My friend Teege Braune tagged me in this writing process conversation that's going around. I teach English to college freshmen, and I put a lot of focus on process in my class, but my own creative writing process is sporadic at best. I'm not sure what I have to contribute to this conversation except a boost to other writers' self esteem when they see how long it's been since I wrote anything on this fucking blog.

How does your writing process work?

My writing process is sporadic. Although I write every day in my job (and in every job I've had since I joined the workforce at 15), I go through long stretches of time in which I produce no poems. When I was younger, this bothered me quite a bit. Anxiety built during those dry spells until I would tell myself that I wasn't really a writer. Then, just when I was about to give up forever--for real this time--I would draft several poems in a few days. This would usually provide enough of a rush to get me through a round of revision and submissions before I hit the doldrums again.

Over the years, particularly during and just after my MFA, I tried repeatedly to write every day. Sometimes I could sustain the routine for several months, but the habit always broke. Eventually I noticed that the daily writing regimen didn't produce any more poems than the slower process that felt more natural to me. In fact, I noticed that the poems I wrote in my writing's "manic phase" didn't really come out in a flood of inspiration. Rather they were made of lines I'd written in my notebooks months or years earlier, images I'd tucked away while riding my bike to work, caring for my daughter, or working on a difficult painting or collage.

I realize now that, although I have no daily word count, I am always writing. When I reach the putting words on the page part of the process, things move quickly because I've done a lot of mental work already.
My poems may seem to be born all at once, but they gestate for a long time. To put it another way, I am a slow writer with a constantly boiling back burner.

Are the processes different for poems and essays?

Teege asked me this extra question because I write in multiple genres. The process I've been describing is my process for writing poetry. I also write short, lyrical personal essays, and the process for those is very much the same. In fact, some of those essays could probably be prose poems if you squinted at them just so.

I also write more traditional memoir and editorial-type essays. Although I'm a terrible blogger on my own, I do guest posts for others fairly often. For those pieces, the process is much different, more businesslike and even aggressively unromantic. I start with something I want to say. I make lists. I brainstorm. I draft on the computer, which I never do when I'm writing poems. I edit as I go. I revise. It looks a lot like this.

What are you working on?

Although I embrace my slow writing, I've learned that I reach the words-on-paper stage more consistently if I have a project in mind. Maybe it helps me focus the heat on the back burner. Lately I've been working on complete re-writes of old poems, turning free verse drafts that never quite worked into form. I also have a bigger, slower project in the works. I'm writing a set of long poems that I hope to eventually link into a chapbook or the skeleton of a longer manuscript. Each poem is loosely based on one of the elements--water, fire, earth, air (I think it's going to be better than that sounds). So far I have a solid draft of water and fire, and I'm starting to carry around random lines about earth.

How does your work differ from other of its genre?

It's strange to think of my work as part of a genre, like asking which of the high school cliques I fit in. In high school, I sat at a table in the back of the cafeteria with extra chairs pulled up and people eating their lunches off their laps so we could sit together even when we ran out of room. We were a bunch of smart kids and assorted weirdos who never turned anyone away. I very much like that poetry is the kind of writing that gets all the weird experiments that don't fit in anywhere else, but that's not really the kind of poetry I write.

My poems belong to the tradition of American confessional writing. They're mostly short and personal, narrative lyrics or lyrical narratives. I don't know what sets my poems apart from others like them except that they tell my stories in my voice.

Why do you write what you do?

I joke that I write what I do because I lack imagination. I can't invent anything, so I write what I know. Partly true. I've said that I write what I do because my first poetry mentors valued concrete imagery and observation in poems, so I learned to write that way to please them. Partly true. I know that my style mimics the speech and poetry and storytelling I grew up with in church in the rural, working class south. Partly true. But I think I write confessional poetry mostly because I believe in honesty. A lot of poetry is heavy on artifice. Some of that is fun, some of it is wonderfully playful, and I'm really glad to have all of it at the big, loud cafeteria table of Poetry, but the poetry that speaks to me most strongly strips away artifice. The poet ends up a little exposed because the way she or he sees the world is exposed. It's risky. If you fuck it up, you look like an asshole, but it's the only way I know to write.
At Marsh's Library in Dublin, cages line the back wall. Each cage is just wide enough to hold a small desk and chair and a floor to ceiling bookcase lined and stacked and jammed with massive leatherbound tomes, their Latin titles barely legible on their thick, dust free spines. The librarian who let me in during his lunch hour, "just for a quick peek," said that in the early 1700's, when Marsh's was founded as the first public library in Ireland, scholars were locked in. The books were too expensive, too precious to risk theft or damage. If you wanted to study, you squeezed behind that desk and worked by carefully-regulated candlelight and shouted for the librarian when you wanted to be released.

