Six months ago, back when quarantine was new and more frightening than annoying, I was advocating writing through the boredom like that would be easy. But what I failed to think about—or even take into account at all—was that, far from having so much to write about that I’d be crazy prolific, churning out poems like a bakery turns out baguettes, I might actually find myself frozen, unable to write anything at all. And yet, that is precisely what happened. I’ve written maybe 5 poems altogether. In six months. Five poems is usually what I do in a single month.
Now, Writer Twitter is where I get a lot of my anecdotal evidence about writers, but it seems that I am not alone in my frozen state. Many other writers have struggled to get words on a page, and I find myself taking comfort in that somewhat—like, at least I’m not the only one. But I feel really quite miserable about it because I always believed that IF I had “unlimited” free time, I would have so much more to show for it. Granted, I have been working, but I save a couple of hours not having to commute every day (or even getting dressed—heh), and that time adds up. But when you can’t write, all that ends up as is two more interminable hours, making the days seem even longer, endless.
Of course, there are the nauseating writers who obnoxiously crow about how much they are accomplishing with this time—how they are writing more, submitting more, and publishing more. Well, excuse me for being a jealous hag, but bully for them. Take your accomplishments and stick them where the sun don’t shine. Yes, I know, that’s mean. I should be happy for them that they are feeling successful. But mostly it just makes me sorrier for myself. Why couldn’t that be my experience?
If I’m honest, part of my inability to write is lack of outside stimulation. When you don’t go outside except once a week to the grocery, your life becomes insular and small. I get pretty tired of my own company. (Which, if you think about it, would be a GREAT reason to write fiction—you could make up a wonderful, interesting world and live there vicariously.) (But that would require my imagination to work, and sadly, it’s in the shop and looking like it’s D.O.A.)
The other, more compelling reason, is a depression that has just gotten out of control. I don’t talk about it too much, because after all, what have I got to be depressed about? I have a job, a wonderful home, and a loving family. But when I don’t have my writing, I feel like an utter failure. I miss language. I miss falling into a poem and feeling that transformation that poetry brings me. My therapist, who is neither a reader nor a writer, doesn’t really understand this situation and tells me, not wrongly, that writers write, so get off my tuffet and write something. Which is not especially helpful.
The problem with this depression is that in many ways, it’s quite compartmentalized. Yay for high functioning! I am taking care of financial business, exercising, cleaning the house periodically, doing my job, teaching my class. But it’s just so damn hard. It’s exhausting. Sometimes, the thought of getting out of bed defeats me. Of course, I get up, because my cats would slay me if I didn’t feed them. I don’t stop taking care of them just because I feel miserable. Which is as it should be. But being compartmentalized like that means that there’s just not much left over to be me. To be JC the Writer. Like I can only manage so much, and that’s it. Anything else doesn’t fit in the compartment. It takes its toll.
Sometimes, though, I wish I could just fall apart. Throw my hands in the air and just give up. Stay in bed all day and cry. Just be one fucked up mess. Then, no one would expect anything from me. And then I could feel justified in my not writing. Well, I mean, how could I possibly write when I’m a total basket case? Nobody expects anything from people like that. Oh, so you’ve only written 5 poems in six months? Well, you poor dear, of course not, not when you feel absolutely on death’s door.
But being responsible has always been a strength as well as a weakness. And so I struggle valiantly, doing what I can when nearly every day feels like agony. And maybe only once in a while admitting to my close friends that I’m not doing too well. But after all, no one really wants to hear about my depression—can you blame them?—so I mostly just suffer in silence.
And instead of being genuine and honest about it, I make things worse by hiding it—proving to myself (at least) that I am responsible and taking care of things and don’t need to rely on others, who, after all, have their own problems and are struggling in unique ways as the pandemic wears on.
All of this is to say that I know I’m in a really bad place when I can’t write. (And don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me how much of a fraud I feel, telling my students they need to write constantly, and then not following my own directive.) I want desperately to write something—even this blog post is a big deal, and let’s be honest, it’s really just a navel-gazing poor-me—but every time I sit at the computer (or face a page of paper), it’s just blank, blank, blank. Nothing comes to me. At all. And all the tricks I teach my students to do to fight off writer’s block seem to fail me. It’s intolerable.
I really don’t know what to do. If any of my five dedicated readers have any suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.
Stay safe and Covid-free, y’all. And keep me in your prayers, if you pray. I need all the help I can get.
If you’re interested in a little Friday night poetry, please check out one of these streams. Karen Head (Birthday Girl!) and I are reading tonight at 8 p.m. ET.
