The “Where” of Writing: A Writer’s Confession

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

– Thomas MannEssays of Three Decades

When I picture a writer, I immediately picture a human being as self-conscious about writing as I am. He, or she, is probably sitting at a coffee shop, realizing that their cafe’s choice of relaxing music is not actually as relaxing as he had imagined and that there are more people in the cafe than he was wanting. We writers are always about the particulars. The gentleman next to him took the last open outlet, and so now he’s staring despondently at the 20% battery sign on his refurbished macbook pro. He’s thinking, “Well, I didn’t have much to write anyway. Guess I’ll write till this dies, then go home.” 

I say this because I’ve been similar to that “writer” before. I put the word “writer” in quotations because it’s an identity that I so easily placed upon myself when I was younger, in middle school and high school, and even in community college, but that I have had a difficult time claiming of late. Writer is a name that I feel I do not always have a right, or the time, to claim. I say that I’m a writer, but with my lifestyle, I hardly have time to write as consistently as I did earlier in my life, hence my insecurity. It is now the most exciting event when I write a poem within the span of two weeks, and even more thrilling when I’ve written two in one day. 

I did not always struggle with this confidence of identity as a writer. Growing up I let the fuel of emotions and the immense expanse of time at home via being homeschooled spur my writing. While I wrote from my pent up pubescent and teenage emotions, my bed was my place of writing. I had a gorgeous desk made of elaborately engraved wood that I’d found at a resale shop, but as a hectic, artistic person my living space was a whimsical wreck, piled with books, undone schoolwork or scratch papers of poems I’d written days before. Besides my writing, reading, some science classes and elementary math, I was a surprisingly uneducated homeschooled child. I was socially savvy, but I always felt like I didn’t know as much about the world, particularly math, as I wanted to. I took the emotional needs of my silent depression and fueled them into my poetry. Poetry became my secret self-language, reading my loyal refuge, and journaling my daily self-care duty before self-care was even cool. 

But from the age of 14 to 24, I traded emotional needs for mental and emotional stress. This stress is built up by adult responsibilities that I can hardly keep up with, much less my writing dreams. For years I told people, “I’m working on a poetry book”— “I’m writing a poetry book”—repeatedly. Over and over again. I had yet to follow through until now.

I am at the point in life where I need to channel the emotional fuel of writing into a mental fuel for writing. After community college, and getting married, life has greatly changed for me, and this last year has been the most difficult one of my writing career. Aha! I said it. My Writing Career. Because I am a writer. I’m a troubled, anxious writer, that perhaps cares too much about the perfect written representation of those in my life and every aspect of my skills as a writer. But, I finally came to the conclusion that these anxieties are cemented to the locations I chose when I wrote. 

Now when giving yourself an identity, location matters, and I soon I realized that home was not the ideal place to write; that I’d already explored most of the inspirational spots within and that I needed to venture outwards for mental writing food. This pertained particularly to my essay writing in my junior and senior year of college at UMSL. I was swimming through the ocean of school whilst being engaged, then being a newlywed. And now that I’ve been married over a year, it’s still not any easier, and I am definitely still a newlywed. My new home with my husband is a place of relaxing distractions, and I realized the sweet tragedy of not being able to write well while my husband is around, or in the space that we consider ours, shared, and special. Even moving my desk to a different spot in our office did not fix my problem. It helped with the average homework, but not a writer’s homework for her own writing. If I write at home, I use time while Jordan is at work, or out for the evening. 

But often, even then, I need a completely different location and aesthetic. The same kind of aesthetic that my imaginary writer was seeking. I’ve taken up writing at Starbucks or Picasso’s. Libraries are dangerously quiet locations where my thoughts will run away with too much before my fingers or my pen can even begin to keep up. I need the annoying music that my fictional writer friend hated. I need it to keep my thoughts in check, yet steadily moving forward. I need the comfort of knowing people are around me. Everyone is human. My writing is human, made by a human, and I can be more comfortable sharing the humanity that forever lives in my writing. 

