The friction of being visible, the friction of being invisible

“In effect, the cost of being who you are is that you can’t possibly meet everyone’s expectations, and so, there will, inevitably, be external conflict to deal with—the friction of being visible. Still, the cost of not being who you are is that while you are busy pleasing everyone around you, a precious part of you is dying inside; in this case, there will be internal conflict to deal with—the friction of being invisible.” ~ Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

This is the whipsaw of writing with the aim of publication. If you prune and polish your writing for someone else, you will still inevitable disappoint someone. You will write about a subject that they consider theirs. You will write in a style that is alien to some, too imitative to others. Despite all your efforts to create a piece of writing to win a prize or be published in a long admired literary magazine, you will disappoint someone. And even if you succeed with your goal, there will be someone eager to take you down a peg. This is the friction of being visible.

Of course, as you set out your scalpels, deciding what parts of your work must be trimmed away to conform to the aesthetic du jour, you must decide how far you are willing to go. If right now kitten poems written in rhyming couplets are being published in astonishing numbers, are you willing to revise your villanelle about puppies to gain favor? Are you willing to make your real self, with its quirky passions and talents, invisible in order to be published?

This is not a new conflict. It’s not a conflict faced by writers and poets alone. But, in this new social media-ted world, we are exposed to each writer’s successes, the publications, the awards. Of course we want those accolades, and because of the speed of the digital world, we think that everyone is winning and we alone are writing our puppy villanelles in obscurity. I can only tell you that the quickest way to crash into the phenomenon that some call writer’s block is to write what you think gain favor with an editor, or a reviewer, or even the mythical “public.”

Better to potter along, reading deeply about subjects that interest you, working to improve your work through revision into the best example of itself. I am not suggesting that publication is bad. Being part of the conversation, finding readers to whom your words will matter, connecting beyond yourself are some of the amazing benefits of publication. But write what matters to you first, then find the place where those words fit. Not the other way around.

Bringing the words to the page

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I started writing poetry out of yearning. As a gawky, awkward teenager, I scribbled love poems into a spiral-ring notebook with an owl on the cover. To whom were these addressed? No one in particular, just some romantic dark-haired stranger who would appreciate my use of the words “indigo” and “luminous.”

I understood from reading poetry that in some ways a poem is a spell, a method of bringing forth a person or a place with words carefully chosen. My early poems were spells to conjure this mystery man who would sweep me out of my boring existence and into some enchanted life of passionate adventure. I might even be late for Algebra class.

I still think that love is one of the strongest engines that can power poetry. Many poems of despair are propelled by the absence of love or the harm of someone or something loved. The poet is saying to the reader here is something that I love, let me describe it to you so fully that it will be part of you as well and you will protect it. Or perhaps this is the pain of the destruction or betrayal of the beloved.

Maybe my view of the spark that brings words to page is too simplistic.  Seamus Heaney wrote, “The crucial action is pre-verbal, to be able to allow the first alertness or come-hither, sensed in a blurred or incomplete way, to dilate and approach as a thought or theme or a phrase. Robert Frost puts it this way: ‘A poem beings as a lump in the throat, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.’ As far as I am concerned, technique is more vitally and sensitively connected with that first activity where the ‘lump in the throat’ finds the ‘the thought’ than with ‘the thought’ finding ‘the words.’ That first emergence involves the divining, vatic, oracular function; the second, the making function.”

Am I so far off the mark to think that love (in all its varieties and vagaries) might be the “lump in the throat”? And if it is, why does our culture seem so invested in cynicism tromping over top of love these days? Why is enthusiasm or passion or adoration so passé? Is it because we worry that we don’t deserve to “have nice things”?

One of the reasons that I envisioned a February online workshop “Writing Love” was my desire to give people tools to connect that “lump in the throat” with the words to express it. Love can look so many different ways, but by creating the spell that honors it, calls to it, invokes it, perhaps we can push away those boundaries of cynicism and darkness. Or at least, I want to. I want to balance the despair with a handful of light, not unthinkingly, not ignoring the breakage, but mindfully choosing to see the beauty as well.


You can still sign up for Writing Love, here on this website. It starts on February 1st and lasts four weeks.

Balancing dreams and reality

Full moon through leaves

Full moon through leavesJanuary slid in on the light of a cold full moon. Like a winter wolf, I am denning, exploring the dark that is so much part of this time of year where I live. I curl up on one end of the sofa in the evening and plunge into the pages of book after book. I am twitchy and witchy and my reading choices reflect it. I began the year with Patti Smith’s Devotion, followed swiftly by Kiki Petrosino’s Witch Wife and the Em Strang’s Bird-Woman. 

My dreams are full of skaters, spells, and wings. These are just the types of books I love, ones that bring you along head-tilted and stumbling, not sure if the path beneath your feet is solid or black ice. Books full of spells and enchantments. Images that carry the tang of fallen leaves and the hiss of snow.

Even so, the light is coming back. It will not be long before the headlong rush of the Alaskan summer is upon me, light enough to read outside at 2am, garden needing constant care, conferences and residencies to teach at, books to promote. In fact, I have already fallen seriously behind in the book promotion department. I promise myself to be better. I make lists. I listen to my mother’s strident voice that lives deep inside my cells that says not enough!

In April, my newest full-length collection Every Atom will release, and I really want to give it the best shot at finding readers to whom it will matter, readers who might need those words as they navigate their own icy rivers of mother-child relationships, of memory and forgetting. A book of poems is such a precarious vessel, at once ephemeral and iron-clad. I can think through the years of books to which I clung gasping and water-logged, Behind My Eyes by Li-Young Lee, Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved by Gregory Orr, Words Under the Words by Naomi Shihab Nye, The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda.

In the dark of the early morning, I write to connect with myself. But in the day, I revise those poems to go out into the world and connect with others. A book is the culmination of that wish to give something that you’ve (hopefully) wrought beautifully out of the very stuff of your heart. Perhaps like most poets, I am more comfortable with the fecund dark, the creation and revision, and not the promotion. Yet, it would be a shame to work so hard for so long and let it drop into silence, to not honor the opportunity that publication offers to connect.

Back to those promotion to-do lists. But first, look, the moon is rising and there is a book to be read.

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