ve sometimes even taught less prepared than I like to be (but always prepared, and, as I tell myself when I’d like to have over-prepared: I know how to teach writing; it will be fine). I’ve said no to extra assignments. I’ve said no to students who want me to add them to my schedule. I don’t—and don’t want to, and can’t—always say no to such things, but I sometimes do. I’ve also intentionally sought work that leaves room in my life for my poetry and my kiddos. My job holds no prestige in the field of poetry, and my earnings (and the potential for earnings growth, and the potential for advancement) are limited. I’ve accepted that I will have less career “success,” as defined by our culture, and less money than I otherwise could have, in the long run.

So now I’ve said no to everything that’s not pretty essential. Including, for example, reading the school newsletter, which I haven’t done in years. Occasionally it has caused small problems, but only occasionally. I mention this, not because it’s any more instructive than other non-essential things I’ve said no to, but because this is the level of the cut: Saying no to many small, non-essential things is what it takes. It’s like when I’m working with students, and they ‘re 100 words over the word count, and I tell them: It’s going to be a word or two here and a word or two there until you’ve cut 100. (They hate that, by the way :)).

So, okay. Back to putting my own Work first. It means a couple things to me. First, it means I devote time to it—probably not ever as much as I’d like, but I clear time for my writing life every day. This is true even when I’m not writing much, like right now. Sometimes I am only reading. Sometimes I write down one word. But I make space in my day, in what we call Time, for writing. I am exceedingly stubborn about this. It sometimes causes tension in my relationships. It sometimes makes getting the kids out of the house in the morning a little crazier/more rushed. But it’s just not negotiable for me.

(NB: What I do not mean by Do your own work first is that you must do your own work in the morning before you do anything else. It is a philosophical first, not a chronological first. For me, it happens that I prefer to do my own work first in the predawn hours whenever possible).

Second, it means I keep headspace clear for writing, so that even when I’m not writing, even as I’m teaching or cooking or editing or mothering, there is a province of my mind that is a writer, and is thinking like one. It means listening to poetry podcasts while I fold the sheets. It means reciting poems I have by heart as I walk across campus from my office to the parking structure. It means repeating and repeating a scrap of language that has announced itself to me—I still miss the tree they swerved the road for—and listening for the next scrap whenever it arrives. And writing it down. Always writing it down (you think you’ll remember, but sometimes you don’t).

There is only so much space in one brain, and defending a  province of it for writing often means I forget other things capitalism and our society would’ve liked me to keep in my brain, mostly to do with mothering, like: when is show and tell, when are permission slips due, when is the meeting for basketball parents, when is the field trip, etc.. Generally, this has not led to disaster and (the kids and) I can live with the fallout when there is any.

Another thing: I’ve learned the hard way through chronic illness that if my body is not tended to, I can do neither the Work, nor the work. I make sure to take care of my body. I eat what sounds good and stop when I’m full. I rest sometimes when I could be [fill in the blank: cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry, putting together a photo album, cooking a few meals ahead, etc.]. I get regular exercise. I make sure my body is comfortable (e.g., warm socks, clothes I feel good in) and cared for (e.g., occasional long baths with lavender oil to soak the pain away).

And let me say that this is all much easier said than done. Some weeks I do better than others. Some years I do better than others. And it always, always means that there are things I “should” be doing that I’m not doing. It always means my house isn’t quite as tidy as I’d like, and the laundry piles up on the regular. It means I always owe about 57 people an e-mail. Another important mantra in my life, which I write on my calendar page every day: Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. (Capitalism and the power structures would like you to believe you are doing it wrong—especially if you are a woman—so you keep scrambling, working, buying, achieving, striving, etc).

So, I don’t know if any of this will help you. I just know that life and the culture as it currently stands will grind us to the bone if we let them. I try to keep the boundaries of my chaotic little juggle intact. It’s hard. This poem helps. This poem reminds me that my life is a “made place.” Either I can make it, or capitalism and the power structures will make it. I’m not giving those assholes my life. The end.

//

[Editor’s note: a friend has since pointed out that I could just call “capitalism and the power structures,” “the Patriarchy.” And she’s right.]