I wrote this essay from the comfort of a friend’s home, in the living room, while in the kitchen just beyond my “relaxing writing playlist” were the hums of my husband and his best friend recording a podcast.  Tonight would have been date night, but I knew I needed to write, and not just for a class, but for myself. Both my husband and I got to spend tonight near each other, but all the while doing the different things that we love and that we ever crave to complete. And yet my husband was just another person in the “coffeeshop” while I put on my writer fins and waded into a world of rolling words, earbuds in, music whirling around me, music of my choice. 

Always be a poet, even in prose.

– Charles Baudelaire

Podcasts! and poetry tips, oh my!

Hello, my fellow poets and readers!

Forgive my long absence! I haven’t been posting, but I have still been writing plenty of poetry and learning so much lately. After finishing up my last full semester of my undergrad degree, my nights are finally full or reading, and I have much more time to write during the day.

In this first post after my short hiatus, I have a few helpful tips I want to share on incorporating a fun way to grow your writing skills while not writing, knowing the importance of catching spontaneous inspiration with immediacy, and realizing how reading more poetry can help you become a better poet.


Procrastinating by Podcast

Listening to podcasts regularly has become a hobby of mine. Whether I’m driving back and forth from work or cleaning my house, my go-to podcast to pass time has been The Writer Files, hosted by Kelton Reid. In order to become a better writer, I realized I needed to surround myself with a lot more writerly-ness. So I googled “writer podcasts”, and The Writer Files was the most recommended channel for aspiring writers. And it hasn’t disappointed! I’ve been learning about so many writing hacks, habits and productive tips through Kelton Reid’s commentary and through the scribal testimonies of the authors and writers he hosts on the show.

When you’re not writing, but you still want to further your knowledge of writing, writers, or good reads in general, podcasts like this are an excellent and accessible option. Nearly everyone has Spotify or Apple Podcasts these days. Look up some podcasts that you think will fill your mind with great writing instruction and inspiration, and see how it affects your drive to write.

Ever since I started listening to The Writer Files, I genuinely feel even more attracted to writing, as well as to creating better writing environments and habits for myself. Step by step, I want to take action to practice some of the advice I’ve been able to partake of through this entertaining and informative podcast.

So if you feel stuck in the rut of procrastination or writer’s block, give an episode of The Writer Files a listen, and learn more about the worlds of professional writers while waiting for the inspiration to flow.


Stop, Drop, and Write!

It’s usually when I’m driving or on some intense and fast-paced errand when I have my poetic emergencies. These are those little moments when BOOM! — I have an amazing poetic line in my head, or an intriguing idea that could lead to a poem. And more than I’d like to admit, I think to myself that I’ll be able to retain that thought and return to it later when I’m able to write it down on paper, or when I get back to my laptop. But rarely do I EVER return to that thought.

In my first poetry class I was told that one poet’s interpretation of poetic inspiration was this: That a poem comes to you like a wind, from one side of the sky, and if you don’t reach out and capture it when it passes you, it will move on to the other side of the sky to the next poet that will properly catch it.

This image has stayed with me ever since. So in those moments of disappointment, when I’m languishing after a poem I was so excited to write but that I let fly past me, I know I only have myself to blame. I did not stop and drop whatever I was doing in order to preserve and capture the poem that so graciously flew to me.

Perhaps we all need to think of these poems or inspiring thoughts as old friends that have interrupted whatever we are doing, whether we’re rushing through target or grabbing some emergency ice cream at Walmart. If a dear old friend of yours ran into you while you were busy, you wouldn’t ignore them, would you? No. You’d stop, forget for a second about what you are there to do, and you would give them a little bit of yourself and your time. In reality, that is all these incoming poems want of us. They know that the package in which we capture them will not always be perfect and the most comfortable.


If you’re not reading, are you really writing?

Any seasoned poet will agree that if you wish to write poetry well, you must also be a student of poetry. That doesn’t mean you need to take formal classes, though many do. But it does mean that you should be surrounding yourself with poetry, different styles, different voices, from different times.

