Eleven Unthunk Thoughts on Approaching Writing

This morning a friend and I met for breakfast with the intention of talking about writing. She’d like to dump the day job and take up a vocation she’s always loved but never fully pursued: yes, writing. Her father was a Hollywood writer and a novelist, so writing is in her blood. She has no illusions about writing; she’s simply reached that place in her life when the day job is growing old and she has the time and money to make a much-needed change. So I shared some of my approaches with her that have evolved out of years of writing, teaching writing, and publishing and thought I’d shape them up into paragraphs (adding a few thoughts unthunk till after breakfast) and share them here:

Every second is an opportunity to write: If you’re obsessed with your writing, your project, you’ll carry a field notebook or a voice recorder (smart phone works well). Ideas, memories, lines, and dialogue don’t wait to occur till you sit down officially to write, during the sanctioned period you’ve set aside for doing so. The best ideas and words often come when you least expect them. Be ready. I’ve “made note” in almost every setting or situation imaginable: the woods, at a concert, in the midst of an interesting or important conversation, while brushing my teeth, and upon waking. I’ll add that very often there’s more space for ideas to occur when you’re not in the mode of expecting something to happen, when you’re not sitting at the one and only writing desk between, say, ten and noon, when you’re not all boxed in spatially and temporally. I keep my voice recorder near to hand as I drive. My thumb knows where the record button is. I’ve produced hundreds of useful notes while driving.

Write every possible minute: I write every minute I can. People tend to think writing isn’t really a job. I’m always available to meet, to visit family, to help with a project when it’s convenient for them to do so, not necessarily when it’s convenient for me. But, ironically, this works for me. I’m not a time-structured person. I’m really quite flexible about when I write—and where I write, for that matter. I meet for coffee in the early morning, mid-morning, and even early afternoon on occasion. So how do I produce so much material, books, manuscripts, essays, blog entries, emails, etc.? Well, I write every chance I get, any time of the day, any day of the week. I can sit down for ten minutes and complete or start a writing or writing-related task. The beauty of starting such a task is that I’m anxious to get back to it when I have more time.

Write everything: I write everything of interest, applicability, and/or authenticity, not just material for the book or project at hand. I find I have time to do this. But this implies two things: one that I’m energized and flexible; and two that I know what my genres, subjects, and themes are. There’s a kind of obsessiveness connected with the former, that I don’t want to miss anything; and the latter has required that I’ve written so much and grouped and regrouped my writing so many times that I’ve come to know who I am, what I have to say, and how and in what form I need to say it. I’ve come to know that my strongest genres are poetry, memoir, and creative nonfiction, my subject matter travel (the journey), nature, mind, music, birds, ideas, and writing itself, and my forms are haiku, long-form poetry, journal-based memoir, and in general highly structured books. More recently I’ve found I love the detective work involved in doing ancestry research writing. I could never have come to know this much about my own writing tendencies if I hadn’t made the space for those tendencies to express themselves.

Mix it up: I write till I reach a point of fatigue, scatter-mindedness, and/or accomplishment, then get up and do some dishes, neaten the house a little, take care of a chore or an errand, walk, or sit in the woods. Within 15 minutes or an hour, I find when I sit back down in front of the computer I’m completely refreshed, with new material or a new course of action at the ready. I do some mental work, then some physical work, and then return to the mental work. I can sustain this mixed activity longer than if I concentrate on only one kind of activity. I also go back and forth between producing material and organizing material, between researching material and producing material, and between researching and organizing material. I use my fiddle to clear my mind and to find the rhythm and music in my writing; after all, making music and writing poetry are attached at the hips, according to the Greeks. After writing long paragraphs, I work on a haiku. The short informs the long, the long the short. Keep the interest fresh, the body alive for the mind.

Use email to generate material: I often use email and, to a lesser degree, texting and messaging to produce material—and, by expressing them, I explore my ideas. The strength in this is that I have an audience for my writing. I’m engaging a correspondent or correspondents at the other end of my email, which makes the writing real, authentic (and of course I’m staying on topic—because I’m obsessed!). I have a manuscript consisting of about 90% material from emails—the great American email! Also, more people know about my project and may want to buy my book. And often my email recipients have ideas, affirmations, and helpful questions. I have to keep in touch and email folks anyway, so why not tell them all about what matters to me, my writing project.

