Got Revision?

Just want to give you a quick head’s up about my guest post, yesterday, over at The Poetry Department. 

What I learned from writing this post, which is about the different lenses I apply to revising a poem, is that I have WAY TOO MUCH to say in a single post. I was asked for 300 words, I squeezed it down into 600…and I still had so much clattering around in my brain.

Writing the post made me miss teaching, a little. It made me want to get out my poems and start tinkering some more. (I think I’ll stick with the latter.)

I hope it makes you think about your poems, too.

Guest Poet: Paul Marshall

I am pleased to share with you a poem by my friend and fellow Writing Labster, Paul Marshall. Paul’s words have graced this blog before (check out his book, too, Building a Boat: Lessons of a 30-Year Project). Last August, he joined me and a bunch of other mostly-northwest poets in the poetry postcard challenge. His process differed from mine in his usual Marshallian way, and was an inspiration.

One of Paul’s postcard poems will appear in the anthology, 56 Days of August.  In the postcard poem below, Paul writes about a local beach and bears witness to the generations of other visitors who came before him.  It has been many years since I went clam-digging, but I don’t think I’ll ever eat a clam again without feeling his presence.


Native spirits of the Salish Sea
whisper to me as I walk the Double Bluff beach.
The bluff rises like a sentinel
cast in sand and rock.  Standing guard for 15,000 years,
lone soldier left for us by the retreating army of ice.

Butter clams have brought humans to this spot
since the ice left.  Digging into the barnacle
encrusted cobble I feel the cold hands
of the old ones digging alongside mine.
We search for the grey and tan shelled creature that will feed us
this summer night.


What Should You Write About?

I was thinking about how my own little domestic dramas are really not very interesting, compared to massive forest fires and fleeing refugees and headlines in Mumbai or, for that matter, Kentucky.

This led to a kind of depressive, downward spiral (another one), hearing my wonderful father’s voice in my head saying, “Women talk about the dumbest things.” And my spiral had everything to do with having just finished reading an amazing novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, by Ben Fountain, which has been called “The Catch-22 for the Iraq War.”

So I was thinking that I need a soldier to write about, or at least a forest fire poem, in fact I was listening to NPR and thinking exactly this, when Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac interrupted the news.

When I was in graduate school, I fell into a swoon over Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), author of The Country of the Pointed Firs, and A Country Doctor. Her short story, “A White Heron,” has continued to be a great favorite of mine. My advisers at the time felt her work was too slight for study, and I ended up turning toward Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not that I regretted that choice, but, hearing that today is the anniversary of Jewett’s birth, I thought that I’d share her with you.

Fountain’s novel, with its nineteen-year-old American soldier as protagonist, and a Cowboys football game as backdrop, serves up a sharp contrast to Jewett, who understood why her work was criticized:

 “It seems to me I can furnish the theatre, and show you the actors, and the scenery, and the audience, but there never is any play!. . . I seem to get very bewildered when I try to make these come in for secondary parts. . .I am certain I could not write one of the usual magazine stories. If the editors will take the sketchy kind and people like to read them, is not it as well to do that and do it successfully as to make hopeless efforts to achieve something in another line which runs much higher?” (qtd. in Biography 61).

I found this quote, and the following commentary at

“This sort of criticism of Jewett’s work, that it is not plot driven and therefore less than worthy, is one that many of the domestic women writers faced. Somehow because their stories were more about interior actions, or about the relationships and lives of women, rather than about wars and conquests, their work has been viewed as inferior. This is troublesome because in saying these things are inferior we say that the lives of women (our grandmothers, our old aunts, even ourselves today) are inferior. Anyone who has nursed a sick relative or waited for a “seagoing” lover to come home knows that these apparently docile pursuits are anything but dull, and anything but lifeless.”

What should we write about? I don’t think you get to choose. It seems to me, in fact, that your material chooses you. Whether you’re a Ben Fountain or a Sarah Orne Jewett, you have to write about your stuff, or, as Jewett put it, “You must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that.”

The poem at The Writer’s Almanac on this same day (Sept. 3, 2015), “Swimming to New Zealand” by Douglas Goetsch, is also worth a listen to.

Plays Well with Others

I promised a blogpost about writing in community, and even though I’ve now been thinking about this post for a few days, I’m still not quite sure how to shape it.

So I’ll just tell you what I’ve been thinking.

Because I facilitate a writing group (The Writing Lab), which used to be closely associated with my college, and is still loosely associated with it, I frequently talk to people who are curious about our group, but don’t “get it.” I don’t write in groups, one faculty member told me (with a sort of sneer).

I’ve also met people who would like to join us, but “can’t” write in a group. It’s a solitary process for them, I guess. Someone said to me that there’s a reason knitting isn’t a team sport (except people do get together in knitting circles, right?). They would be willing to show up at the end and share their work, I’ve been told. One of these people added, “I think you would enjoy it.” I wasn’t sure how to take that.

The group, as it’s evolved, isn’t about entertaining one another. It’s more like holding our feet to the fire. We are writers, not having-writ-eners (?). (There are critique groups, to which one brings work in draft, of course, and they can be very useful.) Nothing new about this, as there are Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones type groups all over the place.

We don’t write from prompts (we used to, and then we kind of went off in our own direction.) Our group is maybe a little like AA or Weight Watchers. Except instead of quitting alcohol or losing weight, we’ve made a commitment to get together and write. Some of us have made a specific commitment to write on a certain project (I now work only on poetry when I’m at Lab and this is slowly helping me to find my way toward a new manuscript). And even though the other members are receptive and never-critical and pleased in fact with almost everything, having made a commitment to them makes it easier to follow through on that commitment.

You don’t have to travel to belong to a group. Julia Cameron suggests contacting a friend (by email or text, or a quick phone message) to say “I’m going to write now,” and, later, to say “I wrote ____ words” or “____pages.” And there are lots of internet groups for people more technologically savvy than I am. But I like having actual people physically sitting at a table with me.

More than anything else, though, more than sitting at the table even, is the belief that we share: the belief that writing is valuable, that it is worth doing.

“If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs — and becomes automatic — it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as [William] James wrote, that bears ‘us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.’

“The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the world that each of us inhabit.”
–Charles Duhigg, 
The Power of Habit (273)

By the way, once Duhigg got to William James, he had completely won me over. You could read just the Afterward and Appendix and be inspired (though I think you would then be inspired to read the whole book).

And, please notice, I wouldn’t have written this post at all, had I not promised it to you, dear community of blog-readers. Having a community supporting any goal is a gift.