Last night, Poetry Atlanta and Georgia Center for the Book, in cooperation with the Decatur Public Library, put on a virtual poetry reading featuring Mike James, Julie E. Bloemeke, and yours truly. It was a really cool experience. I actually didn’t suffer stage fright for once, so I count that as a win. Because I couldn’t see the audience it was like I was reading to myself.
I read poems from What Magick May Not Alter (gotta plug the book!), and kept my set short and sweet (only 13 minutes) so that I’d be leaving the audience wanting more. And hopefully they wanted so much more they went to the Madville Publishing website or Amazon and ordered the book. 😉
- “Summer Portrait, 1912”
- “They Say”
- “Elegy for Cole”
- “Bonham Ferry Comes to Call”
- “Caddo Lake Elixir”
- “Buck Moon”
- “Harvest Moon”
If you missed the reading and would like to see it, please click on the link below. My reading begins at 37:37, but of course you’d miss Mike’s and Julie’s readings, and you wouldn’t want to do that. (Julie is reading from her first full-length collection Slide to Unlock.)
Confinement has become a way of life for many of us without so-called “mission critical” jobs. Those of us who can work from home are doing so, and while I initially thought working from home (on more than a one-day-a-week basis) would be great for my writing, I find that I’m spending a lot of time worrying about Coronavirus—for my family, my students, the country—and this worry is a killer on creativity.
I thought some of you might be in the same boat, so I came up a writing prompt that might help you generate some ideas and write something new.
- List 10-20 objects that are “confined” in some way. They can be temporarily confined, or confined long-term. (Some examples I can think of right off the bat: my cat is confined in my arms like a baby; a fish is confined in its bowl; a turtle in its shell; a letter in its envelope; our internal organs by our skin, etc.)
- Choose three to five you like the best and describe how the objects are confined. What is keeping them from escaping their captivity? You can be literal here or you can lean towards the fantastic. (In the case of my cat, what’s keeping her in my arms is the hope for many, many neck scritches and angel kisses. Also keeping her from escaping: Once she sits down, she’s there for the duration.)
- Determine the object’s “liberation quotient”—that is, how likely could it be freed from its confinement? What would it take for it to be liberated? Is it just someone takes the letter out of the envelope, or is the process more involved? What is an unexpected way the object could be liberated? Does it want to be liberated? How do you know?
- Find your connection. Think about your own confinement in terms of the three objects you explored. How is your experience of confinement similar or dissimilar from that of the objects? What resonances do you find?
- Read over the notes you’ve made, jot down any additional thoughts, and write a three-to-five part poem, flash fiction, flash nonfiction piece (one part for each object) that uses these images in a creative way to explore our (or our character’s) relationship to confinement.
I’d love to read what you came up with, so feel free to post your piece in the comments field!
Today’s poem from What Magick May Not Alter is about love, longing, and hope. It centers on the dreams of the eldest Sibley daughter, Maggie, as she participates in the ritual of planting a daffodil at Old Wives’ Oak in the hopes her true love will be made known to her in Spring. I like this poem because I love how both Maggie and Vidalia believe in romance and the magick of the process of planting a bulb, and Lulah could care less.
I hope you enjoy it!
Since all poetry readings are canceled for the foreseeable future, I thought I would take the opportunity to read a few poems over the next several days from my new book What Magick May Not Alter.
This poem called “Catfish Moon,” named after the full moon in August (which is technically the Sturgeon Moon, but this is poetry, and we take liberties).
(Also, the picture looked backwards when I was filming it, but it’s correct when you watch the video, so forget my little “backwards” comment.)
If you like the video, or this blog, please feel free to share it near and far!
It’s a funny thing about human nature that when you’re told you can’t do something (like go out and Mix with the Peoples), that’s pretty much all you want to do. I’ve been thinking about how this “social distancing” we’re all supposed to practice is tedious as well as difficult. True, it’s technically Spring Break and I’m working from home, so it’s not like I’m going anywhere during work hours—but if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic, I could go somewhere, at least for lunch. But instead, I’m stuck at home, contemplating eating a very sad lunch of mixed veggies and rice. And I miss people at work.
I wouldn’t miss them so much if, after Spring Break ends, we were all going back to campus. But that’s not happening, as far as I can tell. I miss Amanda popping in with her silly nonsense and her stern talkings-to to me when I stay late, or Karen standing in the door with some gossip that’s too good not to share. I miss Carol asking me how things are going with the schedule or telling me about her crazy cat. I miss hearing voices along the hall, students excitedly telling a professor they’re walking with about a project. All the interruptions from Monday to Thursday that makes my interruption-free Friday work-at-home days so very quiet and appreciated. (I don’t miss meetings. I would NEVER miss meetings. But you get my point—it’s a little bit lonely.)