In my experience, reading poetry for the sake of writing poetry inspires two habits that lead to producing better poetry overall: writing in response to poetry and writing in imitation or emulation of other poetry or art.

Poetry is written in order to evoke a response in the reader or listener. So a good practice in writing poetry is to take your responses from what you read and fuel it into a poem of your own. Some poets will even do this in regards to art.

Now on imitation, many poetry students think of it as copying, a sentiment that I understand. But when it comes to learning more poetic forms and tools, in my opinion there is no better way to learn than to imitate or seek to emulate what you wish to learn or accomplish. As I discover more poets whose styles, imagery, language or voice I wish to emulate in my own writing, I do copy them, and I do so that I can stretch my skills as a poet. There is a reason in the arts to study the “Greats” and to practice music already written, to imitate art already completed and prose or poetry already written. This is so that as we learn to write or create in similar ways to those before us, we can add our own personal inspirations into the mix, producing something no one else has experienced before.

Some of the ways that you can imitate poems would be through:

  1. Form (Haiku, Sestina, Free Verse, Sonnet, etc,.)
  2. Subject
  3. Voice
  4. Meter (the rhythmic beats throughout a poem)
  5. Language

I often focus on imitating form, voice and language, and then I add my own subject to a poem.

Lately I have been reading Mary Oliver’s Felicity in honor of her passing. I did not read any of her poetry before learning of her death, and so I’ve taken it upon myself to immerse myself in her poetry, and I have been discovering many aspects of her work that I wish to emulate and imitate in order to grow as a poet. As of now I have imitated two of her poems, and I can’t wait to challenge myself to imitate more of her breathtaking work.

The point is, though, that I wouldn’t be inspired to emulate Mary Oliver if I was not reading her work in the first place. Read. Read. READ. Whether it’s for ten minutes during your work break or for 30 minutes before you go to bed, it is an absolute necessary for a growing writer to be filling yourself with the written word. Let the poetry of others inspire a blossoming of skills in you that need to be set free.


Thanks for taking the time to soak in these three tips on poetry and writing! I hope they help carry you onto whatever could be the next step in your writing journey.

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

― Jim Jarmusch

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/imitation

The Evolution of a Haiku

Recently while on my University’s campus, I was struck by two images: daffodils bending to a soft, pattering rain and a clock ticking away in the quiet English department student lounge.

Now it is not often that I decide to write Haikus. Haiku is not my preferred style of poetry, but there are those moments when I see an image and I know immediately that the best way to display it in words is in the simple poetic form of haiku.

So to the best of my ability, I will show you how I came to my finishing decisions on each haiku that I wrote that particular rainy afternoon.


The Clock Haiku

As I contemplated the clock in the study lounge, the first word that came to my mind was gentleman. I feel like clocks and gentlemen have a lot in common: reliability, consistency, steadiness, and selflessness. And, not coincidentally, they both like to know what the time is, and to tell others the time.

Now the second image that popped into my mind was a mustache. The hour-hand of the clock had dipped to 4, and the minute hand inched its way to 4:45pm. It was an odd and uneven mustache stretching across the definitions of time, but it seemed like a mustache all the same.

So from those two images, came all of these lines:

Haiku Round 1 (with rambling)

That gentleman on the wall with
the ever lilting looping mustache...
Oh, Dear! Look at the time!

My skirts follow in a flutter
My self-pressed steps

Painful pumps digging deeper
Into muddy depths that I stare down

Down, down, ignoring the soar
Of cherry blossoms above

My tousled hair receives its adventurous
Petals, the ones that decided to

Let go.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing I thought after I looked back at those lines: “Wow, that took an interesting turn!” I absolutely agree. I had taken the aspect of time and pushed it into me as a poetic character, rushing and passing other images I’d seen, such as the Cherry blossoms blooming by one of the academic halls I pass every day. In doing so, I veered incredibly far from the form I’d originally wanted. The above is nothing close to a haiku. More like… possibilities for many different haikus. But this is a testimony to the effectiveness of stream of consciousness writing, and then returning to what you have written to find what you actually want to work with.