Gazing through the bars and wire into the scholars' cages, I thought about knowledge and what it must have meant to read and learn when this was what it took. Before the internet and e-readers, before and mass market paperbacks, before modern printing and education systems, Marsh's Library, with its cages and locks and keys, made information comparatively accessible.

Three hundred years later, information is cheap for most of us, but for many, the public library remains one of very few affordable sources of information. In my home state of Florida, the governor says that public libraries are unnecessary these days because everything is available online. The governor must not have visited many libraries, or he would have seen the lines of people waiting to use the internet. Even in a digital age, the library offers access to knowledge that is unavailable elsewhere. (Philip Pullman wrote about this, more eloquently than I can, here.)

Like many people who grew up in low income families, I know this firsthand. I was no scholar, and the public library of my small, depressed home town was no great citadel of learning, but, to me--a gawky kid from a dirt road in Frostproof, Florida--it was my access point, my key. The library was the only place I had ever been where I could have whatever I wanted. It is a cliche to say that the library opened up a world of knowledge and experience to me, that it started my journey in books to places I could never have imagined, but it's true.

There are cages in Marsh's Library in Dublin, but I wonder how many of those scholars heard the lock click behind them and felt, maybe for the first time, totally free.

Fear, Art, and Mud


My first attempts on the wheel.
I've been making ceramics for about four years, but today was the first time I'd ever thrown on the wheel. My husband, Alex, and our various ceramicist friends have offered to teach me many times, and several art schools in the area offer beginners' classes, but I've never tried.

Part of the reason I've never bothered with the wheel is that I really like hand-building. I like using firmer clay and really manhandling it. I like the organic wonkiness of the pinch pots and sculptures I've made, and I don't really want to make functional ware. Truly, I've never wanted to use the wheel. Lately, though, I've been wanting to make bigger things, sculptures that would be difficult to fire if they were solid, different kinds of vessels. There are things I want to make now that I need this other skill to accomplish, but I've waited to ask to be taught because I've been a little scared of not being any good at it.

Fear is part of art. One of my poetry mentors used to ask me often, "What's at stake in this poem? What are you risking?" If you're not risking something, if you're not a little scared, you're not doing the work. If you know for sure that it will turn out well, you're not trying hard enough, you're not "reading beyond your grade level," to borrow an idea from my 4th grader's FCAT information night.

I like to think of myself as being a little bit brave. At least I like to think of myself as a person who isn't afraid of failing, an artist who believes in the experience more than the outcome, so I was pretty annoyed to realize that it was silly, self-conscious fear that kept me from trying the wheel. I was embarrassed to be a beginner. As Alex was showing me how to center the clay, I found myself giggling nervously, and I was glad that he knows me well enough to show me the steps and then leave the room so that I could figure out the details in private.

As you can see, I've got a long way to go before I can throw the larger, sculptural shapes I've been imagining. I might not ever get to those imaginary shapes. I might really suck at this and give it up as an artistic false start, but it won't be fear that keeps me from trying.

The list of frequently banned or challenged books for a particular year or decade typically looks like a list of the best in young adult literature, with a few gay penguins thrown in to shake things up. Something about teenagers thinking that really freaks out the squares. If you're a teenager, I hope that makes you feel powerful.

One of the most frequently banned and challenged books of the last several years is Sherman Alexie's YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, about a teenager who leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to go to a better, wealthier, mostly white high school. There's a lot in this book about growing up in poverty, a lot about discovering who you are and how your past will inform and challenge who you become. Because the narrator is a 14-year-old boy, there's a fair amount of thinking about sex, though not a lot of action. Because he's growing up in poverty, there's a fair amount of substance abuse and death. Neil Gaiman sums it up in his blurb on the dust jacket when he says it's "funny and heartwarming and honest and wise and smart" and also likely to be "winning awards and being banned."

I read this book as an adult, but I saw a lot of my teenaged self in Junior. He is a smart poor kid. He loves where he comes from, but he has to leave home in order to survive. He feels guilty for leaving. We belong to some of the same tribes, Junior and me.

Like so many banned books, it's sadly ironic that this book gets banned. It's banned because someone wants to protect teenagers from all the scary, bad stuff this book talks about, but it's exactly the kind of book that might save them from it. If you're a bookish person, you can probably remember a book that blew your mind at 14 or so, a book that helped you to know yourself, a book you read at just the right time. This is that book for someone. I hope it's on the shelf when they need it.

Diary has been banned or challenged due to "offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group."
This week is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, a week-long celebration of our right to read, learn, and explore. One of the events this year is a Virtual Read Out. You can make a video endorsing a banned book, reading from a banned book, or explaining why the freedom to read is important. I'll be posting short readings from some of my favorite banned books throughout the week.

