At a creative writing workshop someone asked the standard “Where do you get your ideas from?” question. I used to say, “Trenton. I use a mail-order catalogue,” but I realized that was somewhat snarky. Now I quote my good friend Tim Seibles:
Some things take root in the brain and just don’t let go
I love when someone says exactly what I’m thinking. Saves me time.
As for ideas, yes, that’s how it works. I might be out for a walk along the water, or perhaps driving somewhere, and one thought leads to another, and then just the right song comes on, or a smell—yes, sometimes it might be an aroma that makes me think of a place, and then the receptors in my head are off and running; I’m just along for the ride, somehow simply a spokesperson who never really gets the translation right. That’s the problem with writing; it is never right. If someone looks at a piece they’re working on and very comfortably suggests there is nothing more that can be done, I am weary of reading it.
But of all the writers I know it has always been the poets who can get me to sit back and say, “Yes! Exactly.” I can carry on conversations all day long about a subject and then toss it around in my head for a few days, write it out, readdress it, and pour some decent energy into it, only to turn to a few lines some poet wrote and I find the need to burn my work. I’ll do it too; I’ll sit here with a match and hold the pages while they flare up. It has a very cleansing effect. Plus, you know, toasted peeps.
Here’s an example: Tim and I went to lunch at this same divey joint in Norfolk we always go to, and we talked. We talked about our fathers, or about something in the news. We talked about a variety of things that good friends talk about; we rarely talk about writing. Well, somewhere over the course of the last year I have several times talked about my dad, about how I miss him; I know Tim gets it so I don’t’ have to say much, but still, talking is always helpful. Unfortunately, my words are trite, predictable, and lazy descriptions of how missing a person feels. Of course, I’m not trying to compose a play; I’m just talking about my dad. Still, I want to get it right.
Then not too long ago I flipped through one of Tim’s books and came across this:
Missing someone is like hearing a
name sung quietly from somewhere
behind you. Even after you know no
one is there, you keep looking back.
I could write a thousand lines about how I miss my dad, but that covers it. That’s poetry.
Anyone who listens to a lot of music knows what I mean. Some lines just say it all.
I have tried to write essays about nature, already handicapped by the vast selection of the genre from people such as Thoreau, Muir, and E.O. Wilson. In my files are dozens of starts in an attempt to finish a piece about the fall of the year and the coming of winter. Those brain receptors often click into the passing of time, the end of things, the changes beyond our control. I wrote one “epic” diatribe that might be the most bloated, pretentious vomit I’ve ever attempted. The only way to make it more pretentious would have been to have it translated into Latin. Then Frost does this:
So dawn goes down to day,
Nothing gold can stay
I prefer conversations, of course. I like to sit and have a beer and talk about our dads; I like running into a friend and grabbing a bite and laughing about simple things like sports and movies. But I also like reminders of our glide across this thin layer of life.
Over the course of the past several years I found a way to handle my frustrations when I can’t find the right words to express our need to celebrate being alive. I call a friend and meet him for lunch; luckily, he’s usually a poet—I know a lot of poets. If I can’t find one, I head instead to a favorite café and have a glass of wine and talk to strangers. Every single one of my closest friends was, at one time, a complete stranger. I walk along the water and watch the dolphins breech and disappear. I feel the coolness of morning give way to the warmth of the sun on my face.
Note: We are surrounded by poetry.
I sat in an Irish pub in Prague once during a soccer match between Dublin and Manchester United. The excitement and roar of the crowd, the explosion of being in the moment, alive, then, ever-so-briefly, was poetry.
There was the time my friend Tom and I sat on a rock in the mountains west of Tucson and watched the sun work its way across the desert. Or when Michael and I walked past the small sign that said “Santiago de Compostella” five hundred miles and five weeks after we left France. Or when we watched the seals at Lake Baikal.
Poetry. Like when we walk to the river at sunset, most nights for twenty-five years now, and catch the colors, find the light on the water. Or those Tuesday nights a long time ago after I finished teaching and Dad and I would have some Scotch.
The sound of a golf ball dropping into the cup. The sound of cardinals on the porch, looking for food. Whippoorwills at dusk. Gulls at dawn. Rigging. Waves.
A very long hug from an old, old friend.
My dad’s laugh. His deep “Hello.”
A name sung quietly from somewhere behind you