So I filtered out those extra ideas–rushing, cherry blossoms and tousled hair–that took away from the immediate image that I saw: the clock. So my next step was to write three lines that fit into the popular haiku form: 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and then 5 syllables for the last line. Here is my first attempt:

Haiku A

That gentleman with
the lilting, looping mustache;
Time whispers from walls.

In Haiku A, I kept several elements of the original few lines, but I nitpicked through the words and kept only the most necessary. I kept gentleman because that word and image is important to me in order to bring this clock to life. The words lilting, looming mustache are musical and key to the idea that the hour-hands form a moving mustache. And then I still wanted the word wall or walls included.

In the next version, let’s say Haiku B, I simply switched some of the words around, and played more with the idea of the clock’s mustache.

Haiku B

The gentleman on
The wall is lilting, looping
His mustache ‘round time.

Immediately after writing this second version, I liked it the most. But since then I have asked others for their opinions on the two different versions, and everyone I have asked preferred Haiku B.

I think this is because the first two lines of Haiku A are a single image combined, which is separated by the semi-colon from the third line. This gives the third line more of a punch, whereas the the third line in Haiku B is a continuation of the word “looping” from its second line. Perhaps Haiku B feels more cohesive as a whole, but I often find that purposeful separation in poetry is more satisfying to a reader than a jumble of togetherness. Readers need places to breathe, contemplate and anticipate.


The Daffodil Haiku

Now remember the other image I had seen that day? Daffodils stooping in the rain? Well, this also budded into another haiku:

Daffodils A

Why do daisies sink
Their sunshine heads when rain
Fulfills earthiness?

I love the word sink; it came out naturally as I thought about the stooping motion of the flowers beneath the weight of the soft rain. But I’m not sure how the word earthiness made its way into the verse. I understand what I was going for, but no one needs an explanation that daffodils or flowers are related to the earth or the concept of earthiness.

 Also note that I took the creative liberty to change daffodils to daisies. I did not want to, as they are very different kinds of yellow flowers, but when writing haikus one must think about the count of syllables.

Still, I was rather convicted for leaving behind the concept of Daffodils. So what did I do? I researched other names that Daffodils are known by, and found a nice (and not coincidentally poetic) correlation with the greek god Narcissus. According to Flowers & Plants by Interflora, the name of the daffodil family is Narcissus. “It is so called because its bulb houses a toxic substance – the Greek word ‘narcissus’ means ‘numbness’, so it is a reference to its narcotic nature.” So not only have I found a more creative way to name daffodils, I have learned more about the plant itself. (Take a look at the interesting facts of why Narcissus is another term for Daffodil.)

All of these ideas—rain, steeples, sunshine, color, and numbness—they all mixed in so many different emotions and moody messages; and I finally saw the potential of this little poem.

Daffodils B

Narcissus, why do
You sink your sunshine steeples?
‘Tis but drops of rain.

Which changed yet again! As I created the featured image for this post, I was looking at the poem so much that I realized I did not like the word do hanging at the end of the first line. Its sound was not soft enough or inclusive enough to fully lead to the second line. And I began to wonder which is more cheesy, sunshine or sunrise? Maybe I should let you decide.

My final version is as seen on the featured image:

Daffodils

Narcissus, why sink
your golden sunrise steeples?
‘Tis but drops of rain.


Talk about how poetry can change at any time!

So which version of which haikus do you like? And why? Also, do you think it’s crazy that I’ve still thought up even more variations of these haikus? I certainly do! But I love searching through all sorts of different versions of this concise poetic form to find the perfect words for the perfect image. Thank you for reading!

Writing a Poetry Book: 3 Things I’ve Learned in the Process

Yes! My literary friends, I am writing a poetry book, and have been working on this particular collection for over a year now; and I’ve been learning so much as I’ve dove into this arduous and satisfying process. Here are a few things that I’ve been realizing or learning while taking on the challenge of writing and compiling my poetry for a very specific collection.

