Thoughts from a Writing Challenge
by Lisa Low
This January, I decided to write a poem a day for a month (à la NaPoWriMo) with a couple of friends. I thought of this as exercise—something I didn’t want to do but knew would be good for me. And like exercise, I wanted instant gratification and endorphins. Instead, I experienced daily writing as another way to approach myself, both the good and bad. Some thoughts from the month:
- Most days are unspectacular, but on the worst days, nothing is in my fingers. Or in my brain. I don’t like anything I’ve written, so I repeatedly type and backspace the way I tell my students not to do during in-class writing activities. I click through old poems nostalgically as if to harness the magic of a moment when something sprang forth out of nothing. I feel like I’ll never write something good again. It’s as if negative self-talk itself will produce the poem. On other days, a poem appears in my mind like a gift. Some lines come to me when I don’t expect it (which, in the moment, I see as magical rather than the result of practice). I sit down in Nordstrom Rack and type on my phone instead of finding new sneakers like I’d been planning to. By the time I get out, it’s dark and I’m late for dinner. In these moments, I feel most like a writer. But isn’t being a writer both of these extremes, and the more boring in-between?
- A lot of content is needed, so whatever is around me goes in a poem. I look outside my apartment window and see trees, and yes, birds. I understand more deeply why trees and birds are such favorite topics. My husband, a teacher, comes home to tell me a student asked what was wrong with his eyes. Wolf’s eyes, the second grader had said. This also goes in a poem, but I think the story of the student is better. For a few years, I’d written about what blue eyes meant to me, the desire for blue eyes, the way they pierced me as a child not used to them, and this student had described them in the shortest phrase. This, too, is a gift.
- I worry the most when I wake up in the middle of the night, and, to avoid anxiety—about the class I teach, what I said or didn’t say to someone I wanted to impress, that I worry about impressing at all—I think of poems and start writing in my head. My brain gets busy. This is the opposite of counting sheep or deep breaths. On one hand, the poem is a repository for anxious thoughts, and on the other, a diversion from them.
- My therapist asks if I’ve ever wanted to speak up but felt I couldn’t—not that I chose not to for my own reasons. My answer is a hard yes. She says it’s good that I have an outlet in writing. I haven’t thought of poetry as an outlet for years and linger over the phrasing. Later, I realize it’s because I’ve associated outlets with the outpouring of emotion—something that must be let out, that must leave the body in whatever way possible—and therefore a contradiction to craft. The careful making of something, the work of a poet. But the more I think about it, the more I don’t think outlet and craft have to conflict. The poem is, in one sense, how I retroactively speak up for the times I couldn’t, like at the oral surgeon’s office experiencing microaggressions. It’s the Yelp review I’d always planned to write.
When the month is over, I’m spent. I celebrate with boba from the newly-opened Kung Fu Tea a mile away. I haven’t taken stock of the revision ahead of me yet, the inevitable cutting and throwing away—that I can’t just throw my poems up into the air and watch them fall into place, a manuscript. Right now, the sugar and treating myself are enough like endorphins.
Lisa Low was born and raised in Maryland. Her poems have appeared in Vinyl, The Journal, Entropy, The Collagist, and elsewhere. A graduate of Indiana University’s MFA program, she is a PhD candidate and Yates Fellow at the University of Cincinnati.
*Low’s poems appear in Issue 42.1 of Cream City Review.