The present informs the past: I also assume that what’s going on around me might somehow be related to what I’m writing. I’m presently writing a book in which I have the opportunity to explore the parallels between my life and my once-unknown-grandfather’s life, at both the personal and historical levels. I needn’t just stay focused on my grandfather’s experiences and historical context, but suddenly what’s going on with me now and what’s coming over the radio may have some relevance to the book.

Writing like breathing: Writing is like breathing for me, as it should be, ideally. I have to admit it wasn’t always like this for me. But since I got comfortable with it, writing resembles breathing in many ways. Inhalations are like questions while exhalations are like answers. I have to do it to stay alive, or at least to keep the writer alive—the linguist, the storyteller, the explorer. But how does one get comfortable with writing? Well, mostly by doing it, and by getting to know oneself as a writer, as I mentioned above. But not just by doing it, but by doing it with few enough expectations as to leave an opening for authenticity of expression to occur. Read a lot. Emulate. Try new modes and styles of writing. Throw your sentences up in the air and see what they look like when they hit the ground. Don’t be precious about your writing. If you do, you’re probably stuck and just don’t know it.

Trust your mind: Trust the mind to work on your writing even when you’re engaged in other activities or while you’re sleeping. Sure, struggle with an idea or a sentence for a while, but then forget it. You will have left a hole or a question for the mind to fill or answer if you just give it a chance. Pressure can often shut down processes.

In us hide many stories: It’s been said that everyone has a story, and as a sailor, a bartender, a teacher in Japan, and a college professor, I’ve found this to be true. In fact, I think that we have within us more stories than we can write, if we can only realize this, hear the stories within us, hear the stories inside the stories or the stories growing out of stories (as in fan fiction). Around us are an infinity of subjects. Haiku poets know this and can write a successful haiku on a leaf falling unlike any other haiku on a leaf falling ever written. The problem is that we become inured to the world around us. The world is so present that eventually we shut it out; we don’t notice what’s going on. Virginia Woolf wrote a short piece called “The Mark on the Wall.” It’s about just that, a mark on the wall, and it’s quite well known.

Do not compare: Trouble begins when we compare ourselves with other writers, dead or alive. How many give up writing, saying, “ I’ll never write as well as so-and-so”? In the University of Washington Master of Fine Arts program, Rick Kenney instructed a poetry writing class called Imitations in which we imitated other styles, poets, and cultural forms. In my introductory letter to him I stated that I’ll never lose myself in another poet because I’m too anxious to express myself, to become the poet I must become. It’s very important to imitate and emulate in order to learn, but then move on. One of the most destructive forces on creativity and self-expression is the ego. Best to just grope along in the search for one’s authentic self.

Structure, structure, structure: Many aspiring writings have come to me with what for them is their number one problem or question: How do I structure my book? Virtually every book has “structure.” Chapters are structural devices. Beginnings, middles, and ends are aspects of structure (they may also be aspects of plot). Structure has more to do with the physical arrangement, organization, or flow of material (which may nevertheless have everything to do with content and story), while plot pertains to conflict and resolution. Plot is generally an element of fiction, although it may be present in memoir. Therefore, it’s probably best, for the moment, to think about structure in memoir, (creative) nonfiction, and poetry. Memoirs are generally delineated by chronology; nonfiction by the various elements of the subject in some logical order; and poetry by stanzas, line breaks, patterns of rhythm and rhyme, various forms of repetition, etc. I find that thinking about structure early in the process of writing a book aids both the production and consumption of the book. If I have small sections or chapters, I can knock off two or three a day, tick them off on the abacus, and sleep deeply that night. It’s comforting, measurable piecework. It’s easy to reorganize as I go, to change the order of sections and chapters. I keep my mind clear this way, as it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by so many ideas and materials. This goes for the reader, as well. Structure is major means of producing clarity. You can use bolded subheadings early in the writing game and then remove the headings later. My breakfast friend mentioned she likes to use outlines in order to structure and organize her writing. I can’t tell you how many of my students from my college teaching days thanked me for insisting they produce and hand in outlines in advance of their drafts. Many professional writers admit they sketch out a little word-map and stick to it to the end. Yet a word-map isn’t set in stone, is it? There is no stone, only words.

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Writing a Personal Narrative (essay)

Many of us are anxious to tell our own story in writing. Many of us are required to write a personal essay as part of a college application process. Some of us are simply interested in how to write a compelling story in a coherent and engaging way. Writing a personal essay is an act of deep self-expression.

