It was as a child that I fell in love with words. It began as a love affair of books. My father took me and my brother to the library weekly to check out new books. My favorites were the Babysitters Club, Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley Twins. Once a month, my Aunt Ann picked me and my little brother up, and we headed down Woodward Avenue to Red House Books. There, we explored the shelves of used paperbacks to add to our collection. I counted and cataloged my books. I read on the way home from school, at the dinner table and under my covers at night. Books were a free passport that allowed a little girl from a small town in Alabama to explore the world.
From reading grew a desire to create my own stories. I began writing my own versions of The Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew. I migrated from short stories to poetry. By the time I was a high schooler, I was writing for the Youth section of my daily newspaper.
Now, as an adult, I love going back to schools and organizations that serve children to lead writing workshops. Child have a vivid imagination and a curiosity for creativity. They are not held back by the many of the confines that restrict adult writers. The above picture is of a writing workshop I led with some girls from Zion Lutheran Church. They had been using my book How to Create a World to write poems. I came in to help them write poems to celebrate their mothers for Mother’s Day.
Children of various abilities and interests should be encouraged to tap into their writing abilities. You never know which child will become the next Maya Angelou or Langston Hughes. Creativity must be cultivated. If you are a teacher or a leader of an after school program, I would love to come and share poetry with your students. You can invite me to lead a writing workshop here. You can also order my book How to Create a World and use in your classroom, your kitchen or your community organization.
Earlier this year, Elgin Mayor David Captain presented me with a proclamation recognizing me as the official Poet Laureate for the city of Elgin. He made the proclamation in front of the City Council and those who were in the audience. I’m honored to serve in this role and to explain the arts culture of the great city of Elgin.
This past Memorial Day, I was invited to write and read an original poem commemorating the fallen soldiers of Elgin. This year marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day. To create this poem, I watched video interviews of WWII soldiers. This allowed me to get a sense of what it felt like for the men who fought on that day. I also did some basic research about D-Day.
The commemoration was organized by the city of Elgin and Elgin’s Patriotic Memorial Association. It was held at the Bluff City Cemetery. Before the event, I visited the cemetery a couple of times to get a feel for the location. I gathered names of soldiers from tombstones and incorporated them in the poem.
It was an honor to a part of the artistic expression of the event’s festivities.
Last month, I received an email that a poem I had submitted to a literary journal was not accepted. They admired my writing but felt it wasn’t a fit for their publication “at this time.” As a creative, hearing ‘no’ is a familiar tune. Rejection can be a bear to tussle with, especially if you have any amount of childhood trauma or have experienced rejection.
When I read the email, I was initially disappointed. But then, I considered how I could revise the poem and make it better. And lo & behold, I found a typo. I saw several lines that could be moved around to improve clarity. I also saw a handful of words that could be trimmed. Rather than viewing it as rejection, I viewed it as an invitation. An invitation to look at my work more closely and with greater wonder.
What if I changed the form? What if I moved a repeating line to a different place? Could I remove personal pronouns? As I pondered these questions, the idea came to me to further explore the poems I have written about my grandfathers and see if there is new content there. What started as a downer soon became a seed for creativity. The next time you hear ‘no’ or ‘not yet,’ see what it is inviting you to. Where is it beckoning you go?
If you view it as rejection, you’ll be paralyzed. You’ll stop. You’ll quit and we can’t have that. We need your voice. Your art in this world. So dust yourself off and get back to creating. Accept the invitation.
If you follow me on social media, you’re probably familiar with my recent announcement that I’m heading into the Creative Incubator. I will not be doing readings, performances, workshops, etc. in June and July. Instead, I am focusing on creating new work for upcoming projects. I have never done this before, but I can foresee it being a part of my normal creative process.
For six months, I have been Elgin’s first Poet Laureate. It has been an honor to represent the artistic voice of my community by writing and reading original poetry. I have participated in Memorial Day events, prayer breakfasts, opened for environmental activists, led writing workshops for elementary-aged girls and adults. Depending on the month, I have an engagement every week.
I also have had homework and essays to grade. I teach full-time during my day job, and I commute roughly 12 hours a week to work. At night, I am an adjunct writing professor. I’m also enrolled in a full-time doctoral program. I’m heavily involved in my church, and I like to sleep and eat. Needless to say, my schedule is full.