Do your own work first.

 

balance the day

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

A book I return to again and again is How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. It was published during wartime (1942) ostensibly as a guide to cooking on a shoestring when ingredients, fuel, and time were scarce (time because so many women were entering the workforce **UPDATED to say: a faithful friend and reader points out that it was really only more white women who were entering the workforce — that women of color had always worked. And she is right!). I read it less as a guide to cooking and more as a spiritual tome. It both reinforces my sense that the wolf is ever at the door, pacing and snuffling, and somehow comforts me about it. For one thing, M.F.K. writes with a certain authority, and is all about common sense. Like me, she is a fan of double and freeze — (although I’m not sure there was such a thing as a chest freezer back then?? but it appears she put her icebox to good use). She is willing to stretch what she has and scrape together a meal. Amen (insert solemn bow here). This is why I’m inclined to follow her advice to “balance the day.” M.F.K. points out that everyone from slick magazines to scientists to the federal government have, for ages, been suggesting we serve balanced meals. Balanced as in the four food groups (if you, like me, were born a while ago), or as in the proper selections from the food pyramid (if you were born later), or… I don’t know what rubric there is now because, frankly, I have given up. M.F.K. says “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.” She says,

“Breakfast, then, can be toast. It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you.”

Reader, she had me at “toast.” She says,

“For lunch make an enormous salad… or a heartening and ample soup… . That is all you need, if there is enough of it.”

She goes on to make similar suggestions for simple dinners (involving protein and a starch), and says:

“Try it. It’s easy, and simple, and fun, and — perhaps most important — people like it.”

Whether people like it is actually not the most important thing to my mind. The “easy” and “simple” parts are. <mothering interlude: Sister just walked by, noticed the book on my desk and said, “What!? She knows how to cook a wolf?” Second Son replies, “Not literally, Sister, metaPHORically.”</mothering interlude>. Which leads me to my point: I read the “balance the day” chapter (which is actually titled “How to Be Sage Without Hemlock”) both literally and metaphorically. This summer, I’m trying hard to balance the day, even though balance has never been a natural state for me. I think we should all get to sit down to an enormous plate of toast dripping with butter and honey — we should all get to relax and do something just because we want to every day. Sometimes I have about 5 minutes for that, but I’ve been trying to take those 5 minutes and make something of them. I’m also making sure to find that all important time for writing and other creative pursuits. Yes, this often means trading sleep for art, but I’m willing to do it, and happier and more balanced if I do. However you balance your days, I wish you luck. Remember, the M.F.K. model does  not require that each moment be balanced, or even each hour. I am often inclined to stretch her advice and attempt to balance the week. Sit down to your plate of toast sometime. Serve dinner on a shoestring. And consider these words from M.F.K. Fisher, with which I will close:

“[An unnecessary peptic goad, but a very nice one now and then, is a good soft stinky cheese, a Camembert or Liederkranz, with what is left of the bread, the wine, the hunger.]”

   

“in the changing light of a room” – specks from May Sarton

Vincent's "Bedroom in Arles." Look's pretty cozy to me.

Vincent’s “Bedroom in Arles.” Look’s pretty cozy to me.

Last week I wrote about reading the journals of May Sarton. Have I mentioned that May Sarton had a room in her house called “the cozy room”? I want to live in that room. Until then, I’ll give thanks for my cozy, four-foot stretch of wall and these specks from May Sarton…

First on suffering and creation:

[After quoting from Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu]: “It is only when we can believe that we are creating the soul that life has any meaning, but when we can believe it — and I do and always have — then there is nothing we do that is without meaning and nothing that we suffer that does not hold the seed of creation in it.”

On the person behind the work:

“My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life — all of it — flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity … both as human being and artists, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.”

May Sarton, housekeeper (somehow it’s very comforting to know that even she — who lived alone, unmarried, no children — fought against housework):

“I could spend the whole day housekeeping, but I won’t, as long as total chaos is kept at bay and what my eyes rest on is beauty and order. Only now and then the appalling state of a cupboard disturbs my mind enough so that it is worth tidying–… .”