There are three distinct steps to writing a great personal essay: Write the first draft from the heart. Write the second draft with the brain. Write the third draft for your readers. Each step may involve a little of the other steps, since it’s the whole of you who is writing the essay.

Hand, writing

Hand, writing

The first step involves remembering—re-imagining and reconstructing—the past. Most aspiring writers have a story they’ve always wanted to tell. Or there are memories that won’t leave them alone. Or there’s a character in their lives, or in the past, who beckons to be heard—or heard about. Listen to the busy mind and you’ll always find your story—many stories, in fact. The story that you have to write is your real story.

But where should you start the story? Most fiction readers and film viewers these days have little time for lengthy exposition or background, so it’s best to start as close to the climax as possible. You can flashback from there. Keep your reader hanging. Stretch the intense moments out (but don’t become tedious).

This goes for writing too....

This goes for writing too….

During this first draft, remember two items: One, be sure to convey the meaning or feeling you hope to get across to your readers, and, two, write descriptively in order to place your reader in the story. Sit down at your desk and free-write the story without stopping, without fixing words or sentences, till you’ve written all you can remember. Get it down with all the passion you can muster.

Belief in Self

Belief in Self

Once you’ve written all you can, step away from your draft, sleep on it, or go for a walk or a drive, so you can return to your story with fresh eyes and heart. Then read it through once, without making any marks or changes. Now make a list of general items you’d like to improve. Then, reading again from the top, make marks or changes reflecting your goals for your story or ways you’d like to improve it. Producing a second draft involves making drastic changes. Drastic changes that writers make include deleting opening sentences and even whole paragraphs or moving chunks of material around. But this is also a good time to enhance the pictures and sharpen and add words.

Another way writers improve first drafts is by adding more concrete and descriptive language. They also add transitions that move the story from place to place, time to time, and point of view to point of view; they break long sentences, join short ones, and strive to create sentence variety. Let your brain have sway over the ego here. Don’t be too precious about what you’ve already written.

The third draft is about sharpening vocabulary, deleting unnecessary words or adding missing ones, and attending to mechanics—spelling, punctuation and grammar. Since, in this step, you’re drafting for your audience, read your personal story aloud, in front of a mirror, or ideally to a friend or partner. How does it sound to the ear? Natural? Fluid? Engaging? Clear? Does it make a point? Is it vivid? Make notes during or as soon as possible after reading aloud. Always be open to the possibility of improving a personal essay. Many writers continue to revise their work all their lives.

Standard Punctuation

Standard Punctuation

Writing a personal essay is an important act of self-revelation and meaning-making. It involves a great heave of effort and finesse that should end with the flourish of a song. Writing from the heart, with the mind, then for an audience, makes sure the act is true, whole, and sound.

Writer’s Envy

How many there are of us who want to write! Ah, to become a writer, to finally write that book we’ve always wanted to write! It’s almost a cliché. Yet many of us don’t bother because we can’t imagine that we can actually write clear, compelling prose or that we can write like the greats or the pros. Or we don’t feel we have the follow-through to finish a full-length book.

It seems that successful writers are to be envied for being able to sit at their desks and, with a few keystrokes, command the attention of a vast, paying readership.

Theodore Roethke, my personal "father of poetry" (American, 1908-1963)

Theodore Roethke, my personal “father of poetry” (American, 1908-1963)

Writer’s envy is as natural as the very desire to write. It’s what we do with these feelings of envy that either make us or break us as writers. If we feel we can’t write as well as the writers we admire and therefore don’t try, then we’re conquered by our own desire. If, on the other hand, we set out to try to write as well as the they do—that is, to imitate them—then we risk not writing our own story or not writing in our own voice.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Yet this second choice is, nevertheless, the right choice; it’s just that we have to keep in the back of our minds that, once we learn how our admired writer conjures his or her verbal magic, then we have to move beyond to write our own authentic selves. As they say in Zen, kill the Buddha when you meet him on the road.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for a two years straight.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for two years straight.

I’ve known poets who say they won’t read other poets because they don’t want to be influenced. They forget that the genre of poetry, specific forms of poetry—the language itself—evolved long before the poet was ever born and “influences” him at every turn of phrase. One could argue that we even inherit our thoughts, the very desire to write poetry. Thus, the aspiring poet or writer is obliged to read as much as possible, to see what possibilities exist for writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, to see what’s already been “done,” and to see where his or her work fits in the stream of literature.

