My Tupelo 30/30 writing comrade Amy Schreibman Walter has invited me to join the “My Writing Process Blog Tour,” where bloggers answer four (kinda hard) questions about their writing, then tag other bloggers to do the same. You can read how Amy answered these same four questions on her blog right here. While you’re out and about, have a look at here/there:poetry, the beautiful U.K.–based journal that she co-edits. Thanks, Amy!
Question #1: What are you working on?
I almost backed out of doing this, just for this question alone. I’m like one of those weekend handypeople with messy, unfinished projects strewn around the house. Let’s see...I’m working on: a) A new chapbook called In the Hand, using Amazon’s CreateSpace, for a book show and class I’m teaching on CreateSpace in two weeks. Just approved the proof—woo-hoo! b) A cycle of poems about Wolf OR-7 that I started during the 30/30 marathon. c) A series of poems all called “Poplar,” about my soon-to-be-cut-down poplar tree. Which sounds like a stupid idea when I say it that way. [Breathe...follow where it goes...] d) Tinkering with another chapbook manuscript that’s turning out to be an odd duck. e) Fretting over my full-length manuscript, retooling and freshening with some new material. f) A freelance job, reading and commenting on a friend’s full-length manuscript. g) Writing a short, personal review of Gone Girl that I’ll post on my blog soon, alongside a writer friend’s short, personal review of the same book. An experiment in blog collaboration. h) And I’m writing this here blog post right now!
Question #2: How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I think it’s different because it’s in my voice. It represents a painting of some part of my brain that was in that particular configuration when I wrote that particular poem. Those cells have now died and others have taken their place and shifted around, so that part of my brain doesn’t look like that anymore. But now I have new brain parts that are completely unique, and that will generate poems that no one else writes. I never get tired of thinking of that. We all have brains like that. So do cats and whales and marmots.
I suppose my work’s unique flavor, if it has one, comes from the fact that I like to mix a lot—sadness and humor, irony and the ecstatic, surprising language and the workaday. Mix, mix, mix—forms, voices, subject matter.
Question #3: Why do you write what you do?
With poetry, the trigger is usually an idea that holds at least two emotions or mental states at once: This event was both exciting and dangerous, or my devotion to this person or thing is also tinged with doubt. So, again, it’s mixture and complexity that intrigues me.
With nonfiction, I generally am looking for a deep well of that same complexity. But for an essay, it needs more story, a little more of this happened and then that happened. For a magazine article, I like to find something I haven’t seen a lot of articles about, an article that I would like to read. And once in a while, somebody casually says, “You should write about blah blah blah.” I try to pay attention to that, because sometimes those are great ideas.
Question #4: How does your writing process work?
I’m going to answer this twice, because, for me, poetry and nonfiction are completely different processes.
Writing a poem is like laying an egg—when the idea comes, it has to be birthed right then. There’s a feeling of recognition—this line or image or two-sided emotion feels fertile, like it has the strength to carry a poem. I grab a pen and paper, wherever I am, and work on it. The best ones tend to come very late at night or very early in the morning, near sleep; the subconscious has way better ideas than the conscious does. But I don’t have a set time for writing poetry. My revision process is similarly haphazard; I’ll do a flood of revisions when I’m in a brutal, slash-and-burn, clean-the-closet state of mind. If I’m not in that mood, I can’t make those merciless cuts that poems sometimes need.
Writing nonfiction, on the other hand, is like building a house. I just start hammering it together—a frame, rough walls that will get prettied up later. It’s a linear process, and I don’t have to be inspired—I can sit my butt down any time of day or night and just get to work. I go through many drafts—I finish a draft, make a copy of it, start at the beginning, and go through the whole thing again. Early drafts are “meatball surgery,” big additions and deletions; later ones are about smoothing transitions and punching up every sentence. I read a lot out loud at every stage. Prose, for me, is all about revision—that’s the ingredient that takes adequate writing and makes it good.
With prose, inspiration tends to strike during the revision stage, sort of like that last set of tennis (to throw in yet another simile), when you’re good and sweaty and just allowing your body to do what it knows how to do, and it surprises you by being graceful and clever. But with poetry, inspiration is usually the starting point—some sort of alchemical spark that’s much harder to plan for.
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Okay—next up on the blog tour are Michael Allyn Wells and Cathy Barber. Their “My Writing Process” posts will appear next Thursday (September 18th). A little about Michael and Cathy:
Michael Allyn Wells has lived all his life in Missouri, but he is totally in love with the San Francisco area. He views baseball as poetry on a living scale, and he may be the most dedicated SF Giants fan outside the Bay Area.
For 27 years he has worked in a mental health–related field. After serving in a leadership role in a major political party for 14 years, he rekindled his interest in baseball and began writing. He has authored some historical baseball essays, but the bulk of his writing and passion has been for poetry. He enjoys classical, rock, pop and smooth jazz. Loves the saxophone, photography and painting, and is especially a fan of the abstract. Prefers his wine white and coffee black.
Michael’s work has appeared in many journals and online venues including Boston Literary Magazine, The Annual Rockhurst Fine Arts Review, Punchnel’s Magazine, Rose & Thorn Review, Montucky Review, and Right Hand Pointing. Michael has blogged since 2003 on poetry, art, culture and occasionally social issues at Stickpoetsuperhero.blogspot.com
Michael is the father of four grown children. He currently makes his home in a suburban community in the Kansas City, Missouri area along with his wife, two rescue dogs and a cat.
Cathy Barber is a poet living in San Mateo, California. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA from California State University, East Bay. She teaches poetry to young people through California Poets in the Schools, which is tons of fun and about as rewarding as work can get. And she occasionally writes a humor blog, Is It Just Me, where she rants about life’s indignities, especially those indignities that affect her personally, because it is, after all, her blog. You can read her poetry in many online journals, including most recently West Trestle Review and Red Booth Review.