How Poetry Ambushed Me



I always knew I’d be a writer. But the image I had of myself was of a penner of stories. I began my first novel when I was in fourth grade. It was set in Connecticut. I lived in Montana, and at the time had never been further east than Miles City of that same state. Obviously, no one had yet told me that infamous rule: Write what you know.

All of my spare time (and much of the time that should have been spent doing other things) was consumed by reading. I read books on car trips, while my mother pleaded with me to look at the scenery. I surreptitiously placed books on my lap when in restaurants, so I could read when my family went out to dinner. On summer vacations, lounging in my room reading, my mother would say, “Go outside! Stop reading!” So I would tuck my book under my arm, climb a tree, and read some more. And when I was sent to bed, I used a flashlight to read under the covers.

The books were primarily novels, although I also read biographies and other nonfiction. I passed through different periods of fascination: dinosaurs, archaeology, marine biology, Native American history and culture, wilderness survival, childhood mental illness.

Besides starting that novel at age 10, I also began keeping a diary. The first effort consisted of a simple monthly calendar book, with blocks for days, where I would write what happened in a couple of sentences. But by fifth grade, steno pads full of my thoughts lay in stacks next to my bedside. Journaling became a constant part of my life.

As a sophomore in high school, I enrolled in a creative writing course. We explored all the different types of writing, I am sure. But now the only one I can remember is the segment on poetry. The teacher asked us to write a collection of poems, then put them together into a book. I wrote about 20 poems, then created a scrapbook out of construction paper, with a typewritten poem on each page, each poem accompanied by some image clipped from a magazine, the entire thing paper-punched and bound together with twine. I felt quite proud of the result.

But a couple of years later, I happened across the book and re-read the poems. Horrid. Sentimental, rhyming, juvenile crap. Completely embarrassing. I swore, at that moment, I would never write a poem again.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I still think of myself as a writer, but I am not writing. Life has been getting in the way. I finally decide to do something about it, and enroll in a course at The Writing Salon in San Francisco. The class is called “Voice: Writing Through Intuition,” taught by Thea Sullivan. The idea is that each of us has our own vocabulary, our own writer’s voice, that we can find and tap into. Thea facilitates finding this in a number of ways – sometimes with an art exercise (“Draw your creative self.”), with open-ended writing prompts, with games.

I love the class. It feels safe and nurturing, and I am writing. But one perplexing thing keeps happening. Every time we have a writing prompt, my result ends up being a poem. It is incredibly annoying. I try to turn my responses into short fiction, into journal entries, into creative nonfiction. But, nope. Another damn poem.

I go to Thea for a consult, begging for assistance. I explain the problem. She listens with a small smile, her dimple showing. “And?” she says.

“But I’m not a poet!” I say.

To which she replies, “Apparently, you are.”

Somehow, her words penetrated, gave me that permission I had needed. And I no longer was a person who wanted to write novels. I became a person who did write poetry. Unexpected, unplanned. But writing.

(Maybe I’ll still write a novel about that cool tree house in Connecticut, though. You never know.)

  • Edith says:

    Love the story of how you grew into a poet! I too remember those days when I never went anywhere without a book in my hands. In fact, I still do, the difference now though is that it’s a whole lot harder to find a quiet place to read. Ahh those were the days……

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