By Jesica Carson Davis
The identity of a writer can be a slippery, tricky one. For years, I hesitated to call myself a poet, even though I was writing poetry. Really though, it’s pretty simple: if you write, you’re a writer.
One thing that can help a writer to own that identity is to establish a regular writing practice. It doesn’t have to be every day — having time, space, energy, and ability to maintain a daily writing practice is a huge privilege — but finding a way to make a habit out of creative practices can drastically affect a writer’s output, as well as their sense of self. I always feel more me, in touch with more layers of my secret selves when I’ve been writing because it gives me a chance to work through and out all the impressions, fears, and wonder that swirls in my head.
I first developed a writing practice the year I moved to Berlin to process the death of my best friend. It was still cheap then (2006), and I’d saved up enough money to take some time off work. Once the initial shock wore off, I’d sit at my desk every weekday and write for five or six hours. Showing up to that practice was the first time I really felt like a writer — because I was writing almost every day. I was showing up for myself, actually doing the thing I always wished I had more time for. I learned that the act of writing, detached from any outcome, makes me happy, makes time disappear in an almost magical way: even when I’m struggling with a piece, I can get lost in word choice, a quest to find a crystalline expression, forgetting myself to become more myself. When I look at the clock, hours have passed, as if hypnotized by concentration.
However, when I came back to the United States and started working again, my writing time slipped away to just few hours a month. I was living in Brooklyn, and even though I was taking workshops at The New School, NYU, and Poets House, my writing practice was sporadic at best. I stopped introducing myself as a poet; as the practice faded, so did my link to the identity.
Things changed when I moved to Denver in 2013. Suddenly isolated from many of my old friends, I had more empty hours to fill, and writing was one way to do so. It helped me feel less lonely, even if I was just communicating with myself. I began spending four or five hours every Saturday at my desk, and more started coming out. The practice helped me to remember who I was (a poet who used to extensively, someone with a huge family both blood and chosen) even though I was far and detached from what had been my life up till then. I wrote about formative, older times as well as my then-current sense of displacement until they eventually wove together to reconcile disparate identities.
When I finally settled into a regular writing practice, I was fed up with myself for wasting time scrolling the internet and watching too much TV. (I still do these things; everyone needs down time, but now I do them in smaller amounts.) So I made myself a quick, handwritten sign and pinned it over my desk: “Make yourself do stuff.” I also printed out the squirrel of judgment and tacked it up next to my sign. Once again, I began to tell people that I was a poet, but more importantly: I felt like one.
Writing regularly, for me, can be a self-reinforcing act. If I’ve worked on a poem or read some poetry in the morning, my day takes on a poetic cast; I’m much more receptive to seeing kernels of potential poems, and more likely to jot them down in a notebook to act on later.
Two years later, that sign I made for myself feels much less urgent; I do and make things pretty regularly now. But the sign stays up; it’s good to have reminders. Michelangelo would agree.
Still, there are times when, no matter how long I sit, the writing just won’t come. It’s important for me to maintain the practice, even when not feeling creative, so during those times, I:
Through establishing a writing practice, one with a structure that suits my physiology and schedule, I’ve established a discipline that makes me proud. The concept of publication doesn’t matter much to me (OK, it does a little, most writers want to be read), because I’ve grown to love the practice itself.
It reminds me of the power of language, that I can believe in myself as a poet, even on the tough days when words just thud, because I have faith that if I hold the practice, the flow will come back; it reminds me of what I can do: alchemize words, thoughts, and images into a piece that (hopefully) conveys something, perhaps a fleeting feeling, that lives beyond the realm of ordinary communication. And that’s magical.
Showing up to my writing practice taught me that I can show up for myself. I’ve learned to trust that though I have bad days, uncreative slumps, if I keep working at it and hold space for the practice, they will pass. The point is to keep practicing it. As Alexander Chee remembers Annie Dillard’s advice:
“Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”
When you get down to it, the practice of writing is an action. You do it, or you don’t, and either way, you learn something about who you are. My writing practice taught me that doing what I love makes me happy, regardless of outside judgement; what does yours say about you?
By Melanie Merle
“All serious daring starts from within.” -- Eudora Welty, On Writing
I read an article recently about how the throat opens, how singers train the apparatus of voice -- how singing properly feels completely different in the body than one might imagine. Like certain smells or flavors — or sex or giving birth — the act of open-throated singing is pretty much impossible to describe. Even the label “open throat” is inaccurate. The throat only widens a few millimeters, though it feels cavernous. The sensation of the opening, of the voice freed from the body, is an illusion.
