At the end of August I couldn’t wait to get back into a routine and just two weeks later the rush of obligation and scheduled activities is an onslaught. Among my own commitments is a fall fiction class, required work outside of my genre of poetry for the low-residency creative writing MFA program I’m in at the recently renamed Western State Colorado University.
How do you find inspiration to be creative inside a schedule like rapidly hardening cement?
Through the cracks, baby, through the cracks.
Do you have a poetry window?
I do. Here’s a close-up of the current view.
My poetry window sits at the end of the kitchen between a tall cabinet (beside the fridge) containing casual dinnerware and various baking supplies and the door to the powder room. Below the windowsill to the left squats the kitchen waste basket. At the ready over to the right is Oreo’s beloved dry cat food feeder. (He slakes his thirst via powder room porcelain).
It’s certainly a humble, quotidian setting for such a window—and a view, as one can imagine, I pass countless times during every day of the week and through every season.
And while we have some lovely window views from different spots in the house, this is by far my favorite place to perch.
The funny thing is, it’s neither a sprawling nor a panoramic view. My poetry window affords instead a kind of clustered, colorful, close-up mosaic of the year as it unfolds, and this has everything to do with the bushy berried plant pictured above.
This magical and unwieldy vine is supported by thick beams of wood that create a kind of leafy archway to our backyard. The vine’s tendrils sprout and rove wildly during the warmer months, shooting straight into the air before their green growing weight forces them to arc and drop.
The effect is wondrous and wild, and this vine ends up being the home to all sorts of fellow plants and animals that appear in view from month-to-month—to everyone’s endless delight and diversion from the day’s cares and (yes, sometimes) drudgery.
In the spring, heady honeysuckle weaves its fragrant branches into the vines. In summer, Rose of Sharon blossoms bloom, to tropical effect. We’ve attached wind chimes and bird feeders to the vine’s supporting beams. When cool winds blow through the open window in fall and again in early spring, chime song and bird chatter sweeps through the kitchen.
But I think my poetry window is most inspiring during white winter. It’s heartening to see birds rest and feed among the branches, particularly the majestic cardinal, who seems to have a special fondness for this vine and its berries, which flame into bright orange during the chilling months.
A copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to All the Birds of Eastern and North Central America lies handy. What a respite to pull up a kitchen chair and bird watch! And how often have I called or been called to my poetry window by a family member to help determine a winged species or to marvel at or laugh over the occasional chubby chipmunk or greedy squirrel to have discovered the stash of sunflowers seeds and similar delectables among the vine’s unbridled leaves and berry clusters.
A hovering hummingbird inspired one poem. The cardinals countless others. For my poetry window never fails to draw me out of myself and into the natural world, observed without harm and an almost painful awareness of the privilege of seeing life live itself unencumbered by this pale specimen planted on the other side of the glass.
I’ve attempted to write a poem (endlessly revised and still utterly unsuccessful) that endeavors to describe how these changing images have imprinted themselves on my heart and into my thinking. In the end, it’s just another case of a picture—the view through my poetry window—being worth a thousand words.
I wrote a much longer, detailed post about my experience at the this year’s New Jersey SCBWI conference that I just deleted.
I’ll get to the point: much occurred.
I taught a poetry seminar for novelists and picture book writers. I gave one-on-one critiques. I heard inspiring keynote speeches by Dan Yaccarino and Kate DeCamillo. I communicated with my fellow children’s book writers and illustrators. I spent a lot of great face time with my agent. I talked shop and shopped for books, many of them new publications by people I have come to know and respect.
I came home with a stack of business cards of new faces I hope to keep in touch with, most notably a poet from Kansas and a novelist from Bridgewater. I came home to an invitation to join an online poetry critique group.
What is the lesson of the angel behind all of this? First of all, her name is Beth and she’s a real person. Second, her human form isn’t scary but her true form is. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in the First Elegy of his Duino Elegies:
For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly
disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.
The true challenge of this conference—for me—wasn’t conducting my seminars or giving the critiques or taking notes during workshops and speeches. It was navigating through the crowds and interacting with the other conference attendees. It was diving into community.
That’s an extra challenge for someone, like me, who has strong monkish inclinations.