 

(“As long as total chaos is kept at bay…” — I see May and I have at least that in common.)

May Sarton, wanderer:

“I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything… .  The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.”

 

Sounds good to me, although today is not that day for me. More likely, this month is not that month. Still, at a minimum, I’ll be looking for a few empty moments to wander about in. I hope you find some, too.

friday in-lieu-of-a roundup: on blundering

pick a row and walk (wikimedia)

pick a row and walk (wikimedia)

blunder
(n.) a stupid or careless mistake;
(v.) 1. make a blunder 2. move clumsily or as if unable to see (ding!ding!ding! we have a winner!)

Happy Friday, Reader. Can we talk about blundering? Because I’ve not been much of a poet this week, but I’ve been a submitter, a reader and note-taker, a writing-files-organizer, a pumpkin carver, a pie maker, a candy hander-outer, a birthday cupcake maker (BTW, may I recommend you never have a baby two days after Halloween?), and an errand runner. This week for me, poetry has been a speck here and a speck there. But that’s perfect because I want to talk more about Kay Ryan’s Specks, which I linked to last week, and which I finally finished reading.

And so, yes, we need to talk about blundering — the kind of blundering where one moves clumsily or as if unable to see.

<rural interlude> Where I grew up in rural Michigan, all the kids learn what to do if you ever get lost in a cornfield: you pick a row and walk all the way to the end of it, then try to figure out where you are. You may trip, stumble and fall. You may feel you’re getting more lost, not less lost. You may look up at the sky for clues and there are no clues, just a wide open sky. You may move clumsily or as if unable to see (all those cornstalks slapping your face and arms, all the dirt, the bugs). But you keep going in that one row until you find your way out. </rural interlude>

This is basically the story of my life in poetry, and it’s also one of the specks Kay Ryan writes about. Kay Ryan says:

Blundering doesn’t work, except it does.

She says:

It can’t lead you there, except it’s the only way to get there.

To which I say, YES! YES! YES!

In no area of my life have I learned so much exclusively by doing than I have in poetry. You read it all the time: to learn how to write poetry, write poetry. To learn how to read it, read it. Which is supremely unhelpful advice, because: duh. But it’s also the best advice, the only advice.

What the advice-givers usually leave out, however, is the blundering.

We blunder for years writing mostly bad poems and not knowing if they’re just regular bad or really bad. But we keep writing them anyway. Then one day we start to understand the one line that might be working in draft number 1,047. We go on from there.

We blunder through revisions. Actually, first we blunder through what we think are revisions but are really small edits and/or lipstick on a pig. But we keep putting that lipstick on the pig anyway. Then one day we see what we might be able to do with line 7 of draft number 1,147. We carry on.

We blunder through the poems we read. We LOVE IT but we can’t say why. We know it works, but we don’t know how it’s working. We even read the whole collection, but we’re not sure why all these poems are between two covers of the same book. Then one day we pick up that collection after we’ve read 147 intervening collections and we read it again. We LOVE IT even more, and now we can say why. We can say why each poem is working. We totally get why all these poems go together. We even think the poem on page 33 should’ve ended two lines earlier than it did. Onward.

We we wait through many years of blundering, and then we blunder through submissions. We do not understand how to put stout little piles of poems that play well together in stacks on our floor. We aren’t sure if this journal’s aesthetic matches that of our work. In fact, we’re not sure what this journal’s aesthetic is. Then one day, we wake up and pick up a large stack of poems. We do a zombie walk and follow our intuition about which poems should go in each pile. Afterwards, we look through the stout little piles and we can actually articulate why they go together. We keep reading journals and start to get a sense of which ones might be open to the kind of poems we write. Sure, we still sometimes make mistakes, but we carry on.

It’s not only alchemy, but it has alchemy in it. It’s not that we can’t learn about specific craft elements, practice certain techniques, apply a particular revision strategy. It’s that we can’t rush the overall process of developing poetic proficiency.

We can’t get to the end of the row of corn before the end of the row of corn.

