A Poetry Book, A Notebook, and an Apron
My writing process begins with a closed door, a large, leather arm-chair, found at a thrift store, a blank notebook, the right sort of pen, and a good poetry book. A precarious stack of books, devotional, fiction, nonfiction—research and pleasure. I like the blinds open and the side lamp on. I like a large glass of water or cup of reheated coffee, and all the children asleep. Certainly, all the children asleep.
My writing process has changed with different seasons of life. What I wrote and how I wrote it when I began writing poetry at fifteen is so different when compared to what I write now fifteen years later. But there are some threads to follow, habits I suspect I’ll always keep. Always, always, there is a poetry book and a notebook and a pen.
The Poetry Book
When I first began writing, I was more of a word-gatherer, list-maker, thesaurus-junky, mesmerized by elaborate sound and rhythm, stringing together the sounds to find a meaning. I took a lot of risks—whenever I stumbled on a new kind of poetry or style, I gave it a shot. I tried out the Jorie-Graham fill-in-the-blank style (did not work for me!), the piecey lineation of Charles Wright, the vicious bite of a Louise Gluck persona. I read widely and voraciously; I tried everything, took what I liked, discarded what I did not.
My poetry has always come from poetry. When I read good poems, the rhythms get into my head, the images breed images; the poetic “conversation” with a book, with another poet, begins. When I first began writing, this practice sometimes led to my “voice” as a writer being drowned out by the “voice” of the writer I was reading—always a stronger, more confident and seasoned voice. Eventually, the places where I messed up became my own voice.
The Notebook and The Pen
Another consistency: the notebook. Since Intro to Creative Writing, I have always worked from a notebook. Nothing fancy, though I know plenty of poets who do not divert from the yellow legal pad or black, minimalist moleskin. Friends and family know that I write, so I am often given discarded notebooks, bought for the pretty covers or given as gifts or intended to start something new. I have no regard for the cover of the notebook—I’d just as soon write in a notebook covered with kittens as I would one with demure leather binding.
What matters instead are the blank pages. I need the physical space for poetry, because, after all, the poem is a physical, visual creation, and meant to be so, just as much as it is meant to be aural. I write in pen, but cross out often. I write snippets of conversation, images from the day, stories and memories, and eventually I see a shadow start to shape, then an idea takes hold, and it “gels” into a poem.
These are what I call my “everyday” poems; when I’m working on a series, like my book of poems on the biblical narrative of Ruth, there’s the added component of following the story. I’m given an automatic “what comes next”—but how I tell it is very much made up of those bits and pieces I’ve collected in the notebook.
I always draft by hand with a pen, write and rewrite until I have what I consider a fairly finished poem. If I move it to the word processer too early, it is as good as trashed. There’s this feeling of faux-permanence that I can’t shake whenever I type out a poem. So, often they sit in the notebook for several weeks while I piece them out, rearrange, tuck and snip.
And then there’s the question of time (or, the Apron over the Head method):
I suppose the last consistency is time, though that varies so much in different seasons. I don’t expect myself to write as often when I’m nursing a newborn and caring for two toddlers or in the middle of a move to a new state or changing jobs. Though I’d love an hour of uninterrupted time, more often than not my writing time is to the tune of fifteen minutes once a day.
I am not choosy about how I get this time. I had the luxury of that when I was in college, when I was newly married—I could require sunshine, an open window, a scented candle, an empty house, a cup of coffee with the handle turned counter-clockwise, etc. etc. etc. I had space for all of that in my life.
Currently, I have three children ages five and under. There have been seasons where I woke up before all the kids (at 5:30 AM) to have a few moments to myself; when my husband worked nights, I had the night hours between bedtime and night-wakings where I could write. What works for me best, right now, is naptime; the house is quiet, children are occupied with sleep, if I’m lucky, and I can gather my thoughts, regroup for the rest of the day. Naptime will disappear soon enough, despite my best efforts to coax it to linger.
Susanna Wesley, mother of nineteen, including reformers John and Charles Wesley, was said to have had her quiet devotional time by throwing her apron over her head and praying. I can relate to that. Often my writing time is carved out of the day simply by tuning out my kids for a few minutes while they are playing ponies and Little People on the floor.
Inevitably, my writing process will change again. But what makes a good writer is taking what is given—the time that I’m given, the experiences, the trials, the people that populate my life—and finding the quiet moments, hidden in the pockets and pauses of the day, to write the next line.
Renee Emerson, author of Threshing Floor (Jacar Press 2016) and Keeping Me Still (Winter Goose Publishing 2014), lives and writes in Arkansas with her husband and three daughters.