It Belongs to You

Today begins the December 21 Day Poetry Challenge, a quarterly program to get writers writing during threshold times of year. We conclude on the Solstice.

Many writers join me in making this three week writing commitment in order to dedicate some space, create some quiet, and take stock of their internal life as the year draws to a close.

Others come because they are stuck, or rusty, and writing feels out of reach without support. I always ask each participant “why this, why now,” and I love reading their responses. Here are a few that came in this week:

“I am working on trying to be more grounded and trying to pay more attention. I know the poems and prompts you will send will help me do this as they help me draw wilderness out of my head and form it into a body of something.” J.H., Ann Arbor

“Love the quiet time with pen and paper.” M.F., Grand Blanc, MI

“I simply desire to get back in the practice of writing poetry again.  Perhaps hoping it will spark ideas for an experimental film or play.” A.J., Montreal

“Editing my novel. Need new sparks.” B.P, Chicago

As we embark, I think of this passage in Natalie Goldberg’s book, ‘The True Secret of Writing,’: “We think of it as no big deal, we who are lucky to be literate. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write. Slave owners were afraid to think of these people as human. To read and write is to be empowered. No shackle can ultimately hold you.”


This perspective comes to mind because I know that among the cohort of twenty or so writers whom I’ll share this month with, there are likely several who will encounter discomfort and frustration, most usually due to a gap between their expectations and effort. There’s at least a couple who will enjoy themselves, but run into trouble one day and begin to think of writing a poem or passage each day as another burden. Something without pleasure. And yet this is at least one reason we want to write: it feels good. It is a pleasure to make our way with words.

Richard Hahlo and Peter Reynolds are British theater directors and authors of a book about running workshops for actors, and they say: “Objectives root you in what you are doing and make sure you come onto stage with a purpose. Performance training is centered on concentration and focus of energy. These qualities enable actors to be present in the moment, and that is where they are at their most creative and available for interaction.”

I encourage all of my writers to figure out what their objective is, not because I don’t believe in exploration or play, but because it’s powerful to direct one’s gaze and energy in a clear and dedicated way. It means you know what you’re trying to do, as well as what you’re NOT trying to do.

For me, to begin a new poem each day for three weeks is a joy. It’s a pleasure. I am not trying to publish a book of those poems just yet. No, my objective is to rise each morning and write. My goal is to show up and do the work, which in itself is a highlight of my day. I love my time with my notebook and poems. I can do this and feel this without sanction or applause from anyone else. It belongs to me. I cherish it along with the solitude it helps to cultivate.

Honestly, I think most writers need smaller goals and a deeper quality of attention. I think that firmness with one’s self goes a long way in these matters so my coaching during this session is going to strike a balance, I hope, between nurturing and inspiring, and the sort of toughness that provokes grit and determination.

May you defend the space in your imagination. May you claim this modest interval. May you take responsibility for your existence as a writer. No one else will do it for you.

Luis Llerena via Unsplash

Make the work. —Walt Whitman

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