Thursday, December 14, 2006

Poetic Challenges

This year's advent poem is coming very slowly and painfully. Maybe it seems strange to use a word like "painful" when describing poetic/creative process, but this year at least it seems apt.

I'm not sure I would term this "writer's block" exactly...a phrase I've never quite thought captures the dryest moments in the wilderness of writing. But certainly I am struggling to write my annual offering in ways I can't quite recall before. When I'm honest about it, I realize that it's probably a culmination of several things (plus more I haven't been able to name).

It's been a prosaic kind of year. I don't mean that badly, it's just a fact. We've had to work a lot of hours this year to keep food on the table and bill-collecting-wolves at the door. I seem to spend most of my days succumbing to the tyranny of the urgent -- and that *is* a problem. There's always laundry to fold and sort, a dishwasher to unload, books to read, papers to grade, junk mail to sort, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to make, ballet class to get to, a little girl to bathe, e-mails to answer, meetings to attend, etc, etc. I know...that's just life! And we all do this kind of thing all the time! I'm not complaining as much as I am realizing and commenting that this year, more than any other I can remember, has just felt *crammed* with details and daily-ness. Perhaps because this has really been the first time since my little one was born that I've combined so many work-outside-and-inside the home hours with parenting. I don't know. All I know is that I'm tired, a lot, and that I'm not sure how to better order my days and my living space in order to find more time to be. To listen. Among other things, to sit (without panic) in front of a blank page.

Because when it comes down to it, writing is not just about writing. Poems and stories especially start by incubating in a deep place inside, a place of quiet and stillness and openness. If I'm too cluttered to be still, too revved inside with loud lists of detailed things to do, then when I finally manage to scrape together fifteen minutes to sit down with pen and paper, why am I surprised when nothing comes quickly? Without time to formatively, read thoughtfully, read for the love of words and reading...without more time in prayer, open to God and open to what he has to say and to teach me...well, if I don't actively cultivate that kind of quiet, listening stance, then my own responsive voice in the conversation is not going to be a very deep voice.

Maybe it doesn't work this way for everybody. I suspect it doesn't -- creative process, writing process, seems like one those mysterious gifts that are given to each person a little bit differently. I'm just pretty sure that it's how it works for me. If I'm going to be able to tap into a well of images, words, sounds, love, life -- then I need to make sure that I am plugged into the source of all those things. If I'm going to be able to write (and not at all incidentally: pray, love and live) with more fullness, then I need to make the time to sit still, to listen and contemplate. To not be afraid of stillness. To keep my ears tuned for what I've usually called the "gift lines" -- those words that just fall on you like a sudden rainshower, unexpected and completely outside the realm of your own power, or like feathers or milkweed seeds, drift down past your cheek with the lightest of brushes. Sometimes I almost feel like I heard the gift words whispered. Sometimes when they're given I have no clue what to do with them yet -- how to connect them to the next line, whether they're to be the first words of a poem, or the last, or somewhere in the middle. But when the gift words come, I know I am in the right place, a place of openness to receive.

I do have a rough poem more or less complete. I'm letting it sit, and trying to decide if it's really two poems or one poem that switches tone and style somewhat abruptly toward the end. I'm trying to not get hung up on notions of goodness: as in, "this is not a good poem." I'd rather write a true, honest poem (awkward and clunky though it may be because of my lack of poetic practice and rhythm right now) than a poem devoid of any of the struggle I'm feeling.

It's not just the advent poem. I've been attempting some other poems during this time as well, and none is coming easily, which I'll confess has caused a few tears. I feel a little bit like a singer who's got laryngitis, or a painter with a broken arm. This frustrating feeling that the words won't come reminds me forcefully of how I felt during all those hours of pushing in labor when the sweet girl was born. The exhaustion, the feeling of failure, the difficulty I had staying focused when that phase before birth turned unexpectedly long. The blessed relief of surrender and joy when at last, after so many hours, she was delivered (even though the delivery came in a way I'd never wanted or expected, via c-section).

For now, I'm feeling grateful that at least I've made some time to reflect on the whole process, and to realize the kind of contemplative attitude I'd love to nourish in myself in the coming year.


Erin said...

How goes the poeming? Wonderful reflection, and it resonates so much with me, particularly right now in this harried, hurried time... I really need silence to write properly, and there are so many distractions everywhere. I've been in sort of a writing frenzy lately, though, because I seem to have hit upon a creative renaissance last year and I'm just really nervous it's going to completely vanish one of these days, leaving another year or two of massive writer's block... Tricky thing, this inspiration!

It's true, though, once in a while writing is almost like taking dictation, with the most effortless compositions being among the best; "Let It Be", "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Drops of Jupiter" (written in Erie!) came to Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Pat Monahan that way, and they're three of my favorite songs. I guess we just have to be open to it, amd foster opportunities that make us better vehicles...

Beth said...

Ah, I'm so glad you can resonate (and don't think I'm completely crazy!). I don't know if I've ever had a whole piece "come to me" but I do often feel as though, if I'm open and receptive, I'm often given the one image or one line that I need to jumpstart the whole piece if I'm faithful to accept it as gift and follow along where it leads.

So glad you're having a "creative reanaissance" -- I hope I will have one in the upcoming year! I've been cranking out the epinions reviews (well, cranking for me...I'm still much slower than a lot of folks on the site!) in the hopes of winning a little extra cash, but those aren't feeling very creative for me right now.

The advent poem is essentially finished, but more "finished" in the sense of "needs to be finished" than "feels finished" if you know what I mean. We need to start sending out our family letter -- I finished the letter over the weekend and now just need to add a couple of photos. D. wrote a poem this year which I like much better, and we're sending it too.

I'm feeling spacey this morning -- just got word this a.m. that a dear friend (someone we work with one church staff) is in hospital, having had a severe stroke. I've been trying to pray, and just feeling very unsettled...

Erin said...

Mom's just sending out the family Christmas cards today, having spent half of last night getting the pictures figured out... Glad you finished, or at least "finished," your poem. I'm sure your recipients will be glad to read it. I'm sorry to hear about your friend; I will pray for her too!

Beth said...

Thanks, Erin. Your prayers much appreciated!

You're on my Christmas letter e-mail list, of course. :-) If I can just find time to pull the pictures together, then I can start sending them. Sigh. And then there's laundry, paper-grading, cookie-baking, etc.