Backroads

This post is a reprint from my monthly column on the creative practice, over at NicoleDieker.com.


I heard a poem today, and I fell in love. It’s called Things to Think, by Robert BlyI must get it by heart on my next walk. It resonated so strongly with my ruminations shortly before I heard it, on a mini-roadtrip undertaken in the day’s middle hours. 

I had met a friend for lunch, on the other side of a spine of low, arid mountains near the sea. I got there by car in the conventional way: there’s a many-laned freeway that connects coastal plain to valley in about five minutes (when the traffic’s light). I returned — having planned this with happy anticipation — via a series of one-lane backroads. A question I was considering as I did this: why do I go out of my way, whenever I can, to travel on backroads?

It isn’t just aesthetic, though there’s that in it too. Today is not an example. This is the sere season in Southern California; my route is mainly brown, dry, blasted. People talk about winter as the time when the bones of the land show through, but here that’s summer, which lasts until the rains come. Sometimes that’s January — or the January after that.

So why else? I answered as if conversing with myself: They get me off the freeway. They make me read the map. Or get off the map, and navigate for myself. 

And that’s it, literally and metaphorically. In a material act that you do with your hands, feet, and senses, driving a backroad requires you to re-examine your known ways of getting places. 

They take longer, backroads. You have to brake, coast, pass, get passed, take very sharp curves quite slowly. If there’s construction or an accident, you’re far from surface streets, so you just have to wait. Cruise control doesn’t work for long, and there’s little zoning out. 

The act of backroads-driving can be — it was for me today — an incantation, a declaration of intent to seek a new path. Or an old path perhaps, but one with wisdom you haven’t yet encountered. Or wisdom you’ve forgotten.  

There’s a lot of time on backroads journeys for observation. It is not, for example, only brown and blasted out here; I’m noticing the sea-born haze that hangs in the air (all day), and the way every color is hazy too: the sky a heathered bluish taupe; the chapparal and citrus trees a muted olive green. Even the ocean is a dusty sort of turquoise, like someone dug it out of the mountain five minutes ago, and left it lying. 

Noticing, I realize: this is what I want.

I mean that I want this road specifically, and many like it, today and tomorrow and the days after that.

And I mean, in the larger and metaphoric sense, that I want to get off the freeway. I want to find new and slower ways through my life. 

My life has half-a-dozen standard lanes, all blazing along well over the speed limit. The one that concerns us here is my creative practice: a reasonably well-established, regular and crucial part of my everyday routines. A well-maintained fast-track to who I want to be.

The inertia of this lane is strong. I suspect this is because it is successful, by the definition I previously set for success: I have written a book of poems, which is currently being edited and illustrated and produced, in an intensely beautiful and gratifyingly official way, by a small team of wonderful human beings. I love this book, and I love the making of it, every stage.

Staying in this lane creatively seems natural, feels good. It worked, didn’t it? It’s telling me exactly how to do what I most want to do, which is make the next book.

I recently finished assembling 100+ poems into a manuscript draft of the next book. Though there is much (much) work left to be done, I have already revised and polished most of them significantly. And I have made a first attempt at structure. I have printed out a thing that looks like a book-in-the-making, and now I have a satisfying stack of physical paper that has let me remove from the internet, and engage entirely with hand, pen, lips, tongue, breath, body, word, rhythm, and form.

And it isn’t working. 

Back from the backroads and crunching some day-job data, I have stumbled upon — in that lovely serendipitous way that feels like a sort of benign divine intervention — the exact interview I needed to hear. Martin Shaw, a storyteller and mythologist, interviewed Mark Rylance, a stage and screen actor. Rylance talked about creative integrity from one performance to another, employing a metaphor of “reheating the meal.” When you do something well, and you can feel you have done, and people come up to you and tell you how good it was, you think: Great! I will do that again. And then you do it again, and it’s stilted and it doesn’t work. 

So I have some words now for my realization: I don’t want to reheat the meal. My next book (next project) cannot be Tell-the-Turning-with-different-themes. 

What is it then? I don’t know! Which is why I’ve decided to take a break from Shaping it. 

Rylance says in the interview: “focus on your intention,” rather than “the memory of the form.” I don’t know what my intention is, even, for the next project. So I’m waiting. 

“Waiting” sounds passive, which makes me uneasy. But in fact this particular waiting isn’t passive. It’s perfectly active — it’s just not art.  

A poet — any artist — needs to be consistently exploring the subjects, themes, and patterns that give them life, that root their art in the necessary and true. By “explore,” I do not mean “produce art about.” I mean physically engage with a thing itself, not analyze or make accessible, or otherwise publicly represent that thing or the experience of it. 

This hands-on, all-in exploration is a pre-requisite for art. But it is not art and it does not necessarily lead to art, either. If it has a goal outside itself, that goal does not serve our egos or advancement.

In the exhaustion of pandemic and depression, I have been pushing hard to produce art. And neglecting, in that process, these explorations. 

For example, I have not been walking. Granted, it’s too hot for me in summer to walk for hours. But that seasonal loss ought to be attended, and mitigated. I’ve barely noticed.

I have also let my journal go. Where I used to channel enormous flows of imagery, effort, leisure, and love into my personal writing — which I do for play, and which never has an audience —  instead I’ve been pouring all of that into poems for publication. I can do both, of course. But I can tell (now that I’m attending) that the two are out of balance. My journals from the period of writing Tell the Turning are full and vibrant. My journal as I’ve Gathered and begun to Shape the next book? Nearly empty. 

And I have largely forgone my habit of taking the literal backroads. 

In consequence of all this neglect, I have forgotten how, as Bly’s poem has it, to “think in ways you’ve never thought before.” I’ve remained on the freeway, in my creative lane.

Having noticed all of this, I have already begun to repair it. 

What sort of art will come, eventually, to fill the expectant, active space I’m leaving as I press pause on the next book, and instead resume exploring? 

Tell the Turning was invited into being with a handwritten letter. What will make the next invitation?

Faith is not some kind of literal belief. Faith is trusting. Trusting, in this case, my own self, to do what my soul and my body need to survive — and if possible, eventually, to thrive. Trusting the creative process I love, that I’m still discovering. 

And perhaps there is a new phase to the process of making a given creative work. I’ve identified The Gathering, The Shaping, and The Singing. Is this The Resting?

What would The Resting consist of, so I can look out for and encourage it when it’s needed? 

Get off the freeway. Take the backroads. Fall in love with a poem or two — or a person, perhaps, or a season. Wait. Watch. Do the non-art things that make you you

A response — like a storm, or the fog rolling in, or the sun cracking through — is surely coming, on a future shift in the wind. 

I pay attention to winds. I’ll be able to smell it. 

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