In the meantime, we need to be gentle with ourselves. We need to shrug our shoulders, say, Everyone blunders. And, It’s all the work. And we need to understand that there will always be another cornfield that we get lost in, but we know what to do to find our way again.

Kay Ryan says:

I will go so far as to hazard that blundering might be generative, meaning that rooting around in a haystack long and fruitlessly enough could conceivably breed a needle.

Can I get an “Amen!”? And can we agree that this is good stuff to think about vis-a-vis poetry, and also vis-a-vis being human?

I wish you many, many needles bred from all your blunders. Ever onward.

radical self-care

Don't forget to take care of... YOURSELF (image from wikimedia)

Don’t forget to take care of… yourself (image from wikimedia)

This phrase has announced itself in my brain over the last week or so: radical self-care. I’ve been thinking about self-care for several years (not that I’m always very good at it), but the announcement factor is new. And the “radical” is new.

But I’ve learned over time that when a phrase announces itself to you, you’d best listen. Just ask the Mail Order Bride (sigh).

So I’ve been rolling the phrase over in my mind — radicalselfcare, radicalselfcare, radicalselfcare — wondering: why radical? why now? … . And thinking about what this phrase is asking of me.

If you poke around on the web you can find one zillion definitions of self-care from the medically inclined (which speaks to a patient performing some of the tasks of her own health maintenance, such as administering medication and having regular labs done) to the spiritually inclined (which speaks to care of the soul). For me, the whole spectrum is important. Yes, we need to take care of ourselves physically: enough sleep, healthy food, physical activity, taking our meds if we’re on meds, seeing the doctor, flossing, resting more when we’re sick, etc. For me, this is the easy part.

The hard part is care of the soul. Partly because it seems to me that much of Western history saw the soul as a tortured thing, at risk of eternal damnation, and not as a thing that deserved care. Partly because American culture is very practical / pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps- inclined. Partly because: Is it just me, or are women generally and culturally expected to take care of other people and be happy about it? (And I’m not just talking about women who are mothers — I think this societal expectation exists for all women. Not that there are no societal expectations for men: I think they are expected to be “tough” and “manly” and not need any such fluff as self-care, or even the soul.).

I think of the soul as the essence of who we are. I think being practical is often overrated. And when I think about radical self-care, here’s what comes to mind:

  • embracing my inner introvert: We all have temperament traits, and we do best if we work with them, rather than against them. I know that, while I enjoy a good crowd from time to time, what charges my batteries is time alone and silence. By the time I get through the weekend of all-mama-all-the-time, I want to crawl into a cave forever (albeit a cave with a very comfortable bed, a blazing fire, and tea-making supplies). Instead, I’ve been trying out Hermit Mondays. On Mondays, I don’t schedule anything; I try not to make small talk or talk at all to very many people; I make sure there’s a lot of alone time and silence. I also try to stay off Facebook and not check my e-mail, but I kind of forgot about that yesterday — a reminder for me that self-care requires us to be intentional.
  • making time for my creative life: Yes, creative people, this is a form of self-care. Those of us with the need to create are denying the essence of who we are if we don’t make time to make our art.
  • saying no to things I really don’t want to do: I believe we all do best when we participate in society in ways that feel important and natural to us, and that excite us. Nevertheless, I’ve typically been in the habit of helping with things that don’t excite me at all: classroom parties, cooking for the weekly teacher brunches, and going on field trips (and believe me, you do not want me to be your field-trip mom because then you have to — gasp! — follow the rules). This year, I’ve promised myself to limit my volunteering to the things that feel important, natural, and exciting to me, like this program. Anything else, I’m leaving up to other folks. Bonus: this helps make more time for Hermit Mondays and making art.
  • speaking my truth: In the past I’ve often been guilty of going along to get along — at least for the little things in life (see above: classroom parties, teacher brunches, making small talk, pulling myself up by my bootstraps, etc.). Lately, I’ve come to see speaking my truth as a form of self-care, as a way of claiming the essence of who I am. Speaking our truth might make other people uncomfortable or disappointed, but as long as we do it politely that’s their issue, not ours.

