I wrote this piece for a writing workshop that was led by novelist Bernice McFadden. Our prompt was to write in third person about something we were ashamed of. At first I said, “I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done! This assignment isn’t for me.” Turns out, I actually was a bit ashamed… of something I hadn’t done.
“A year without poetry”
For years she was known for her words. She was known for her ability to knit syllables, sounds and meanings together in ways that led people to feel, think, imagine, and be moved by emotion. Her poetry did what E.L. Doctorow said all poetry is supposed to do — not simply describe the rain, but give the listener the feeling of being rained upon.
Once, her poetry made a man lose his motor skills; while listening rapt to the river of words flowing from her mouth, he lost his grip on the 16oz pint glass in his hand, and his microbrew went crashing to the floor of the bar. People driving by in cars would pass her on the street and be compelled to hang out the window and call out, “Poet speak!” Whether for intimate gatherings of 10, or enormous halls of 1000, there was no stage she was afraid to stand in front of and speak her poetry for. She wrote constantly and prolifically, scribbling on napkins while at red lights and speaking into a hand recorder while going 70MPH down the highway. She was a poet, the poet, the person that people told her they thought of when they thought of “poetry.”
But after a time, the weight of this role — the never-ending expectation of openness and creativity — began to get to her. And she wanted to know how people would relate to her if they didn’t have their opinion of her as a poet to influence them. And so she moved far far away, and in her new city she put her poetry in the closet. The words stayed in the pen. The voice stayed in her throat. The blank books stayed empty, and eventually they stayed on the store shelf, never coming home with her at all. She still journaled and did her morning pages to keep her sanity. Processing life still required putting some words on paper. But less and less of those words could be called poetry. And then the journaling itself slowed to a crawl, a slouch, a stop. Her year without poetry became two, then three, then four.
Then, at the start of one big beautiful new year, the journals also met their end. Eaten by flames and let go in the spirit of release, they all burned. Eighteen years of journals devoured by fire. This was not done with sadness, anger or bitterness. To the contrary, this was done with appreciative release and happy non-attachment. She was pleased about the openness that this release created in her life. She was excited to step into a new life that was undefined by the experiences of the past.
And still, she wasn’t writing poetry. By now she was hardly writing anything at all. Psychics and shamans and tarot card readers all independently identified her as a poet, but still, she refused to write. Strangers approached her and asked if she was a performer, a singer, an artist, a writer, a poet — they could see the creator within her, but still, she wasn’t writing poetry. She told some friends she was taking a break. She told some friends she was writing a little. She told some friends that her interests had changed and that she wasn’t interested in poetry anymore. All of these things were both true and lie.
She felt proud that she let herself take a break from writing when she had wanted to take a break. And she felt ashamed to be wasting a gift that at one point had given her life, and the lives of those who heard her words, great meaning.
So she started writing again, in tiny bits, tiny poems, tiny ways. And damn, was she rusty. She was embarrassed by these shaky compositions, afraid that other writers and poets would judge them as worthless amateur bullshit. There would be no indication that she was once great. She feared that she had let her gift wither away, and maybe it was gone for good.
She felt that she could hardly call herself a writer anymore, because you see, the word ‘writer’ implies present tense…it is ‘one who writes’, not ’one who used to write.’ The word ‘writer’ implies that the writing is happening now, the same way that in this moment, you are a breather, a reader, a listener, a blinker, a thinker. It felt harder to “come out” as a poet now, than it did to just exist as a poet then. But still, despite the shame and the fear, she continued to wonder. Wondering if, with practice, it would return. Wondering, if she went back to her well, would there indeed be water to drink?