By contrast, in the recent glut of headlines, arguments on social media, I am choked. Through the constant influx of disturbing information, I am witness to pain, grief, chaos. I feel trapped between seeking quiet and screaming urgency. The fact I have a choice between using my voice, in relative safety, and choosing silent observation, speaks to privilege. At worst, I face ostracization by/from friends and family who don’t share my opinions. At best, my words might offer solace to those who are like-minded and feeling alone. Vocalizing on social media or walking together in marches has proven a source of strength and community for people who feel powerless and isolated, particularly those living in places where they find themselves in the minority.
I see the use of voice equivalent to having or using power -- as in, my voice is a powerful tool, and I may or may not choose to use it. When I am shouted down (say, on social media or at the Thanksgiving table), someone attempts to control my voice. My power (my ability) to speak is ever present, though I may stay quiet to conform to social niceties. We all face those moments. That's not the same as a true threat of violence, the loss of job, etc. -- real factors for many who fight inequities in our culture.
Rebecca Solnit makes an important distinction between our reasons for silence, stating “What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought and what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great are as different as swimming is from drowning.”
It’s easier to disappear into a book or the bubble of a yoga class than to pen this blog post. But I don’t want to drown.
So my mandate as a writer now becomes: how to give power to the voice, and perhaps, in doing so, embolden others who remain silent to speak? Because I don’t believe I’m alone. I believe there’s a slow gathering of voices and a stubborn refusal to drown. Or, in the words of Anais Nin, "The day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
Creative writing teachers, especially in workshops, like to ask “what is at stake” in a piece, suggesting our writing finds its power, its center, in what’s at stake. I have come to see that concept extend beyond our writing, however, to ourselves. The act of writing -- being an act of performance, of informing community -- makes the writer vulnerable. The real "what's at stake" is the writer. We are what's at stake.
The vulnerability is real. To press through the vulnerability -- to arrive in a place of full voice, of honesty, in the writing expresses power to the audience. So what is it to have sound caught in your throat? What is it to have words trapped in the body? And how do we train ourselves, as writers, to translate to paper the power of what we feel, but struggle to name? We practice.
When I feel sound caught in my throat, I come to this writing practice which has often helped bring the sound to paper.
Create a word cache by making a list of words, free-associating with the concepts “open” and “close,” as in “open is _____” and “close is _____,” or “opened is _____” and “closed is _____.”
Write out as much as you can remember about a time when you felt most free.
Write out as much as you can remember about a time when you felt constricted.
Write out as much as you can remember about a time you took a risk.
Write a few paragraphs or 10-12 lines as a set of rules, drawing from your word cache and your memories.
Then, just as we might take up singing or baking or knitting, or yoga, we practice. One of my favorite yoga teachers is fond of saying, “It’s called ‘yoga practice,’ not ‘yoga -- got it!’” He snaps his fingers for emphasis, and chuckles at us as we sweat and groan and fight for another millimeter in a forward fold, drawing us away from the illusion that that millimeter is what matters. In that way, we practice writing.
As writers, I believe we begin with audacity. We accept that we were not designed for everyone to like what we have to say. We dare to look inward and unhinge the thing locked in the throat, to then commit to outward expression and let ourselves become “what’s at stake”. We get good at saying what we want to say, open-throated and unafraid.
By Kathryne Lim
Dorothea Lasky’s writing on color and poetry is what sparked my own interest in the use of color in poetry. Colors are interesting in that they are descriptive words that can be interpreted differently by different people. For instance, the color green may make one person think of a rainforest and another of a green Mustang. Yellow may evoke feelings of calm in one person, anxiety in another. Looking at color can be an interesting way to experience a poem in a new and different way.
The following is a writing exercise around color that I like to use with groups. It’s a good way to think about how colors affect imagery in a poem. It can also be used as a tool to uncover different layers of meaning within a poem.
First, distribute a poem that contains a lot of colors or color words. Wallace Stevens’ mysterious “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” is a good one to use. Next, ask the participants to circle all the colors in the poem. Have the participants circle all the color words as well. Color words may not be direct colors, but words that suggest colors, such as rainbow, peacock, cloud.
Have a discussion with the participants about what those particular colors represent and what emotions they evoke in them. Discuss whether any of those colors or color words are used in surprising ways in the poem.
Lastly, assign the participants three colors that they must use in their own poem. When they are finished, have them circle the colors and color words used. Just for kicks, have them switch around the colors in the poem. Ask them how this changes the meaning of the poem and whether it offers new insight into their own thought processes.