I know there will be some one-step-forward-two-steps-back moments for me as I try to live the phrase “radical self care.” And I realize none of these things are all that radical — but apparently my psyche needed to get my attention somehow. But the phrase has my attention — I’m going to give this thing a real try.

Reader, you know I often write here about things I’m puzzling through to see what I can learn. Thanks for humoring me on that score again today. I hope that whatever else you’re doing, you’re taking really good care of yourself.

end-of-summer musings with carrot cake

"Gee, Wally, I'd *love* to make you a carrot cake. Let me get right on that."

“Gee, Wally, I’d *love* to make you a carrot cake. Let me get right on that.”

Well, wow, I didn’t really mean to take the summer off writing. Not that I didn’t write at all, but here it is less than two weeks before the kids start school and the truth is I’ve mostly been a mom this summer, and not much of a poet.

As summer winds down (and, conveniently, as the kids are at their one week of camp for the summer this week) my thoughts have turned to re-engaging in my writing life and becoming, once again, a working mother.

(Meanwhile, Husband is on a conference call talking about things like micro-stuffs and nano-thingies, and I wonder, is this how he feels when I say anapest or iambic?)

One thing I’ve noticed this summer, which is probably not a news flash to anyone, is that everyone is a little bit happier when I’m not writing. Everyone, that is, except me.

Why is this? Well, probably because everyone can usually find clean socks and undies, dinner tends to be early-ish instead of late-ish, and I have lots of time to color and go to the park and play Old Lady Dusting (which is what my littlest one calls Old Maid, and I haven’t the heart to correct her). Also, while not perfect, the house tends to be neater and a bit more organized; the cupboard a bit more regularly stocked.

[Dear residents of the Wee, Small House: Prepare ye! For days of deprivation await, and ye shall soon have to dig in the dryer for clean socks and undies. And ye shall wait and wait for a decent meal, and there shall be no homemade desserts not even one. For a voice cries out in the desert, make straight the path to Mom’s writing desk!]

But anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the inner work of scheduling and how to plan my writing life this school year, and also about my word for the year, which is TEND and how I can tend to myself and my poetry. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about.

First, that the most important thing is staying healthy. Long-time readers know that I have a chronic illness that involves arthritis and other unpleasant things that we won’t dwell on now. So I’ve learned the hard way that if you lose your health, nothing else is okay. For me, this means getting enough sleep, healthy food, and some regular exercise. It also means not “over-doing it.” Which means…

…I have to say no. I confess, from the center of my very bones I am dreading the near-constant requests for volunteers at the kids’ schools. The mere thought of it exhausts me, which tells me I need to draw more stringent boundaries about what I commit to. I’m also going to have to say no to the kids — and here’s the thing: sometimes I do it to myself, Reader. Like, somehow I’ve said yes to making a CARROT CAKE today in recognition of excellent table manners five days running. The first day all summer that I have basically open and I say yes to CARROT CAKE!?!? (that scraping sound you hear in the background is me thinking of how long I’ll spend hand-shredding carrots this afternoon). So don’t feel sorry for me. But what I’m hoping is that awareness is half the battle, and since I’m aware of saying ‘yes’ too much I’ll be able to say ‘no’ more often. Stay tuned.

Also in the saying no department is a not-100%-pleasant intuition that I even need to cut back on some of my writerly commitments in order to spend more time heads-down at my desk. This I will hate to do, but I’ve learned over the years to trust my intuition even when it’s telling me something I’m not thrilled about.

Next on the list is what I’ll call my This I Believe statements. I’ve been walking around saying to myself over and over again, I believe that a reasonably well-functioning household is good for the soul, and, I accept that life is better for everyone if I don’t put off the grocery shopping til Saturday. I accept that life is better for everyone if I don’t put off the grocery shopping til Saturday. I accept that life is better for everyone if I don’t put off the grocery shopping til Saturday. So yes, I’m thinking about balance, and my motto 2.0:

IMG_2945

(I swear, Reader, my problem is the whole “rotating basis” thing — it’s much easier to leave everything else up in the air indefinitely, don’t you think?)