So far, I am virus-free, and I am very glad about that. As the numbers of cases grow exponentially, I wonder if I will remain virus-free. So many people are sick—and it’s really hard to avoid people even when you’re socially distancing. Invariably, you have to go to the grocery and you touch a variety of surfaces, even if you’re being careful. (Even if you’re using sanitizer and washing your hands like you have OCD.) And more to the point, if the person you live with still has to attend work, as Chris does, how isolated can you be? I do worry about his catching something, too, since his job hasn’t shut down yet. (Fortunately, he tells me that most people who can are working from home, so it’s very empty in the warehouse.)
You think social distancing would be an introvert’s dream. You don’t have to see anybody, you don’t have to expend any of your limited powers of socializing. You can just be content in yourself. And the first couple of days, I think I was. I mean, I love my house. I love being here, listening to the bullfrogs and birdsong, seeing the buzzards behind the next door neighbor’s yard, noticing what new green is appearing on the trees out back and what new flowers have popped up in front. In every way, my house is a refuge for me, and I love that. But it becomes a little hard to appreciate those elements when you hear and see them full time. Especially when you feel like you yourself may be becoming part of the furniture. I suppose I need a little social interaction just so I don’t stagnate.
I’m sure I’ll grow more used to this situation as the weeks pass. This is just what I’m feeling now. I hope all of you are making the best of things, and that you’re staying well.
Right now, with the Corona Virus going on, it’s hard to think about anything besides that people are dying and the only thing we can really do is socially isolate ourselves and wash our hands to the Alphabet Song (or Happy Birthday, twice). But while that is true, it’s also important that we don’t lose sight of what makes us us—whatever it is that makes us feel humanity, we should try to continue to do it, even as we make health and safety of ourselves and others a priority.
For me, that’s writing. The last few months at work, I was putting sometimes 50-60 hours a week trying to get everything done, and unfortunately, what had to give was my writing. I was just too tired to work on poems, after I had been in the salt mines, and I realize now that more than just what I thought I lost (some sanity and true connection to my inner world), I temporarily lost some of my humanity. Not surprising, when you become an automaton for work. But not writing—not connecting—contributed to my anxiety and worsened my already pretty heavy depression, and frankly, no job is worth that.
I am sorry that it’s come down to a pandemic to allow me to write again—but I also feel better for the first time in several months. I’ve been writing, revising, and sending out poems to journals, and it feels like me again, a re-centering. Usually, the nudge that AWP provides in the Spring also helps my productivity, but this year the Ed. decided (rightly) that we should probably forego AWP since both of us tend to be immunocompromised. (Everyone knows all you have to do is sneeze my way and I pick up a respiratory infection.) But it was hard, not getting to chat with writers I know as well as visiting with the people tabling in the Book Fair. The energy from that is so motivating. So, I’ve just been reading the journals that have stacked up around my house, and I’ve been combing Submittable’s Discover tab, looking for new journals to explore and possibly to submit to. And, I’m finally connecting to the project I’ve been batting around in my head for months, and that feels good too.
In related news, I’m looking forward to my official release date for What Magick May Not Alter, which is April 17th. So, that makes my book an Aries (and you know how Aries and Taurus don’t mix too well 😊). But I’m excited for my book to be out in the world. I’ve sent ARCs out to several people, with the hope that they would kindly write a review, no matter their opinion. I know for a fact that one person has written one—she’s just waiting to share it a little closer to its birthday. And another person is in the process of making a YouTube review and told me that he “damn near couldn’t put it down,” so that is great news. I’m still looking for some readers/ reviewers, so if anyone is interested, please let me know and let’s figure out how we can get a copy of What Magick May Not Alter in your hands!
I know this was a short post—I’ll try to do better than write one post a year! Maybe I’ll even get back to my Wednesday posts, who knows? Until then, be safe, sequester yourself, and wash your hands. And if you believe, pray.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Atlanta Review, and so we were thrilled to be in Portland to help celebrate this milestone with everyone and debut our 25th Anniversary Anthology. Not only was Atlanta Review one of AWP’s sponsors this year, but Karen Head, our fearless Ed., had gotten us a primo spot at the entrance of the Book Fair, and we expected to blow through our swag. Additionally we had a great 25th anniversary reading lined up with Ilya Kaminsky, Sholeh Wolpe, Marty Lammon, and former editor, Dan Veach, which we knew would be packed to the gills. We were expecting to take Portland by storm. Reality was a little less impressive.
If you want to skip the details, suffice it to say that I’m glad I went, and that I love spending five days surrounded by writers and books in a city I’ve never been to. If you want the low-down, read on…