Just to be contradictory, this first reading is from a book I don't really love; in fact, when I first read it in college, I hated it. The main character of Kate Chopin's The Awakening annoyed the shit out of me. Barely out of adolescence myself, I found Edna immature and selfish, her suicide the ultimate cop-out of a person too cowardly to make a place for herself in the world. I hated how dismissive she was of her friend, Adele Ratignolle, a woman who seems to be truly happy in her role as wife and mother. I was 20 years old, single, childless, with barely any sexual experience, and I was outraged on behalf of the cheerful, fulfilled mothers of the world.

And then I got married and I had a baby and I ran full speed into the wall of society's expectations of parents in general and mothers in particular. I realized that I didn't want what many people seemed very happy to have--a house and two cars and a 9 to 5 job and three kids. I realized that, however much I loved my husband and my child--and I loved them a whole fucking lot--I wouldn't be able to keep loving them if they were all I was allowed to have or want.

And then I read The Awakening again.

I still think that Edna is immature, but I also see how she's treated like a child. I still think her suicide is a bit cowardly, but I also see how few choices she has. I find that I sympathize with her very much as a fellow mother, and I feel grateful to have found a way to be myself: an artist, a parent, a spouse, a citizen--a whole person. I wish Edna had had more choices. I think she could have grown up to be quite the human being.

The Awakening is often banned for its sexual content. It also has some old-fashioned racist language (in the section I read, she uses the word "darkies," which makes me cringe). It was challenged in 2011 because some editions show a bare-chested woman on the cover.

Coincidentally, my cousin also read from The Awakening this week at her blog. Her take is a little different from mine and includes more historical context.
Alice, reading. Photo by Melissa J. Wilkerson.
At bedtime, I read Alice a story. This has been our nightly ritual since before she was born, but now, after we read together, she reads on her own. She's always loved stories, but more and more she's caught up in words. Almost nightly now she pops out to read her dad and me a short passage: beautiful descriptions, scenes that seem especially funny or apt to her.

Right now she's reading Philippa Fisher and the Dream Maker's Daughter. It's a silly book in a lot of ways, but she likes the main characters, Philippa Fisher and her spunky friend, a fairy named Daisy. She also likes the descriptions of Philippa's funny, hippie-dippy, vegan parents. She popped out one night to laugh and read, "Well, I always had Mom and Dad, I reminded myself. They might be the ditziest dingbats on the planet, but at least they hadn't deserted me."

"Does that remind you of your parents?" I asked.

She laughed again. "You guys aren't dingbats," she said, "but you are a little wacky."

A few nights later, she bursts out of her room with such intensity that, for a minute, I think something's wrong. "Listen to this," she says. "Her family is just like our family! It's hilarious. They're just like us!" She reads:

"Just as well I hadn't said anything, then. Heaven. Normal stuff! The kind of 'up there' people were officially allowed to believe in! Except Mom and Dad had never been big on things like heaven, so I'd never really believed in it, either."

Her excitement is palpable. She's had a revelation. She has seen herself mirrored in this story, put into words and reflected back to herself. Here is another imaginative only child of wacky, atheist, vegetarian, artist parents! Here is proof that she isn't alone.

One of the beautiful things reading gives us, of course, is empathy. Reading lets us imagine what it's like to be someone else, to see the world through different eyes. But it also comforts us by showing us ourselves, by reminding us that others have been where we are, have felt what we feel. It helps us understand our selves.

I remember feeling that sense of self-recognition intensely when I read The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt as an adolescent and when I read Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth in college. I saw myself more clearly when I read those books, and that was comforting to me. I think it helped me to be a little kinder to myself.

Was there a book like that for you?

So, I fired my dragon pieces and here they are mounted on a crazy bright panel. It's not what I imagined when I sculpted the dragon, but it's something and I kinda love it. I had some other broken pieces and made another, smaller painting with those. It might become a whole series of mixed media pieces based on failures in ceramic. Lord knows I have enough of those. :)
When I write, I don't think too much about the one I write for, but I know who she is. She's me: the barest, truest, sternest version of myself. She knows when I haven't been brave enough to tell the truth. She knows when I'm bullshitting her. You could call her the Muse, I guess. She's my internal reason for writing.

The first person to read my poems is usually my friend Jae Newman. He is an ideal reader. I can count on him to understand what I'm trying to say, to see the poem I'm trying to write, and to tell me straight up when I've failed to write it. When it comes time to revise, his voice often surfaces in my mind (and my email). If my poems could find an audience as kind and perceptive and receptive as Jae, I would be very lucky.

