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

My Favorite Writers – Part 1: The Physician Poet

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams was not a poet by career; he was a poet by night and a physician by day. As a doctor, he labored with humanity in its rawest form. He saw humanity in its most sorrowful moments of death and suffering and in its most joyous moments of birth and healing. This affected one of the key aspects of his poetry, the one that I cherish the most. Williams wrote with such human-centered detailing that you feel like you can step into a 3D version of his poems. He treated not only the human body and its ills, but his writing treated the heart, and has many times treated my own.

“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”

William Carlos Williams

During the first year at my current university I took a course on Modern Poetry. It was then that I was officially introduced to the famous American Imagist poet that is William Carlos Williams. Unsurprisingly, the Imagist Movement focused on the imagery within a poem rather than the structure — not that you won’t find structure in Williams poetry — but the forms that he uniquely incorporates into each poem amplifies the images and details within. Take these two poems for instance: Blizzard and Flowers by the Sea.

Flowers by the Sea” was one of the first poems of Williams’ that I read, and I remember always being enchanted by the magic of its last lines: “the sea is circled and sways / peacefully upon its plantlike stem.” Williams took a concept as vast as the ocean, and with his pen he wrapped it up into something as simple and individually captivating as a flower content on its own stem.

Now unlike several of his fellow imagist poets, who felt called to the creative atmosphere of Europe or became ex-patriots of the United States, Williams never neglected his deep American roots. He was both an American physician and poet to the American citizen. He wrote about the everyday American experiences, human interactions, the human interaction with nature. Above all, he wrote about people and aspects of small-town America unapologetically. His literary focus was to create a new American way of writing.

“If they give you lined paper, write the other way.”

Williams Carlos Williams

I cannot do this great poet justice in just one blog post. This was a man who lived two full lives within his one life: a doctor who loved his community and his patients; a man who loved his friends and his wife and family; and a poet who sought to change the face of American poetry. Later, his poetry and mentoring would spur more shifts and movements in contemporary poetry.

Before I conclude, I’d like to mention one of the particular reasons I love Williams poetry: his imagist “direct treatment of the thing” — a mantra that fueled the Imagist Movement — resulted in poems that are often short, succinct, and artfully direct. One of his most famous poems is The Red Wheelbarrow, which struck me with its effectiveness of the mantra. These poems are my favorite. I can sit down, open my copy of his selected poems, and know that there are so many small poems within that will each fill me deeply with the attention the writer gave to whatever “thing” it was that he was treating — a true doctor, indeed. So for poetry readers who lean toward the shorter-in-length yet profound poems, Williams is the gem you’re looking for.

But now that I’ve shared one of my favorite poets, who are some of yours? What other modern poets do you love to read? Let me know in the comments! As usual, I’m always looking for more poetry with which to fill the time I hardly have. For now, I will leave you with yet one more poem from Williams to digest:


Deny yourself all
half things. Have it
or leave it.

But it will keep—or
it is not worth
the having.

Never start
anything you can't

However do not lose
faith because you
are starved!

She loves you
she says. Believe it

But today
the particulars
of poetry

that difficult art
your whole attention.”

― William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Vol. 2: 1939-1962

For far more information on Williams Carlos Williams than I can give you — and of course, for more of his poetry — visit his dedicated page on The Poetry Foundation.

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