Writing, like any complex skill, is an accretion of layers of experience and learning. Writing well is an mixture of a lifetime of reading deeply and widely; years of study, including apprenticing yourself to other writers; and practice, focused practice incorporating what you’ve read, learned, and experienced. Most of all, good writing is based on paying attention.
Because I teach in a low-residency MFA program, I spend some time each month reading response papers. Response papers are intended as student reflections on the books they’ve been assigned, some of the techniques employed by the poets, and how what they’ve read applies to their own writing and goals.
It’s easy for me to forget that I am approaching these works with a much greater level of experience and learning. Sometimes I read over a student’s response and realize they’ve missed the historical context or have no knowledge of an entire school of thought. I panic. How can I give them what they need to advance their work? How can I help them fill this gap in their education?
Then I remind myself that we all have gaps, also wens, scars, and willful blindspots. That the best thing I can offer to my students are maps and questions. I can’t give them the destination to which I’ve already traveled, because the journey is the purpose.
I can keep reminding them to pay attention. That good writing (and good living) is made out of 100% paying attention. This means allocating space, filtering distractions, and making choices that foster awareness.
For me, it’s all about the walk in the woods that turns up a volunteer pansy blossoming too early in the season. A small yellow amongst so much leaf litter. And then at my desk, remembering that the name “pansy” is thought to be derived from pensée, French for thought or remembrance. And that another name for pansy is “heart’s ease.” All the layers, all of the focused attention on this world. All of it poetry.