And then lastly, I’m thinking about flexibility. Last year, I had my writing life all planned out. I was going to do this, and that, and also this other thing. I blocked off my calendar. I found babysitters when needed. I even said no to some volunteer “opportunities” at school ;). I had a plan. And then, kidney abscess, which I said in this post was “nothing too scary” but actually it was too scary and took a lot of time, energy, babysitters, etc. So, I’m reminding myself: You are a human being. Human beings live interdependently with and amongst other human beings. Sometimes things happen that require one to shift one’s plans.

So, yeah, somewhere around September 15 (and October 15, and November 15, and December 15, and… well, you get the idea), someone remind me:

  • first, health
  • say no early and often
  • cut back–>heads down
  • aim for balance
  • be flexible

Amen.

friday roundup: first day of summer edition

photo from wikimedia

photo from wikimedia

Reader, is it the last day of school or the first day of summer? The kids get out at noon, and sometimes I like to look at things in their most positive light, so let’s call it the first day of summer.

I confess, I’ve not been much of a poet this week. Some weeks require all-mama-all-the-time, and this was one of them. It was comforting to learn (well, to re-learn actually) that even when I’m not trying to balance family life with writing life things pile up: laundry, books, dust, discarded shoes in the front hall (Ha, ha! “front hall…” Here at the Wee, Small House we use the term loosely). All the more reason not to drive oneself crazy trying to keep up. Let there be art!

a net for catching days  Next week I’ll re-commence my efforts at a summer writing schedule. Today on Brain Pickings there’s a great Annie Dillard quote about schedules. Here it is:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

Yes… “a net for catching days,” “a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time.” This is just how a writing schedule feels to me, and it’s why I feel a bit off-balanced and fading around the edges when I’m not writing.

The Act of Creation  Yesterday, through the semi-secret super duper library nerd lending program, I picked up Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation. I’ve just begun reading it, and already I’m hooked (Still, I’m not without a little bit of reader-ly dread: I think a semester-long graduate-level course could be taught on this book. Add it to the syllabus for the Emily Dickinson MFA).

Sometimes I feel like just reading a particular poet’s work helps me get to a new place in my writing. Although I often spend time pulling poems apart, looking at how the poet uses the tools of the trade, it still feels as if getting to a new place can happen without that — that the reading itself has shifted things around inside me and helped me to make a breakthrough. I’ve often been curious about why, and Koestler has something to say about that: “Everybody can ride a bicycle, but nobody knows how it is done. Not even the engineers and bicycle manufacturers know the formula… . The cyclist obeys a code of rules which is specifiable, but which he cannot specify… .” Or, he says, to put it more abstractly:

“The controls of a skilled activity generally function below the level of consciousness on which that activity takes place.”

This is not (I repeat IS NOT) to say that we can’t become better writers by studying craft, by tearing a piece of writing apart and looking at how it’s built, by practicing, practicing, practicing. But it does help explain, for me, why the mere fact of having read something seems to bring forth growth in my writing. I’ll share more of Koestler’s insights as I read.

a summer poem  Is there a poem in your life that, for you, just says “Summer?” Share in comments, if you like. For me, it’s this poem by Anne Sexton:

*

I Remember by Anne Sexton

By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color — no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.

*

Whenever your summer begins, I hope you have lots of time to wear your bare feet bare and watch the sun blow out of sight. Happy weekend and thanks for reading!

sing it!

photo here

The sisters… singin’ it like they mean it (photo here)

When I was a freshman in college (yes, we were still fresh*men* back then; the “first-years” came along a few years later) I tried out for one of the campus choirs. I was sooooo nervous, but I love to sing. And even way back then I had the Beckett quote taped to the corner of my desk: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Even back then I believed that it was better to try and fail than to never try.

I went to my audition in the music building, a small ivy-covered thing practically tucked out of view. I sang. The choir director said, “Okay, now sing it again like you’re a foot taller and ten years older.” I could hardly imagine being 28!!! But I tried. I sang it like I was 28. Or what I thought 28 would be like. It was much louder and much more confident. “There you go!” he said. I looked around to see if I’d grown a foot. (I hadn’t, but that’s okay — I made the choir, 2nd sop).