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me...

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me…

When I was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at UW, poet-professor Rick Kenney taught a poetry writing workshop called Imitations, in which we set out to imitate various established closed forms, occasional poems, cultural permutations, and individual poets and their poems. I remember writing in a letter to Rick that I was sure I wouldn’t lose my identity to these other poets because I was so anxious to explore and establish my own voice as a poet.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Yet some poets do lose themselves, for years on end, emulating a certain poet. Linda Bierds, who also teaches poetry writing in the MFA program at UW, told us once that, early in her career, readers compared her work to that of Norman Dubie so often that she realized she needed to establish her own voice and style—a break with the “other,” of course, that she succeeded beautifully in making.

I have emulated many poets without guilt or shame and, I like to think, without crippling envy. I’ve tried to write like Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver, and other poets of stature. I discovered that one can strive to write like another without experiencing envy and instead feel sheer admiration—a desire, via the work to learn everything possible about the poet’s craft and relationship to subject, much in the way an art student strives to replicate a famous painting while sitting in an art museum, down to the finest stroke—in order to learn what happened personally, technically, and historically in the creation of the artist’s work.

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Japanese Zen monk hermit poet (1758-1831), lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

And the development of an artist’s skill, vision, and voice, I might suggest, more often than not follows the development of the art form in history. Each artist gropes through a medieval period, blossoms during a little Renaissance, tries on the finery of the Baroque, casts off every stitch of excess clothing in the name of minimalism, flourishes during an abrupt midlife Romantic period, dabbles in pointillism, screams leaping off the bridge of reason into a modern period, then collapses in a paroxysm of Post-Modernism.

Perhaps it’s natural to feel a little envious of the magic that great writers conjure. If, as a reader, we feel mesmerized by the beauty of a novel, short story, or poem, then why wouldn’t we want to conjure such magic? It’s only natural to want to wield the very power that mesmerizes us to conjure it in others—other readers.

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures (I’m writing bird and bug haiku).

It may be that by trying on the clothes of the writers we admire—the greats, the masters, the pros—those who command great audiences—we come to realize how we are not meant to be the very writer we admire or emulate, that we’re not at all like the master whose footprints we’ve been dogging. In other words, we come to realize who we are, how we’re distinct, how we have our own story to tell or body of words and images to share. Yet we may never have found ourselves in our totality if we hadn’t tried on the master’s silky, piney, or smoky robes.

Overcoming Writer’s Anxiety

Many aspiring writers feel insecure about what they view as their ability to write. In other words, they often let their concern with matters of style and mechanics dominate the issues that hold them back. But what wannabe writers often have, instead, is motivation issues that they interpret as an inability to write fabulous sentences, paragraphs, images, and dialogue. The fact that these aspirants to the craft want to write, say they want to write, and say they have fabulous projects to pursue makes it clear that at bottom they’re motivated to write, but they get caught in a vicious circle that cripples their taking the necessary action to overcome their anxieties.

There is no better antidote to fear of the bear than to face the bear.

There is no better antidote to fear of the bear than to face the bear.

It’s important that novice writers come to honestly understand what their motivations for writing are. Many claim they write for themselves, as if the act were strictly private and not public. These writers often say they don’t read other writers because they don’t want to be influenced by them. They tend to think they exist in an isolated vacuum, as if they make up the language, the forms known as sentences and paragraphs—even the literary forms: story, poem, essay, reflection, etc. As if they’d never heard a story till they wrote one themselves!

Writing, sleeping.

Writing, sleeping.

Other writers seek fame. Some want to strike it rich. Others feel they have a story they just have to tell. Others, still, want to change the world. Yet others simply love the language, the possibilities of words. Some want to write to understand themselves, to use writing to explore the psyche. For them, writing is therapeutic. In other words, there are a number of reasons writers write or want to write. Beginning writers, writers setting our on their first journey undertaking a big project, a full length book, should have a clear sense of why they want to write and how important it is in the context of their lives. It can be as simple as this: “I just love to write.”

Loves taking on the bear!

Loves taking on the bear!