1. I limited myself with the ideas of chapters and sections

When I created my first chapbook (please don’t judge it too hard, I was younger when I wrote it), I separated it into sections and thought myself so professional in doing so. But I did that after I had already written every poem that was in the book. And in my defense, I think it worked rather well. I had poems that fit those four different categories, guiding the reader to what they’re feeling like reading at the time; which I always think is nice, but I can also be limiting depending on the collection. If a reader is only reading your poetry section on Love, will they flip to the rest of the book still?

In brainstorming for this current growing collection of poetry, I began to do a similar process. I took a main theme from my title and split it up into three to four sections. “I’ll pair these type of poems with this image-inspired headline, but then these other poems I’ll put in this other section!” But I now realize that I was too eager. At that time I had probably 12 or 13 publish-ready poems, and some of them didn’t even quite fit those elaborated categories. And when I tried to write poems to put into those categories, it felt fake and forced.

So I’ve ditched the idea, and now I am focused on writing the poems that come to me, that I chase down, and that I catch wonderful quick glimpses of around every corner of life. If I write poems for a specific category, then I’m losing sight of the larger picture, the larger theme that I’m hovering over: the first few years of marriage.

2. Individual poems can be a long time coming

I’m sitting on a nest of ideas for poems. They’re all written down: a few lines, different titles, a simple abstract image, or moments and situations that I know need poetic attention… but these eggs cannot hatch until they decide to hatch by themselves.

I try to revisit my notes, take in what I have written, and as a result I’ll often remember where and when the original inspiration came from. But if I don’t feel the inspiration recurring in the moment or those similar desires coming back, I’ll set it aside and wait for the next time to check up on those growing fledglings of poems.

But of course, this doesn’t mean “Don’t Write” if the inspiration isn’t there. Just write about something else; write about the thing that is your current interest right now. That’s what I’m trying to do to my utmost. And when I’m able to return to the nest of ideas, I usually return to find new inspiration made a home with them while I waited patiently.

3. The Title can appear out of NOWHERE

My husband and I were coming up on half a year of being married, and the poems were simply piling up. I knew that I wanted to work towards a poetry book that was loosely about my first year (now “years”) of marriage, but I hadn’t even taken the time to think of a title. Until one day while we were bustling to leave the house for an appointment that we were late to, one of us, I can’t even remember who, said an ironic phrase that hit both of us as a hilarious title for a poem: one that defined marriage in its own sweet hilarity.

I won’t say it, so sorry. But the phrase kept bouncing all over my head with so much energy, and to my surprise it was whirling around in my husband’s head as well. Before we even left the house he told me, “You need to make that the title of your poetry book.” So it was settled, and has been settled for nearly 9 months! I still haven’t thought up anything better, and honestly I hope that I never do.

Would you like to know more about my poetry collection writing process? Share in the comments! Also, who else is compiling their own poetry collection? Do you have a theme? Ideas? And what are some things you have been learning through the process? I’d love to hear your stories.

Inspiration Conversation: featuring “The Disciple’s Information Desk”

“Everybody walks past a thousand story [and poem] ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”

– Orson Scott Card

Poets get inspiration from all sorts of intricate corners of the world: the rhythmic Boing! of a basketball bouncing on cement; a self-help book’s chapter on other people’s opinions; an annoying, overreaching song on the radio, or even a client’s heartfelt complaint over the phone. Well, I just received inspiration from a sermon I listened to on this snowy March morning. I opened my living room and kitchen blinds; I let the blinding snow-light flood my home; I set out my laptop for the service’s live stream on the coffee table, and I wrapped myself in a large sweater on my sinking couch, ready for Sunday morning’s learning. And while my thin-socked toes froze, I heard my pastor’s sermon on the Transfiguration.

For those unfamiliar with the event, it is when Christ takes three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, with him up onto a mountain. While there Christ’s appearance suddenly changes, and out of the blue he is joined by Elijah and Moses. (Note that these two prophets have been dead quite a long time.) The disciples are stunned, and Peter literally blabbers out of shock. He’s interrupted, though, by an enveloping cloud, out of which God speaks and basically tells the disciples to “shut up” and listen to Jesus. After the cloud leaves, Elijah and Moses are gone, and everyone is ominously silent. Quite the event, huh? (Unsummarized version in Luke 8:28-36.)

