In a 1985 essay called “Not-Knowing,” the writer Donald Barthelme noted that a writer “is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” [The Georgia Review, Vol. 39, no. 3, Fall, 1985, pages 509-522] Why? Writing a science textbook is an act of explaining, and writing a news article about a crime is reporting. But writing poetry, memoir, and fiction are acts of creating—starting from the blank page. Creating requires imagining, exploring, without any preconceived notion of what you’re going to find—or to put it more precisely, what’s going to reveal itself to you. To me, it’s a process of paying attention not to my own thoughts, but to the constant “show-and-tell” of the world.
Let me share an example. I’d been working on one of the stories in my collection Consecration Pond for numerous drafts, “listening” to the narrator, Gus, tell me his story. But now I was stuck. Gus had told me what had happened, but he hadn’t told me why it mattered—what the point of his story was. I’d been listening for hours without insight, and now it was late afternoon. Autumn. The sun would be down soon. So I put on my coat and went for a walk.
As I walked, I didn’t force myself to think of Gus or try to hear his voice. Instead, I paid attention to the crunch of dry leaves at my feet, the colors of the trees, the nip of the breeze. And then, suddenly, the sound of dozens of Canada geese filled the air. I looked up, waiting, until there they were, overhead, seemingly more than a hundred, filling the sky with their precise and spectacular rows of wings and outstretched necks and their bright, loud sound. I watched until they’d flown out of sight. And in the silence that followed, I knew: Gus had seen and heard them, too. They’d told him—and now me—why his story mattered. I went home and, with this gift from a flock of geese, began again.
My lesson? Creativity doesn’t begin and end with me—my unique talent, my focused effort, my solitary mind. As Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem “Wild Geese,” the world offers itself to your imagination. So next time you’re stuck, try this: Close the laptop, put on your coat and shoes, go outdoors, and see and hear the show-and-tell of the world.
The process of creative writing generates a mountain of “waste.” We spend years writing a novel or short story, only to lose our way, set it aside, and eventually forget everything about it, even the main character’s name. Or we think we’ve gotten it right, and send it off to one agent or literary magazine after another, only to have it declined, over and over again. In an essay in Poets & Writers [March/April 2022, pages 25-29], the writer Steve Almond describes writing one “wretched” novel after another over “three long decades” until finally completing—and finding a publisher for—his debut novel All the Secrets of the World. How did he do it? By leaping “from atop a mountain of my own failures.”
How have I learned to embrace “waste” in my own writing? First, I try to respect all my attempts, no matter the outcome. I think about all the jobs I had—scooping ice cream or answering phones or cleaning houses—before I found a career in publishing that fit. Each job taught me a lesson, even if it was as simple as, “I never want to spend my summer nights pressing balls of stiff, sticky ice cream into wafer-thin receptacles again.” Similarly, there’s a lesson for me in every failed novel, short story, and poem, from a meandering plot to overworked language. Knowing what doesn’t work is important to recognizing—and writing—what does.
Second, I consider recycling! Can any part of that story or poem be salvaged, repaired, or repackaged in another form? Last year, when working on my short-story cycle, Consecration Pond, I remembered a story I’d written thirty years ago that included a scene by a pond. It was called “Frogs Like Emeralds.” I’d revised it numerous times over the years, but it still felt underwritten—and now, it was dated. Still, the key conflict between lovers with a secular and a supernatural worldview felt as fresh as ever. So I began again, retaining that conflict but changing pretty much everything else—the characters themselves, the rising action, even the climactic moment. Perhaps most importantly, I changed the voice: Instead of third-person, the story is now told in first person by one of the two lovers, who is addressing—in her imagination—her long-dead but still beloved mother, an element that raises the stakes, giving the story much greater depth and complexity. Now called “Frogs and Goddesses,” it’s the seventh story in Consecration Pond, to be published by Toad Hall Editions in August of this year.