Some writing aspirants are actually good writers of sentences and paragraphs, descriptions and dialogue, because they already write routinely in their work or in diaries or journals. They’ve written decent sentences and paragraphs all their lives and described places and replicated dialogue without a second thought, either aloud or in emails to friends and family. More than likely, they’ve gotten good grades on papers they’ve written in school. In other words, they’re probably readier to take on their big dream project than they know.

Professional experience taking on the bear.

Professional experience taking on the bear.

Probably the greatest stumbling block to pumping out material for a full-length collection of short stories, novel, or memoir is time management. Translate as “life” management. Working parents who have children, non-parents who work overtime or give their all to their careers, students who have tests to study for and papers to write—all put these important areas of their life first, of course. But they often use their life commitments as excuses not to take on a pursuit they view as not only valuable and attractive but also as difficult and time-consuming. They pit the day job against the dream work rather than find a way to do both. Kids become an excuse not to write.

Too young!

Too young!

What these writer dreamers have to do, then, is make a slot of time available every day during which they write assiduously and relentlessly—without exception. If they produce 50 words in one hour a day, they can finish a full-length book every two or three years, a good output for any writer.

Another stumbling block for neophyte novelists and memoirists is the concern with perfection. No writer spills out perfect prose on the first stab with a pencil. Shaping and smoothing sentences is an ongoing process, both within the context of a growing book but also in the context of one’s whole writing life. Prose writers, some would say even poets, should write stream of consciousness first then return to fixing and improving sentences (and lines) later. Best to get a body of material down on paper or in a document file to trifle with when the mood for tinkering strikes. Best to return to raw material when the eyes are fresh. There’s a time to create, a time to revise, and a time to proof.

And a time to pull the scalpel!

And a time to pull the scalpel!

Another major hang-up for writers is a most persistent anxiety: whether what the writer has to write is really worth reading. Is there a story here? Is this life really worth writing about? Is it interesting? Is the verbiage compelling enough to draw a reader in and keep the reader reading? What these writers don’t realize is that the average successful writer doesn’t lead any more interesting a life than anyone else. They can’t: They’re too busy writing. They simply have an eye (or ear), the drive, the follow-through, and the ultimate concern with detail to write fascinating or at least engaging books. They believe in the possibility, they discipline themselves to the act, and then they make the necessary contacts to see a project through.

Such writers, when they fear the bear, face the bear.

Such writers, when they fear the bear, face the bear.

On top of setting aside an hour a day to write, to do nothing else but write, to write no matter what, inspired new writers need to establish short-range, attainable goals they can reach in a single writing session or in no longer than a week. Such daily or weekly goals might include writing an opening, a descriptive paragraph or section, or an important piece of dialogue, working up transitions, catching up on any necessary research, reworking the outline, researching and contacting agents, designers, and publishers, or doing general organization of files and folders.

But the real key to writing full-length pieces, in this fragmented rush that is our world today, is producing a carefully thought-out, frequently reworked chapter, section, scene, or paragraph outline. Once a writer has a relatively tight plan or program for working from day to day, the book begins to write itself. No more staring blankly at a white (or yellow) piece of paper or new document staring back—for not knowing what to write. Hang the to-do list from a shelf or lay it to one side on the desk. By making each task small enough, a writer can finish one task in a single day’s session—in a couple days at most. It’s also a good idea to make separate documents and files for each paragraph, section, or chapter for the sake of organization and efficiency.

Thus, it makes sense to structure a first book using short chapters or using longer chapters that break down into short, clearly delineated sections or scenes. Some non-fiction books can be broken down into categories with bold subheadings or by chronological occurrence and date. Once a writer gets going and finds a fluid voice, the book begins to spill out like milk from a carton, weighted at the pouring end by the pouring itself.

Jesting the bear.

Jesting the bear.

The best way to think about the drafting, revising, and proofing stages is to think big first and small last. Pump out too much material, if necessary, then whittle back to the best content and sentences. Revising means adding, subtracting, and rewriting whole chunks of language, making drastic changes, and making them with fearless sagacity. Proofing involves tinkering and playing with details that can enhance the reading experience. But proofing—spelling, for example—isn’t what makes a writer. Producing abundances of material first is what first makes a writer.

Once a writer faces the bear, he or she can usually wrestle it to the ground and pin it. If it takes pinning a bear to the ground to survive as a writer, then the writer must pin the bear to the ground.

