For this exercise, I chose the following poem by John Brehm as a prompt, and I read it out loud to my participants:
In all the woods that day I was
the only living thing
fretful, exhausted, or unsure.
Giant fir and spruce and cedar trees
that had stood their ground
three hundred years
stretched in sunlight calmly
unimpressed by whatever
it was that held me
hunched and tense above the stream,
biting my nails, calculating all
Nor did the water pause
to reflect or enter into
It found its way
over and around a crowd
of rocks in easy flourishes,
in laughing evasions and
shifts in direction.
Nothing could slow it down for long.
It even made a little song
out of all the things
that got in its way,
a music against the hard edges
of whatever might interrupt its going.
What I wrote is below.
I often say that writers do not have a choice. They may sit down regularly (or intermittently) with their writing, or they may quit for a while and then begin again, but they do not have a choice, because writers are driven to write the way singers are driven to sing, and dancers are driven to dance.
Brenda Ueland once wrote, “Try not writing for a few days. . . you will simply want to burst!” It’s true. It may only be an email or a little note, but writers not only enjoy the process of writing, they feel they must write, at some point, every few days. They travel with journals and books, they scribble lines or phrases on the blank side of receipts or used envelopes.
I’ve spent the majority of my adult life claiming other people as writers, and now I find I have to do this for myself, over and over again. When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a writing teacher, and sometimes I tack on that I’m a writer. But I very seldom claim my drive to write—the art form that has chosen me.
This only seems to get harder as I grow older, as the stack of unpublished manuscripts I’ve written grows larger, even when an agent says she would like to read one of them, or an editor says one of them moved her to tears.
I don’t think publishing changes this, nor does finishing a project you have been working on for a long time. No. Writers have to constantly claim themselves and reclaim themselves, and then begin again the process of submitting to it. I am a writer; I have no choice.
Having said all that, it’s important to recognize that artists must practice their art—whether it is painting or photography or dance—just as a yogi practices yoga, or a monk meditation, a gymnast tumbling and triple flips: practice. Not only because it is the best way to improve, but because it is the best way to claim ourselves, again and again.