This post is a re-print from my monthly column on creative practice at NicoleDieker.com.
It is the week between Christmas and the New Calendar Year, and I have come with my housemate-family to a little-sung slice of Oregon’s edge. We’ll spend six days reading, cooking, hiking, and playing board games, without the clock to rule us. It is the end of 2020, and Covid-19 has made the usual holiday travel ill-advised. We like each other enough to vacation together, so we have made yet another virtue of quarantine.
I am intending, this week, to write poetry. Among things I love, writing poetry ranks consistently high. Not poetry itself — though I do like that, very much — but the composing of it, the work of it. Poetry is a vocation primarily because it will not leave me alone. And fortunately I don’t want it to. We’re suited.
Fast forward five days. I have sat down each morning to write, and I have written. It’s all bad. Beautiful words, that wander with me down lonely beaches and secret, sand-floored halls of pine, in written form decline to become other than blowsy prose.
I don’t despair. Writing crap is an important part of eventually writing well. But I am disappointed. Such silence, such a lack of responsibility, such an enviable spaciousness of time — and I haven’t written a single other-than-ordinary sentence, even in my oldest and best companion, my journal.
Is this writer’s block? The conflicting advice on this phenomenon (or figment, depending on who you ask) makes my head ache. My strategy has been to ignore the idea unless it becomes immediately relevant. I’m pondering it this afternoon, and deciding it’s still not applicable. I’m writing; I’m just not writing anything worth working on. I close the keyboard, button my jacket, pull on my boots. The beach will sort me out, one way or another.
The sharpening southwest wind drives rain into my eyes, rolls cylinders of seafoam up the winter-steep sand. I’m grounded for balance among dull-gold sedges, in the space between three big dunes. I am speaking poems. I realize I have been doing this — in my mind, under my breath, quite loudly in places devoid of other humans — all week.
This is the same beach, in the same season, where I composed two poems from my recently finished, forthcoming book, Tell the Turning. It’s these two I’m speaking now. One’s a memorized whole; the other’s a jumble of fragments, puzzle pieces spilling from my tongue to scatter sandward.
I have stopped trying to compose. A fierceness has welled up in me, a need to speak these poems already shaped. To whom, and to what purpose, am I telling them? Sky and sea accept them without comment.
I have written before that the process of writing a long work has two distinct phases. The Gathering is a gentle, curious, wandery state. The Shaping that follows it is more like falling in love: focused, exhilarating, intense. Until now, these are as far as my experience went.
Tell the Turning has been Gathered and Shaped (and Re-Shaped.) It has found a publisher (and — unexpectedly, wonderfully — an illustrator.) All of its momentum now belongs to them: typesetting, pen and ink, an ISBN. My work would seem to be finished. Today I am learning that this is not the case. There’s a third phase.
Back from the beach, this afternoon I have been in the hot tub again. (It’s a principal attraction of the house we rented.) This too summons a poem — nothing to do with a hot tub, but with a feeling I have this week, of immediate enclosing warmth surrounded by elemental chill, of surfacing to a space of quiet after a time of turmoil.
This moment, I am bundled in blankets on the porch. I can hear the distant surf just over the pastures, feel the cold fastening down as the sky solidifies, and listen to the wind in the douglas-firs, and a gutterspout dripping with melted frost. Poems come like memories: sharp or gentle; insistent. Now that I’m paying attention to their need for it, I’m letting each one borrow my voice, and take its time to take form and flight.
I am, as near as I can tell, incanting Tell the Turning — helping in some speak-aloud way to encourage its physical form. I did not begin on purpose, but I am speaking now with serious intention. I love these poems, these lines and lilts and rhythms already born of me. I am no longer in charge of the logistics of their physical manifestation. Instead, I am chanting them into being.
Because poems are more than sounds, because they require also rhythm, and often feel as though they are halfway set to music — the name of this phase (it’s so obvious now) is The Singing.
I sometimes don’t realize I’m conceiving a new project. Especially if it’s a big one, like a book — something that will begin in the amorphous Gathering stage and gestate there for awhile. I have a lot of ideas, and a need to be always creating. Sometimes it takes being blocked — as I have been these past five days — to show me that I’m trying to create something I am not yet ready to create. Intuition is telling me: this is not a project, yet. It’s telling me also: Sing the project that’s still inside your heart.
The Singing seems to be about launching a finished work into the world, but there’s a shadowy complement to that much-admired forward movement. The Singing contains a sadness too, a letting go. It has come to help prepare me — to live in the world without having this work to do.
There will be other work. I’ve been trying this week to get to some of it, but it’s the unfocused, Gathering sort, and it’s not yet satisfying. The concentrated work of The Shaping is a long way off again, and I miss it. I’m tripping over my longings because I still need to acknowledge and let them be.
Wendell Berry wrote a line that comes to me often: Again I resume the long lesson. This understanding that I cannot do two, three, ten things at once without consequence is a long lesson I am learning over and over. I am done writing Tell the Turning, but it is not done with me.Before I can move on to give full attention to another project of this scale, I need to shape this one some wings and let it go. I need to shape myself some wings, too: for floating, dreaming, back toward a Gathering space.
It seems my way of doing this is to Sing.