Recently I had a couple of poems accepted, one of the two pending my approval of suggested revisions. The revisions were mainly cuts from the middle of the poem where, the editors felt, the poem lost a bit of its focus. This is a journal I admire, one I’m just thrilled to have an acceptance from. But, although I saw that their cuts strengthened and sharpened the poem (and although I kicked myself for not having cut it a bit more in my own revisions), I thought the cuts went just a bit too far, so that one of the characters in the poem did not have quite enough presence. I also wanted to restore a single word that they suggested replacing with another (admittedly more beautiful) word — but I really felt this poem needed the rougher, uglier word.

I hemmed and hawed. I thought, Maybe I should just go with their revisions. They’re a great journal! They know what they’re doing! Then I thought, But really, I think the husband needs more presence. And I really want the ugly word. Then I thought, What do you know, Molly. You’re probably blind to your own work, and you’re really just a baby poet (Ahem, do we have a little Spiteful Gillian creeping in here? I think so). Then I thought, But really, I think the poem is asking for more husband! For the ugly word!

I let it rest over the weekend.

This morning I knew I had to face it. And the words of the choir director came back to me: Sing it like you’re a foot taller and ten years older. I decided to act like it wasn’t *such* a big deal to me to get an acceptance from this journal (even though it is, it really, really is). I decided to pretend I was old hat at this kind of thing. I decided to act like of course they would want my input and additional suggestions for making this poem as strong as it could be. I wrote a specific and reasoned explanation for a version of the poem I suggested in turn. There were two more lines of husband. There was the ugly word. I asked them to consider my suggestions and get back to me.

They liked my suggestions. They could see my reasoning. (insert happy dance here)

I’m so glad I sang it like I was a foot taller and ten years older. Well, wait a minute, I don’t want to rush things in the years department. But I’m just saying, sometimes we need to act the part. I acted the part of a seasoned poet with strong reasons for her artistic choices. I advocated for my work, risked a “no” because I thought the poem needed more. And it worked. Sing it! Hallelujah!

on the art of giving feedback

...at the crossroads of parenting and poetry... (photo from wikimedia)

…at the crossroads of parenting and poetry… (photo from wikimedia)

Reader, I’ve been thinking about the art of giving feedback. My kids are old enough now that “Not for babies!” and “Stop!” and “That’s a no-no!” will no longer do (BTW, call me old fashioned, but I’m perfectly comfortable saying No to children.). They are at the age where the goal of giving feedback is for them to start figuring things out for themselves, and where if it’s not delivered effectively, the feedback isn’t useful to them.

Yes, I’ve been thinking about giving effective feedback lately, and there are some things I’ve learned about it that seem equally true in parenting and in poetry. I’ll share them here, and I invite you to share what you’ve learned about giving effective feedback — in parenting, poetry, or both — in comments.

First let’s talk about praise. Praise, meaning: (v) 1. express warm approval of or admiration; 2. express respect and gratitude toward (a deity); (n) 1. the expression of approval or admiration; 2. the expression of respect and gratitude as an act of worship. It’s from the Latin pretiare, which is related to the Latin word for ‘price.’

Child development experts warn parents against the use of empty or overblown praise: “You’re so wonderful!” (what does that mean?) “This is the best drawing of a whale I’ve ever seen!” (you cannot be serious). Etc. The experts tell us to give specific and evaluative praise: “I admire the way you helped your sister without being asked.” “I like that you added the detail of the whale’s spout.” This praise is specific and, perhaps more importantly, actionable: the child knows what went well this time (taking initiative, using detail) and can think about doing it again in the future.

When we’re giving feedback on a fellow poet’s work, the same is true. Although, believe me, I’m all for an introductory gush of praise: “This is great work!” “I love it!” Even more helpful is to follow up with the specifics of why you think it’s great, or why you love it. “I think your use of short, enjambed lines is really working because it keeps the reader a bit on edge.” Or, “All the hard sounds you use give this poem a lot of muscle, which seems just right for this subject.” Or, “There are so many poems about the moon, but your poem really helps me think of the moon in a way I’ve never thought of it before.” Of course, we all want people to love our poems, but if we know why we can learn about what’s working and apply that knowledge again.

