S T A N D I N G   O U T    I N   T H U N D E R S T O R M S

by Carolyn Miller

Carolyn Miller is a book editor and writer who has published both poems and
short stories and has taught college classes in creative writing. She has two
full-length collections of poetry forthcoming in 2001 and 2002 and has worked
with a group doing new-writing seminars for more than ten years.

As all writers and artists and poets know, some of the good things about creativity are the same as some of the bad things:  Creativity is murky, open- ended, risky, and uncertain.   The metaphors we use to describe the creative life reflect this, as most of them involve opening ourselves up to an ungovernable force.  Here, for example, is the poet and critic, Randall Jarrell, on the chances of succeeding at the art of poetry: 

"A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or
two dozen times and he is great."
 

But though we all hope for the sudden bolt of inspiration, most of us understand that the real trick is not being struck by lightning, it's getting ourselves out into the thunderstorms.

Whether it's the first step into the storm or one in a long series over a lifetime, it's easier to take that step in the company of others.  The life of a painter or writer is a lonely one in today's society, and we need a community to give us support and encouragement.  Very few artists have managed to create and keep creating in total isolation, for art is above all communicative, a dialogue between creator and audience, and a work of art springs to life only in that space.

Working with a group can help anyone who wants to start writing or keep on writing.   Attending a writing workshop is one of the best ways to begin forming a creative community, and an ideal way to find members for a continuing writing group.  Critique workshops and groups can help us to see our writing with new eyes and to become a better critic of our work, using the revision process to make our poetry and prose become more fully realized.  New-writing workshops and groups can help us to both expand and deepen our writing by allowing us to work in a different voice, to break through into new work, and to give form to the words and emotions and images that have been whirling around in the storm of our subconscious.

For many years, I have been part of a writing group that meets twice a month to critique our poems and prose.  The membership has changed over time and our schedule is sometimes erratic, but the group goes on, and I'm not sure that I would still be writing without it.  I do know that without the group I would not have written nearly as much as I have, and that the work I have done would not be nearly as good as it is.

About ten years ago, we began holding all-day new-writing workshops four times a year, inviting other writer friends to join us.  We bring in exercises and write on the spot, and while much of work that comes out of these sessions never goes beyond first draft, some of it eventually becomes finished prose and poetry.  Writing together keeps us all stepping out into the storm.  Here are three poems I would never have written without being part of a new-writing group.


An exercise we frequently use is to bring clippings of lines or words from other people's poems.  One member of the group brought in snippets of phrases from a collection of Russian poems, and we chose them at random by picking them out of a basket.  My phrase was "simple mysteries".  Our new-writing meetings are held at the solstices and equinoxes, and because this one was near the spring equinox, I thought about the lupine that blooms every year on Mount Tamalpais, on the other side of San Francisco Bay.

 

Simple Mysteries

Lupine, for example: its dry
Mediterranean clinging to the hills, its gray-green
furry pods, its beaked flowers like
a woman's genitals—the wide banners and small wings
and the closed, smooth keel—the love of bees
for it, the private smell of lupine flesh, the fishlike
glimmer of its yellow heart, the deep blue
blossoms strung on stems above
the blue-gray palmate leaves
like flocks of small, intensely colored birds
blurring the hillsides into fields of blue, the world
broken into flower
without our even asking.

Published in Wilderness and Urban Nature

 

Another writing exercise consisted simply of a photograph of Amelia Earhart and a quote about her from The Encyclopedia Britannica. I'd never thought much about Earhart, but the quote made me remember some scenes from my childhood, and that, along with the memory of an image from a film (an overhead camera shot of someone sleeping in bed), helped me to write this poem:

A Dream of Flying: The Amelia Earhart Story

Amelia Earhart learned to fly
against the wishes of her parents.

The Encyclopedia Britannica


I will, I will! she said,
flapping her arms for practice under the covers,
with a great stirring of sheets
and a slumping of quilts.
Often after dark she would crawl
from her bedroom window where it opened out
onto the asbestos-shingled roof,
walking on all fours up the angle between the peaks
to lie on the slanted back roof of the house in her nightgown,
looking up at the stars, yearning to lift
toward the speckled firmament.
Later she slept coiled in her bedclothes
like an angel in white robes unable to rise.
Sometimes she would run as fast as she could possibly run;
sometimes she would go too fast over the blacktop
on her metal skates; and sometimes she raced
downhill out of control on her Flexible Flyer,
hoping against all reason that this time
she would slowly begin to rise, gravity letting go
of her reluctantly like the frightened hands of her parents.
She jumped from heights again and again—
the garden shed, the fenced-in back porch,
the second-floor balcony—landing time after time
on her shocked, hurt feet, as though earth
were punishing her for wanting to leave. She sat long hours
in the scratchy arms of trees. She watched the ends
of her fingers, looking for pinions; she felt the two
V-shaped bones on her back, hoping for shafts of feathers
to sprout from her skin. She dreamed of flying,
of a high, clean place where she would be completely free,
of looking down on clouds with only the moon
and the stars above her, of seeing the continents
and glinting oceans laid out like puzzle pieces, of passing over
the Himalayas and Alps, their white peaks close enough
to touch. She dreamed of cold, thin air rushing over
her body as she arrowed through the atmosphere,
of consorting with birds, of racing with eagles,
of seeing far below her through the haze
her fearful, earthbound parents
craning their necks toward heaven,
hoping in vain for her return.

Published in Quarterly West

 

In one of our more unusual exercises, we were to imagine ourselves meeting the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, as in the scene recounted in the gospel of St. Luke.  This exercise suddenly brought back details from my childhood and allowed me to explore some of my heartfelt beliefs, and since then I have written several more of my own versions of different scenes from the Bible.

The Road to Emmaus

All around us, secrets are continually
revealed. Even on some back road
in an abandoned country, far
from any trade route, a gravel road
where every passing car is showered
with yellow dust, and dust coats
the brush and milkweed and
black-eyed Susans crowding the edges,
anyone could be a shining stranger
in disguise, his raiment
dulled by dust, his feet stumbling
on the river pebbles. Patches of dock
and lamb's-quarter, stands of pokeweed,
Bear Creek crossing the road
five times on the way to the farm, hidden truths
and miracles in the heart of the flowers,
revelations among the minnows in
the shallow water the road dips into, the birds
trying and trying to tell us
the kingdom is here, on the earth.

Published in Cumberland Poetry Review

 

Carolyn Miller's' newest odyssey:
'On Mallorca'

Carolyn Miller's' workshop:
Creating With Words
odyssey index page 
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