But my angel kept appearing to nudge me to continue to leap, and I did. It felt like an abyss, but what I plunged into was fellowship, inspiration, and renewed commitment to continue this well-worn yet solitary pilgrimage.
We all have sharp edges. We can cut each other. We can also polish each other to incandescence. It’s a glow that lights our way forward.
Have you ever been so tired that you are too tired even to read?
It has been a long and busy week of days that seemed to contract and expand like bad accordion playing, and here it is Saturday morning. I’m tired—and crabby. Coffee will help.
Internet problems, rushed editorial meetings, cramped writing deadlines—including some, I admit, that are self-imposed—the latest onslaught of spam and junk mail, discouraging yet to-be-expected interpersonal disappearances down rabbit holes (promises, promises), and ongoing “communication” issues with a variety of sources from brainstorm to typesetting have all contributed to this morning’s grouchy blur. And that’s just this past Monday through Friday!
I am grateful for the elasticity of a blog. So many deadlines, and expectations, are rigid.
Nevertheless, over the several months that I’ve been doing this type of writing I’ve enacted a kind of publication schedule that when difficult to meet, can add to the editorial pressures I routinely feel…
This morning, as I made the trek from restless sleep to coffee cup, nearly tripped by the cat as I reached the very small set of steps into my home office—a daily occurrence as he attempts to herd me toward his beloved food bowl—I was almost too cranky to notice the morning sky: Robin’s egg blue, with just a trace of wispy cloud.
As I paused to stare out the bay window in the dining room the heat kicked on with a whoosh in reaction to the gust of cold wind that foretells March.
March is a good month in my household, filled with brisk weather, birthdays and anniversaries, and a highly anticipated visit from a Shamus O’Malley from Leprechaun Alley. Trickster that he is, Shamus always leaves a trail of funny destruction (he likes to empty underwear drawers and hang boy’s briefs from the ceiling fans), coins, and sometimes even a treasure map in his wake.
I like to put up St. Patrick’s Day and spring decorations in March. The green everywhere is heartening. I adore the bluster of March wind. It’s invigorating and inspiring. For me, it foretells the descent of the Holy Spirit and the Muse.
Speaking of which, she’s the one who wreaked the greatest havoc with my schedule this week. I neglected to mention that I also turned in one large manuscript, and completed heavy revisions on and handed in two others. I have no sense of the future of these manuscripts (and hard experience has taught me not to fortune tell), but among the rest of the above, as well as the ins and outs of personal life, much of this past week is lost in the mists of inspiration. As I told my husband late last night, “When the Muse shows up, you invite her to stay for as long as she likes.”
So the Muse is a demanding guest. I have a lot of cleaning up to do this weekend. And while it’s early Saturday morning, I already need a nap.
But it’s a blustery day, and I love it. I turn to my left and see a bookcase packed with poetry. On my desk to my right is a pile of books, including a copy of the fiftieth anniversary edition of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, returned to me by my mom, who really knows her way around the kitchen.
I flip open to a random page and this is what I read: “There are two questions which can easily be asked about a potato: What is it, and Why is it?” The essay title is “Let the Sky Rain Potatoes.” Suddenly, I’m feeling the urge to read.
And keep writing. Despite the fatigue, around obligations, across rejections, in hushed morning minutes, between rushed afternoon appointments, and through the long exhausted evenings, ever and anon, slinging coffee, flinging my lasso Muse-ward with a “Hi-Yo, Deadline!” and off into the Russet and golden Yukon sunset.
This morning I shared pancakes, eggs, and coffee with a friend at a local country café at a table bright with brisk December sunshine. We lingered for a long time catching up (the get-together was terribly overdue), but when we noticed platters of burgers and fries being served to the tables around us, we knew it was time to head back out into busy life.
We exchanged Christmas presents during breakfast, and while I received some really wonderful gifts this year, the gifts my friend gave me had extra-special meaning.
One was a pair of silk black velvet poet cuffs, to be worn beneath a long-sleeve blouse or jacket with Victorian flair. I buttoned them around my wrists and immediately ached for quill and parchment to pen a sonnet!
The gift was lovely, thoughtful, and inspiring—and I’ll treasure them.