Remember, the mind, the brain, isn’t all that writes. The whole being of the self writes. Write with the body. The body holds the whole story, the whole song—not just a few brain cells. The hands become the givers of the language, the verbal pictures, and the voices to the paper or screen. The hands know everything. Even the pen contains thoughts and moments of the world within. Trust to the body and the pen. Make the hand, the pen—the very ink—assiduous, relentless, effusive. Leave it to the mind to keep the hand moving, the ink flowing, the words appearing as if by magic.

The bear has much to teach.

The bear has much to teach.

The Future of Poetry

The day is coming when great words
will matter more than money.
Ears will pivot like a cat’s
at syllables that pierce
the soul’s hard enamel.
Words of magic will be as
commonplace as leaves on trees,
as riveting as a fist,
as tuneful as Schubert
playing on the violin.
We’ll fly through the thick air
of longing for simple truth
on carnival rides of raucous lines
written on the tongue
at the sight of a silly cloud.
We’ll slash primal ululations
on thousand dollar bills
and tack them on our alley walls.
There’ll be the trumpet
of poetry, the mural of poetry,
and lovers making love
on printed sheets of poetry .
We’ll break up over poetry,
and we’ll make up with poetry.
We’ll drive to work reciting poetry,
we’ll write frivolous poetry
even when the boss is watching.
We’ll sell poetry only when we’re broke,
we’ll pawn it only after we dicker
long and hard with the broker.
And we’ll buy it back later
for millions along with the
Picassos and the Stradivariuses,
then sell it again for millions more.
Poetry will drive inflation
mad with love. Secrets
will be kept, revealed,
and stolen in cryptic poetry.
Great books of poetry
will serve as constitutions,
will turn the tides of history
and be sent deep into space
in capsules made of titanium
for other civilizations to read
and be moved by, to be
enlightened and changed forever.
The whole fabric of reality
will be found to consist of poetry
and we will certainly rejoice.

Note: Previously published in Washington Community College Humanities Association Arts Journal and The Wheel.

Why Poetry Matters

Poetry and writing poetry is only as difficult as we make it. There are so many myths and stereotypes associated with poetry that we can hardly see it for what it is. Poetry is little more than the singing of a story, moment, or subject. Poetry has been around for as long as there have been people sitting around fires singing, chanting, and telling stories of heroism, loss, and love. Poetry matters and is alive and well in our contemporary lives, even more than we may realize.

A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.—Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poetry’s close cousin is music. In fact, many song lyrics fall under the category of poetry. Poetry and song have much in common: rhythm, elevated or condensed speech, images and metaphors, and often stories. There are ballads in both poetry and folk music alike, and now rap is a clear crossover between the two arts. Rap music and poetry slams have helped bring poetry further into the mainstream.

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.—Edgar Allan Poe

Yet many if not most Americans say they don’t get poetry—what it is, what it does, why people read and write it, and what function it serves in society. A huge reason they don’t get it is because there are so many other means and modes of entertainment and self-fulfillment out there. Another big reason is that we’ve inherited myths and stereotypes that we cling to about poetry and poetry writing. Schools have perpetuated the idea that poetry contains a meaning that needs to be extracted, so it becomes a substitute for the poem itself, as if it were merely a matter of solving a problem and, now that the problem has been solved, we can forget about it. Another issue is that analyzing poetic elements becomes more important than experiencing the poem itself. Other views include the idea that reading and writing poetry is a waste of time, doesn’t make money, is self-indulgent, or is a flowery feminine art.

If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it’s to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel.—Jim Morrison

Poetry, first and foremost, is meant to be experienced. How does it make us feel? What images does it evoke? How are we swept up by the language, sounds, and rhythms? How do our own lives relate to a poem or poet? In what way does a poem stir us to express ourselves? Poetry is a more bodily experienced art than we know. Not only does it make our imaginations flare, it makes our senses jump, the way music does.

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.—Emily Dickinson

What we also forget is that almost all religious and spiritual scriptures were composed as poems, as verse. Advertising and speechwriters use many of the same techniques that poets use. Snippets of poetry accidentally tumble out of our mouths. We can’t help it. There are countless words and expressions that poets have created. Shakespeare gave us hundreds of new expressions that we still use today and generally don’t know it.

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.—Audre Lorde

Poetry writing is, at best, a spiritual act, one in which the poet seeks to discover and express meaning using our richest, most beautiful, most universal medium: language. Poets strive to explore the possibilities of language just as painters explore line, shape, and color and just as architects explore utility, grace, and strength in building. The added beauty is that reading and writing poetry is virtually free. We can check out poetry from the library and scratch poems on recycled napkins and, in so doing, make profound discoveries about our selves, life, love, the world, language, relationships, or nature.

