It feels pretty good to accomplish big things, to complete projects we’ve started, to end a week of writing and creating art with a big, awesome performance as we did this week. But it can also leave you feeling empty somehow. A feeling of, Now what?
I imagine some of the writers I worked with last week feel that way. As though the burst of hyper-charged creative adrenaline dissipated and writing such strong work was a one time deal. I feel that way whenever I finish something that I’m really happy with or something super awesome happens to me. What if I never do it again? What if that was the only piece of good writing I had in me? What if being an extra in a Drake video was the absolute high point in my life?¹ What if Drake becomes less cool and I can’t use that story to impress people in bars?²
Elizabeth Gilbert talks about it in her amazing TED talk about creativity. If you haven’t watched it and you’re feeling stuck, you should. I’ve watched it many times over the past few years. Dean Young says, “Our poems are what the Gods couldn’t make without going through us.” They propose that the things we create are not in fact, ours, but rather are given to us, if we’re in a position to accept them, we catch them³. By putting on all the gear–the mask the glove, the chest shield, the knee pads, and crouching in the dirt again and again. By not surrendering to our spectacular failures (which will always outnumber our successes) or the fruitless days when we crouch and wait and get absolutely nowhere. And on days like that, the days when my fingers seem to widely spaced to catch anything, I am gladdest for the simple device of the refrain, and all the material that develops when you create rhythm by just re-entering the poem again and again. So read the below poem by Adrienne Rich and hear the incredible Mahogany L. Browne read her poem Working Title. Then choose a refrain that acknowledges that you are trying to write a damn poem. “I am writing this poem…” “The name of this poem…” “I know you are reading this poem…” Then set the timer for 20 minutes and write.
¹this is not actually true
³sports metaphor because I’m versatile
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.—Adrienne Rich, from An Atlas of the Difficult World