And then there was Eliot. I must confess that I sat through many of my English lectures in college with an aching head. Not a headache, but a head so full ofindistinguishable thoughts it was straining to burst. Little of what my professors said made sense. With each class I felt I knew less than when I started. I was ony sixteen. I had dazzled my high school principal into agreeing to let me graduate early, but now I knew I was smart in everyone’s eyes but my own. Why they kept giving me good grades was beyond me. I sat in the Eliot symposium feeling like a fraud.
One day, long after college was over, I sat in a small apartment, my quilt wrapped around me (I recall the slant of light, the time of day, the patchwork on thequilt...I can return there like Wordsworth to his daffodils). I randomly picked up my college poetry textbook to read. My notes were scribbled in the margin (like the good student I had appeared to be, I took notes). I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and this time—because I read slowly, or because there was no pressure from a professor to try to understand it—I felt transported, literally lifted outside space and time inside the room's bright, shimmering light. I felt like Saul on the road to Damascus, scales falling from my eyes, showing me that I had been blind, but oh, now, I could see. So this was poetry. After that encounter I began to write. Other early influences on my writing were Blake, Plath and an Iowan named Paul Zimmer. For about ten years I workshopped poems weekly with poets Alison Townsend, Judith Strasser, Sue Wicks, Susan Elbe, Robin Chapman and Jesse Lee Kercheval. My tribute to our writing group was published in a book on forming a writing group.
I turned to creative non-fiction after attending afiction conferencewhere the late, great Michael Steinberg founder of Fourth Genre, talked about creative non-fiction, a new genre combining the intimate, emotionalproximity of poetry with prose's sense of galloping through a wide open field. I tried it on a failed poem about my mother and—Eureka! Fourth Genre published my first essay.
Then my writing journey stalled. I felt a restlessness I named “needing to break through to my creative power,” which sounded so cliche I told no one I was suffering. Finally, though, I reached a point so low point the bottom broke through. Yes, a breakthrough. I communicated with an Indian foremother, my father’s maternal grandmother whom I called Ammaji. Her simple advice to my wish for breaking through to my creative power is a lesson I relearn daily, for writing in the end is simply a practice.
Write for the necessity of joy
and the joy of necessity.
If you focus on process,
you will produce.
If you focus on product,
you thwart yourself, again and again.