Now during this event, the rest of Jesus’ disciples (he has a total of 12) have been approached by a man whose son is possessed and terrorized by a demon. This father asks the disciples to heal his son, but all nine disciples fail. But when Jesus comes down the mountain, this same man also approaches him, entreating Jesus to heal his only son. Unsurprisingly, Jesus heals the boy of the evil spirit, but not before saying something that really puzzled me: “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” (Luke 8:41a). I mentally gasped. Jesus was annoyed. How on earth? He, in a sense, actually complained. But at who, exactly? About what? It’s one of those semi-ambiguous complaints, and my imaginative mind doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

And that’s when an image struck me. I saw myself at my day job, at my desk, waiting for people to come in with questions that maybe I can answer and maybe I can’t. I saw the times I succeeded. I saw the times I’ve failed. I saw the times I’ve become annoyed and couldn’t bear the questions anymore. Then I saw the following poem shaping in my imagination:

The Disciple’s Information Desk 
Luke 8:37-43

They come to me, eyes
wild with confusion
to search and search
The woman losing her
coin, her whole day’s
wages, the shepherd
scouring his pastures
the woods, the streams
for his lost sheep
They come to me

To my unattractive desk
with their unprepared
Questions, with their
frantic hearts beating
out of their rushed mouths
And I listen, I half listen
I can only half understand
these harder questions
I cannot answer, I can
not fix. I am not the
Master. I am only the
Student worker here.

I am one of the helpless
disciples. Why Sir, do you
Come to me with this issue?
"I need help, and your boss is
not here." Then I will try. I
will listen. I will half listen
and half understand. I will
fail. "Please do something!
My son… my Son has gone
through enough with this demon!"
He is searching. This father
Searches for an answer from
me. And I fail.

I am a helpless disciple
Sitting at this unattractive desk
That brings forth the people
with questions. I walk with
the Wise, with the Miraculous
but I cannot heal your son
You must wait for my boss
to come down from the
Mountain. You must wait
until the manager is here.

- An original poem by Julie E. Harms

Perhaps I’ve broken the poets’ code by detailing my pre-poem inspiration, but I did so purposefully, and I willingly put myself at the scrutiny of other poets. I think it is important in the conversation concerning inspiration. Once upon a time poets wrote the highest form of poetry if they could allude to the most elaborate mythological, historical, or religious references. They were writing for the educated society, to those who could understand such images and complexities.

But in my opinion, contemporary poetry does not use outside inspiration to show its superiority; contemporary poetry uses outside inspiration as a conduit that makes the poem relatable to the contemporary reader. The fact that I used biblical inspiration for this poem does not on its own merit make it a better poem than others. But the fact that I took biblical contents and connected them to an everyday trial or experience is what heightens the poem.

Another poem that does this (and in my opinion does it better) is Helen Considers Leaving Troy, by Jeanann Verlee. Verlee modernizes the woman of Greek legend, allowing the reader to theorize and consider Helen in the light of a modern woman trapped in an undesired relationship. Not only does her content reflect this, but Verlee also uses a creative structure to accomplish that relatability. Each stanza is fueled with inner thoughts affected by an established situation: “while walking the dog,” “while paying the bills,” “when Menelaus writes a letter,” etc,.  These tie Helen to the present day, and overall create a more relatable Helen that we as contemporary readers find we can more intricately understand.

In relation to my own writing, I can hardly write without inspiration, It must be from something or someone or because of somewhere. In any artist’s creation there has been a touch of inspiration to spur that said creation. It may be big, it may be small, it may be a legendary figure from history, it may be words from an ancient book, or it may be snow-blinding light that still floods through my windows as I type. Whatever inspiration comes next, I hope to catch it as successfully as I did today. I’ve missed many a poem because I did not grasp the tails of inspiration soon enough. But that, my literary friends, is a thought to explore on another day.

“Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door.”

– Emily Dickinson