To read a poem is to hear it with our eyes; to hear it is to see it with our ears.—Octavio Paz

Without the art known as poetry, our world would be infinitely poorer, just as it would be if we didn’t have painting or music. Poetry and writing poetry matters because it involves our finest breaths of language—phrases, lines, images, rhythms, and subjects by which we can sing the truths of our heart.

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion collected in tranquility.—William Wordsworth

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.—T. S. Eliot

Poetry: the best words in the best order.—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.—Allen Ginsberg

Wrenzai Attends the Great Haiku Getaway

When my old friend the barred owl hooted her message to me from the crabapple tree, I was surprised and pleased to discover that I’d been invited to attend the Great Haiku Getaway in the woods beside the Great Water. I hadn’t ventured out to such an event for years and in fact had begun to grow moss between my toes. I tossed and turned that night over the decision, but as morning grew blue, as the sun rolled up into the sky and the robin chirruped pure as cherries, I donned my bamboo hat, coat, and sandals and set out East.

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

The journey was long. I wandered cross-country around the south end of the Great Mountains and then beyond, up the east side of the Great Water to a tiny hamlet in the woods known as Seabeck, in ancient times an elven timber station. The Main Hall stood wide and welcoming on the side of a hill beyond a silvery lagoon. The journey had taken me days and left me both exhausted and invigorated. I remembered how good it is to get out of my myrtle hut now and then. My fall crop of mushrooms could wait this time. As I crossed the lagoon these words came to me:

the old car bridge

Seabeck Conference Center

Seabeck Conference Center

What magic I sensed in the air as I arrived! I found many other hermits, mountain poets, and hut-dwellers in the Great Wooden Dining Hall at the midday meal, chattering about the tantalizing words and incantations known as haiku that the Great Party was to celebrate. Ah to mingle with others like me again! For so long it was just me and the chickadees, me and the old antlered bucks who stared up at me through the windows, me and the crows consoling each other as the world heats up near to burning—only the rare human visitor—for years.

Old Buddy Buck

My old buddy Buck

My counterparts wore rice-planting or wizards’ hats, had companions of ravens or crows, even a starling, perching upon their shoulders. Some wore coats of moss or woven cedar bark. Others smoked long thin pipes of incense or gesticulated in meaningful runes, reciting ancient haiku—or fresh ones, composed on the tongue, winging their way out of their mouths like hummingbirds or dragonflies. They’d arrived from all over the world. I was overwhelmed!

introductions

Soon we were off to what for me was my first haiku gathering, held in a Hall whose walls resounded with the profound but simple verses of the great and ancient haiku poets, of masters and disciples both. The chatter and gesticulations were hard to follow, so much was happening at once. Then four Masters gathered before us to discuss “haiku as poetry.” What delight I took in how seriously these great minds considered such tiny poems in the context of poetry and culture at large. I was mesmerized!

After a short break, I joined a large and enthusiastic group in the lower quarters to construct a book—to actually make a book in an hour! What fun it was to create a quality piece of workmanship in a matter of minutes wherein we were encouraged to inscribe our haiku. What fun measuring, cutting, and gluing as if we were Gutenberg’s apprentices—or the Beowulf monk himself! What pretty, useful, tiny tomes we conjured for later inspiration!

Then there were haiku quilts, thinking like an editor, a history of our venerable venue, each presentation more interesting, informative, and mind-dazzling than the last—which is to say a lot, because the first presentation was so intriguing and inspiring!

What energy and thoughts we took to dinner. Our haiku diners were a veritable galaxy of stars glinting with glee and reminiscences. And the food was delectable, not to mention endless, for those of us who’d worked up bottomless pits of haiku hunger.

Back in the hall, we celebrated a wonderful poet who’d recently left our world of haiku-ing (unless there’s a world where everything is haiku). Sad but all the more beautiful were her haiku in the aftermath of her existence. To be touched like that is to be touched deeply. Everyone sat up straight, with respect, interest riveted.