Like a lot of "page poets," though, it's hard for me to imagine my real audience, the people that might actually stumble across my poems online or in a little bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky. Once, my friend brought home a stack of literary journals from a conference and found one of my poems in one of the magazines, and I thought with some surprise, "Oh, wow, they really exist out there on their own."

Musicians, dancers, theater folks do their art face to face with their audience. A poet's audience is more abstract most of the time. Of course we're as susceptible as anyone else to pandering for approval, but the audience isn't right there in our face when we're doing our thing. We get to keep our motivations internal for longer than some artists.

I was thinking about this while choosing poems to read at the Maitland Art Center's Summer Concert Series and even more after a "poetry cover night" at Urban ReThink a few days later. Who is my audience? What do they know? What do they need to know? Both events turned out to be really fun, in large part because the audiences were really varied. Especially at Urban ReThink, there were slam poets and page poets and performers, readers and artists and prose writers, teachers and students and know-it-alls, and they were all excited about poetry!

I've been thinking about that room full of poetry lovers a lot over the last few weeks. Which of those people would I most want to reach with my poems? Determining that determines, to some extent at least, what kind of poems I want to write. I'm a little surprised to find that it's mostly the non-poets I want in my audience: the artist who delivered Yeats as a terrifying dramatic monologue; my friend, a fiction writer, nervous but not showing it, who admitted she tried to choose poems the poets would find cool; the poised young woman who said, "I've never read a poem in public, but this poet is a family friend and I like this poem," and then beautifully delivered the hippest poem by the hippest poet anyone read that night.

Of course, I want the approval of my big, weird tribe of fellow poets too. I want to be accountable for my work in a way that only they can provide, but I'm really not interested in inside jokes or showing off. The poet who starts her reading with an obscure literary reference, and condescendingly points out how obscure it is? I don't need her in my audience. The one who's more interested in showing how cool or clever he is than sharing something real? I'll never seem cool to him, and I think he's a jackass.

I want an audience that teaches me something, and I don't think I have a lot to learn from those guys. I'd rather open the circle, find out what the sculptors and mathematicians and carpenters and bartenders know.  How about I read you a poem and you sing me a song? How about we all listen?

I've been sculpting dragons in clay. They're cartoonish, primitive, wonky. They're also pretty thick-bodied, which I know is a bit dangerous in ceramics. More clay means more chance of air bubbles and other flaws that might cause a break in the high temperatures of the kiln.

Last night, we did a bisque fire of several pots and four dragon sculptures. This morning, the kiln is full of half-baked pots and shards that were my dragons. There must have been an air pocket in the largest sculpture. I think its shattering caused the one beside it to break along some internal fault line into the four pieces you see above.

I've fired enough ceramic not to cry about this. You don't count your ceramic dragons before they've hatched (if that's not an old potter's saying, it should be). Of course, I'm disappointed. I spent hours carving these, finding their personalities, imagining what they would be when they were fired and glazed. No matter how much I tell myself not to get attached to things, I do.

At my parents' house in Frostproof, where we raku, there is a pile of red brick against the pasture fence left over from building the house I grew up in. It's covered in weeds and spiders, and when we break a piece in a raku firing, we take out our frustration by hurling the fragments against the brick pile, shouting for the necessary catharsis. This morning, unable to hurl and shout in the early Sunday quiet of the apartment complex, I unpack the kiln carefully. Half-fired ceramic is brittle and easily shattered. I burn my fingers on the hot clay as I examine each piece, analyze this failure, look for where I went wrong. I find things I can salvage.

These pieces are broken cleanly. I'm going to fire them as they are. If they survive, I will glaze and raku them. I will imagine a new life for them, a new personality. Maybe a mixed media piece called "Deconstructed Dragon." I will make something of my failures. I will call it art.
Canaveral National Seashore
I recently finished/abandoned the longest poem I've ever written. It feels like the only poem I've ever written or the poem I'm always writing. I don't know. I can't really talk about it yet. It's about the things I love most--family, art, the idea of home, this place--and I've been writing and revising it for a long time, scribbling lines here and there, adding and taking away, looking for the thread that might tie it all together.

What's been great about writing this long poem is having a focus. It's not really true that "the hardest part is getting started"--I think we all know that the hardest part of any creative endeavor is finishing--but starting is one of the intimidating parts of writing, and it's been nice not to have to face a blank page for a while. Now that this long poem and the bigger chapbook project that's gone with it are finished, the new page seems especially blank.

I'm not sure that I want to write another long poem, at least not right away, but I do want to get started on another specific project in order to maintain the focus I've had over the past few months. I think this blog might be a good tool for that eventually, but for now I'm casting about among infinite possibilities, looking for the idea that will grab me next. I expect my creativity will be fairly random for a little while.

After you finish a creative project, how do you find the next big thing? How do you know when you've found an idea worth your energy and focus?