Moving on… . As a parent and a poet, I’ve learned (from reading and experience) there are some things you can always say when giving feedback. Here is my list:

You can always say what you see.

  • Parent: I see two kids who want to use the same rollerblades.
  • Poet: I see a point in the poem where the voice shifts

You can always state your experience.

  • Parent: When I hear you saying unkind things to each other, I worry about hurt feelings. (In your head you can say, “Also it drives me x^%&$* NUTS!”)
  • Poet: As reader, I get confused in the third stanza when the speaker says x.

You can always ask helpful questions.

  • Parent: What do you think you could say the next time she calls you a name? What can you do to help yourself remember your homework assignments?
  • Poet: What is your reason for shifting from couplets to tercets after the 3rd stanza? What’s your thinking on the use of repetition in this poem?

(NB: It’s far too easy to ask unhelpful questions: Why can’t you just write things down in your planner as you go through the day? Why even write this poem — it’s only 2 lines!?)

You can always ask if the person would like to hear your ideas.

  • Parent: I used to have trouble remembering my homework, too. Do you want to know what helped me?
  • Poet: I have an idea about the title of this poem. Would you like to hear it?

You can always say, “I’d like to think about this more.” (ding ding ding! we have a winner!)

  • Parent: I’m upset about this, but I’m not sure exactly why. I need to think about it more, and then we can talk again.
  • Poet: I get pulled out of the poem at line 12, but I can’t articulate why. Can I mull it over and get back to you if I have more thoughts?

You can always speak from your intuition (Intuition: the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning).

  • Parent: I have a hunch that something’s bothering you. Do you want to talk about it?
  • Poet: My hunch is that this poem might benefit from more white space. I might try a version with stanza breaks.

Believe me, I am not a perfect giver-of-feedback in parenting or poetry. I often talk too much (insert audio of The Peanuts teacher here). I’m bossy. I’m far too apt to say, “I think you should… .” But I try, Reader, I try! And these guidelines have been helpful to me. I hope they’re helpful to you, too.

P.S. Can I just say how happy I am to live in a world where one can google “audio clip peanuts teacher” and find this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss2hULhXf04?

art can emerge

Edouard Dantan, L'Atelier du Sculpteur, wikimedia

Edouard Dantan, L’Atelier du Sculpteur, wikimedia

(Oops, I just realized I posted this and sent it out without a title).

Reader, last week I wrote about receiving permission to take a break. And, wow, taking a break has been really good for me. Add this to the file of things I’ve learned, re-learned, and re-re-learned: that a change in our usual rhythms — chosen, forced, or otherwise — can be fertile ground.

I confess, I’ve had the nicest blend of relaxation, housework and holiday preparation, time with the kids, and time for poetry. No goals, and only the briefest of to-do lists, none of them poetry-related. And yet, looking back over the last 10 days, I’ve somehow ended up with 4 new drafts, discovered new-to-me poems I love by reading through a random stack of poems I’ve been shoving into a “to-read” file, and caught up on organization a bit.

As I wrote to a friend: “Sometimes I forget that art doesn’t rely only on persistence and dedication, but can emerge out of openness, quiet, or even just luck.”

There’s a culture in writing of JUST DO IT. A culture of keeping at it, day after day. And certainly persistence and practice are important traits for a writer. But think of the sculptor: What would happen if a sculptor just kept at it, day after day, cutting away stone and more stone? Yup, pretty soon it would just be the sculptor, her tools, and a pile of cuttings.

This last 10 days or so has been a nice reminder for me that making a poem is not an act of will, it’s an act of creation. Intention is not entirely absent, but it’s also not the only tool in the shed. And, as in poetry so in life: I’ve been reminded that the making of a home is the same.

Here’s hoping you, too, are finding fertile ground in your life as the year wanes. See you back here tomorrow for the roundup.