Soon we were deeply immersed in Chiyo-ni—of ancient times in a strange and wonderful country—and given a lesson in greeting with haiku in the ancient way. My lovely partner wrote this in greeting me (thank you, Ruth):

rainy night haiku

I was moved—to say the least. Then up we stood to receive Japanese candle lanterns so as to set out on a night ginko. We walked silently through the night and rain, listening to sounds we might ordinarily miss. With what strange, beautiful, and solemn attention we stepped through the pristine water, grass, and forest, bearing our long line of blue glowing lanterns, like fireflies in search of deeper experience. We were stilled to silence by the plash of rain and clothing rustling. I wrote

forest patter

Mushroom umbrella

Mushroom umbrella

I was so at home in the dark dripping forest, standing at length in silence, it was as if I’d brought a little of this from home, from the Myrtle Forest at the Edge of the Universe—though the singing of rain there differs.

Soon a few of us returned to workshop haiku. What gentle souls we were, making suggestions anonymously with a sincere desire to improve the magic of each others’ verse, then revealing ourselves as the conjurer of the workshopped haiku out of immediately-felt trust. The Haiku Poet is a sensitive creature, indeed.

Then off to bed this tired old hermit wandered through the cozy dark, to sleep without stirring through the night, till the next morning when we would re-enter the transcendent world of haiku—haiku-ists haiku-ing haiku (achoo)!

late night rain walk

And though some stayed up to the wee hours the night before, no one looked the worse for wear the following morning as we gathered in the Great Haiku Hall. There we played a Haiku Game, getting to know each other—or better. The Grand Haiku Poobah led us though his Haiku on Steroids, sharing his thousand years of albeit humble haiku experience—a generous soul that man! Then for one of the Featured Events of the Getaway: Ancient Masters (though they look so young) guided us on an extensive journey through the Cyber World of the Haiku Chronicles—its history, distribution, technology, and the teamwork involved in this enormous venue for the Ever Evolving World of Haiku. I was dazzled—speechless—swept away by the great symphony of this enthusiastic and dedicated duet. I saw what is possible. Paths broke open before me. Ideas bounced around like hacky sacks in my usually meditative mind. Great thanks to these Giants of Haiku for wandering much further, much farther, than I, to bring us this explosion of information and inspiration!

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Then contest winners announced, a group photograph, a nature walk, sound in haiku—an endless stream of haiku delicacies to enrich and mull over. The day was ceaseless—seemed to stretch to eternity to accommodate an impossible lineup of ten-course haiku meals. I experienced my first kukai, a contest (or ranking) of haiku. That was nerve-racking, but fun. So good to see how it all works, in spirit so unlike the poetry slam. I began to feel dizzy for all the wonder I felt at what so many poets had to offer in readings before and after dinner. And if all the haiku were too much to appreciate, there was a talent show that evening, mostly for comic relief (or so I hoped). Afterward, I could take no more (had groomed a meaningful headache) and excused myself to bed as the party raged into the night.

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

distantly creaking

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) with weightier subject matter

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) present a weightier subject

And still, the following day, there was another full morning of festivities, entertainment, and haiku evolution. First, Haiku Comics: Master Frog and Disciple Frog, like Basho and Sora. Then, believe it or not, Monkeys Invaded My Sacred Palace and Chased Out My Tiger! If ever I was confused by the difference between haiku and senryu, or ignorantly conflated them, the difference was untwisted and unscrewed by our Grand Wizard of Haiku.

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace and Chasing Out the Tiger

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace Chasing Out the Tiger

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

Michael Dylan Welch presenting the book haiku from all of us at the Getaway

Michael Dylan Welch presenting a book of haiku from all of us to Al

By this time, I knew I’d had enough inspiration, information, insight, and ever-increasing interest to hold me till the next Great Haiku Party in the Woods by the Great Water, scheduled for next fall. I set out for my hut so nourished by the Getaway that I hardly noticed the week-long trek back to my little Myrtle Woods by the Edge of the Universe. Haiku fluttered about my head like butterflies around honeysuckle as I skirted the toes of the mountains on my return. I came away with enough gifts to hold me for many months till I grow antsy for the next Great Round of Haiku. I was relieved to find that my secret chanterelles, under the nurturing arms of their spruces, were just popping open their ocher umbrellas.

Golden chanterelles!

Golden chanterelles!

Note: Please visit these links and sources:

https://sites.google.com/site/haikunorthwest/seabeck-haiku-getaway-2014

http://www.seabeck.org/

http://www.haikuchronicles.com/