Actually, my desk is populated with items that encourage me to write poetry and prose: a pair of fuzzy dice, a golden pear ornament, telling fortunes from take-out cookies, glittering rocks brought home from a Colorado adventure. I’m sure collecting inspirational tchotchkes is common practice for writers and artists, but I wonder how many of us take it a slightly strange step further.
For example, I have a beloved ratty sweater I wear while editing manuscripts. And to keep creativity flowing, I often wear a fabulous pink rhinestone jellyfish ring (Ebay!) that engulfs my ring finger. While completing a YA novel manuscript I wore an old apron, because one of the main characters ran an inn in the 1830s and many important scenes took place in the inn’s kitchen. And I’ll admit to one more. I put on a pair of giant disco ball earrings (salvaged from an old Halloween costume) when working on a particular middle grade novel manuscript. Don’t ask why; they help me think like a fourth-grader.
These items put me in a writer’s mindset. They are not triggers to embrace a particular genre or form, but rather a reminder to go for it—no holding back.
Creating is exhausting, and it’s like what I say about cooking: unless you’ve used every pot, pan, and utensil in the kitchen cabinets and the smoke alarm is going off, you’re not putting everything you have into it.
Please don’t be concerned—I write this (half) in jest. The other half of creation is good planning. I’m also an organized individual who likes to prepare for all possible courses of action. But I’ve sometimes wondered if this strange combination of care and abandon helps establish healthy ways to ward off fear and writer’s block.
The white that winter will surely bring is nothing more than the blank page waiting to be covered. Think those velvet poet cuffs will stay lovingly preserved in their pretty box?
Not a snowball’s chance.
It seems to me that some images provoke, others evoke, and still others invoke—and the best do all three.
I like this photograph for its many earthy textures, but even more for how it conjures certain feelings, reactions, and other images—of an owl’s face, for example, or the howl of the iconic figure in the series of Expressionist paintings by Edvard Munch.
In actuality, it’s half of an empty black walnut shell on a bed of drying pine needles and loose gravel. It’s lovely and reminds me of the towering black walnut tree that lived near the end of the driveway to the house where I grew up.
The tree’s long, narrow leaves seemed almost tropical to me, and in October its fruit—a strangely fleshy brown-green husk that encased the hard-shelled walnut—hurtled to earth and made a powdery mess on the tarmac.
We kids would pick up the fallen fruit, which left a sticky residue on our hands that was unpleasant, but didn’t stop us from touching. They were too fascinating, and the walnuts within too maddeningly well-protected, for us to resist.
Perhaps that’s partly why I’ve chosen this image for the first blogopus Poet Prompt. This little half-shell on its pine needle and gravel bed makes a big impression on the viewer.
Does it inspire you to reflect?
I invite you to arrange your thoughts in a single, four-line stanza—use whatever rhyme scheme and meter you wish—and send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org (list “Poet Prompt, Walnut Shell” in the subject line). I’ll post the stanzas received on Saturday, November 26, along with a new prompt.
If you wish, give your stanza a title. I’ll include your name or post your stanza anonymously, if you prefer.
For those who are less familiar with poetic terms, a stanza is a group of lines of poetry that form a unit and typically have a set pattern of rhyme and meter. A four-line stanza is called a quatrain.
I’m looking forward to posting your stanzas!
I’ve taken an abecedarian approach to Best Words Ever, which means I’m posting them in alphabetical order. Apart from being another BWE, abecedarian refers to an ancient form of poetry. It’s the first form I remember endeavoring to write, probably in first or second grade.
The abecedarian follows alphabetical order. Each line, or stanza, of the poem typically begins with the first letter of the alphabet, followed by the next letter, and so on, until the last letter is reached—in English, A to Z. A derivation of abecedarian form is the acrostic, which spells out names or words through the first letter of each line of the poem. Here’s a simple seasonal example of an acrostic poem:
Fall leaves us with
Abundant amounts of
Leaves that fall in
Which reminds me—time to take out the rake…
p.s. There are many variations of abecedarian and acrostic poetry, and poets from Blake and Chaucer to Edward Lear and Dr. Seuss have written them. These forms are also very kid-friendly. Why not read—or write—one today? Inspiration is everywhere.
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