These words are a work in progress: Getting unstuck and taking risks

Over the years, I’ve spent so much time working with students on their writing, guiding them, mentoring, that sometimes my own writing took a backseat to my teaching (and to my usual everyday hectic life). However, I’ve been working to find the right balance of practice as a writer, as a teaching artist, and as an everyday superbly busy person spread in all directions.

During the process of graduate school, I spent a lot of time writing and participating in writing workshops. This was exciting to me, an opportunity to study with accomplished writers and receive guidance on my craft. My role shifted from teacher to student in those settings where I shared my work, received constructive feedback, and made the time to revise because I knew I was accountable in my writing workshops (to instructors, to other emerging writers around the table, and ultimately to myself). The pressure to write, to revise within a certain time constraint was constant, but the payoff (the feedback, the moment to share and be heard), was worth it.

During that process I discovered that up until graduate school, I had relied on a certain voice I was writing in (or maybe writing to), a voice that was protective of the image and of emotion. A voice that had a wall up. Looking back I realize that voice was not vulnerable, open, and took little risks. The choices I often talk to students about today were not the choices I was making in my own early writing. It was interesting how I could guide students to open up as writers but in my own practice, I was reluctant to do the same.

I am a formally trained as a musician, so in the time of my early writing, I had inadvertently subscribed to a certain rhythmic formula and certain subject matter that I knew worked for me. It was safe. I was comfortable and stayed in that comfort zone for the ten years between college and graduate school. I don’t think I knew at the time how comfortable I was with my creative wall up. However, the more writing courses and workshops I took, the more I began to uncover a new voice, new subject matter, and a curiosity and courage that I never had before.

There was a pivotal moment in my graduate study, while working closely with a few of my mentors (Terry Hermsen and Andrew Hudgins) that I realized I was holding back. “You are a narrative poet,” I remember Hudgins said one day. I had never heard anyone describe my work in that way before. I never thought that I was telling stories in my writing. I always thought I was focused on sound and capturing the image in a new and beautiful way. But both Hermsen and Hudgins saw through my wall and pushed me.

I knew there were subjects I wanted to write about but I was worried about the tone, the perspective, and the point of view. I was scared to write in the “I” voice and I feared judgment of my subject matter. I remember one day asking Hudgins how I could begin to be more vulnerable in my writing without readers thinking all of my writing is about me. He replied, “why do you care, why does it matter?” That challenge was pivotal. Why did I care if readers wondered if I was writing about myself or someone else? Why did that matter? What was I afraid of? It was that conversation and that time of working with my other mentor, Terry, that I began taking more risks in my writing. After ten years in a stagnant comfort zone, I began to grow, to make different choices.

One of the methods I discovered was writing in meter. I was resolute in my commitment to writing in free verse. I thought, like many of the young writers I work with, that free verse was the badge of the contemporary poet. I had rejected meter as an old method of approaching poetry. I did not think in meter (or so I thought). And the kind of meter I remember studying in English Literature courses as an undergrad, did not feel new or refreshing. But Hudgins opened up my thinking. Working with him challenged me to explore iambic pentameter, to explore blank verse, sonnets, strong and weak syllable structure–meter. This technique allowed me to slow down, to be much more thoughtful in my crafting of language. This approach dared me to discover new areas of subject matter, and challenged me to make better, more meaningful word choices. I learned to be intentional in my own writing—to practice in my own craft what I was trying to encourage in younger writers.

Slowing down as a writer, being more thoughtful, intentional in my choices in craft, allowed my writing to also grow in other ways. Up until this pivotal point, as a creative writer, I’d been especially careful about the topics I wrote about. I did not want anyone to consider or suspect that I might be the subject of one of my writings. I desired to write in the first or second person voice, to take on my subject matter in a voice that was genuine and vulnerable, but I did not want my reader to think that all of my writings were actually personal or about me. I wanted to write about the intimacies of life but I wanted those narratives to have honesty, to resonate, and to have poignancy.

Sitting in a writing workshop, again led by Hudgins, I expressed those insecurities out loud to fellow writers. I wanted to find a vulnerable voice to speak from, to speak to, and speak about. This was the first time I admitted my creative fears, and in front of strangers no less. Just as soon as I admitted those fears out loud, the workshop subsequently challenged them. Hudgins asked me why I was afraid, and what I was afraid would happen. Why did it matter if my reader thought one of my characters or subjects in my writing was me? Why did that scare me so much? And as I thought about it then and even more so now, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter. And all I seemed to need was permission to take that risk in my writing, permission to write in a new way, with a new command of voice in my work.

I realized that what I wanted to attempt to write about was the everyday simple elements of life, the mundane. I wanted to explore what I (and others) had lived, learned, listened to, and observed. And just as I had struggled with choosing between music and writing, art and teaching, and now subject and truth, I know that there are no rigid harmonies, only thrilling creative blurs. I wanted to write the narratives of the human condition. I wanted to walk in those narratives, and try to give them voice. I wanted to teach, share and listen, and now had the permission to do so. This was a new courage, a willingness to take creative risks in ways that I had never imagined or considered. This was an opportunity to stop hiding from the subject matter I most wanted to explore.

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Categories: Misc.

2 Comments on “These words are a work in progress: Getting unstuck and taking risks”

  1. Brandi
    January 12, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    After I read your post, I found a quote in the memoir Lit by Mary Karr, also a poet. The following is a note that she received from her writing mentor:

    “Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit…Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed…Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity. Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for what they may be worth.”

    • January 12, 2012 at 9:44 am #

      That is profound and courageous advice. This opening up, honest and (often) revealing writing is definitely a challenging part of creating more narrative art. But I imagine in some way that honesty has to happen. The truths artists (and others) tell are narratives many of us can find ourselves in–even if its only in bits and pieces. That is what I love about the creative…it allows us to come as we are. When I’m writing about difficult subject matter, I try to remind myself that the page doesn’t judge (even if sometimes readers want to). Thanks for sharing this quote Brandi.

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