While it is exciting to be invited places and to have a full calendar, it can also become difficult to stay true to my first love: writing. One thing I have learned as a creative is that you can’t rush the creative process. Writing, at least writing that will be memorable, takes time. When I sit down to write, I can’t guarantee that I will write an amazing poem or even a poem at all. The creative process is an odd thing and has a mind of its own.
Having multiple engagements has allowed me to grow my poetic muscle and write poems in a shorter time. It takes me back to my time as a newspaper reporter, where I wrote articles on deadline
When I was a reporter, I wrote two types of writing: daily stories and long-term projects. Daily stories typically were covering a school board meeting, writing about a new school program or covering an emergency event, like a shooting. About 70% of the stories I wrote would fall in this category. These stories were relatively simple to write and are the typical stories you read in your news outlet.
On the other hand, there are a type of stories that required significant research, multiple sources were interviewed and the content was more complex. These type of stories would fall under the category of investigative reporting. Perhaps, I wanted to examine which schools had the highest teacher turnover or maybe I wanted to track the spending of the school board members. These were stories that could not be completed in one or two days. These were stories that made it the front page of the Sunday paper. And, these were the stories that earned awards, merited raises and promotions. To be a successful journalist, I had to have a balance of both types of stories.
The same is true for me as a creative. Reading at an open mic or a governmental event are those daily stories. They are important because they allow me an opportunity to share my work with the public. However, long-term projects are what creates manuscripts for books, earns publications in literary journals and secures grants and fellowships. Quite frankly, long-term projects help me make a living as a creative.
I knew I had to take a break when I realized I wasn’t working on the projects I said I had hoped to create in my application as Poet Laureate. I also recognized that it’s possible for me to get to the end of my two-year term and not have much to show for it beside a list of events I attended. I have to start thinking, preparing and positioning myself for the next step in my artistic career after my stint as a Poet Laureate.
If you have made it to this point of this post, you may be thinking, ok Chasity, this is all interesting, but I am not the Poet Laureate, but how does this apply to me?
You are right. Your situation may look quite different from mine. Perhaps, you are a creative who has a team so folks can help you with administrative tasks and marketing. Maybe you have been in the creative incubator for years, and you actually want get out more.
Here are a few takeaways from my experience that I think you can glean.
Admit that more isn’t better.
I love being asked to attend events. It’s an honor and reaffirms my gifting as a poet. However, if every weekend of my schedule is filled, that means my laundry is not getting done; my kitchen is a mess; and I’m likely not doing any creating outside of the events.
2. Work on long-term and short term goals simultaneously.
Creating is similar to money, in the sense that, you don’t want to just spend your money on every day purchases. You need to save for retirement and emergencies. Creatives must think short term and long term. What will you create next year? What about five years from now? These questions are not meant to induce anxiety or to say that you have to some extravagant over-the-top answer to sound impressive. Answer that question based on what matters to you.
3. Give yourself time and space to create.
You must learn how you create best. You must know what feeds your creativity and what starves it. And, it’s wise to be realistic. I would like to wake up each morning take a walk on the beach, sit under an umbrella and sip freshly squeezed lemonade while I write uninterrupted for 2 or 3 hours. Maybe one day I will get there or have a couple of weeks a year where this is my reality.
In the meantime, I must identify a writing habit that works well for me. I’m from the South so warm weather and sunshine help me enter a creative habit. I’m also learning how much a clean home helps me in my creative habit.
4. Grow as a creative
Another tell-tale sign that I needed a break is that I wasn’t growing in my craft. I wasn’t reading other poetry, taking a class or learning a new form. What will make me a poetry legend is have strong skills. Skills have to be developed. This takes time. You can’t spend time cultivating your craft if your schedule is always full.
5. Think about your legacy.
I marvel at poets who have written dozens of books. I am fascinated by creatives who constantly create, despite being insanely busy. What you create is the legacy you will leave the earth after you have died. What will you leave behind? What works will you contribute to the creative community? Once again, this is not about numbers and accolades. It’s about being intentional and thinking long-term about the impact you are going to make.
Truth is tomorrow isn’t promised, and we don’t know when our last day on earth will be. If you knew you had three years to live, what kinds of art would you create? What would you leave behind?
You can call it a writer’s paradise. Sitting down to write without interpretation, words spill from your fingerprints like rain drops during a summer storm. Steady. Constant. Sure. You lost track of time and for a moment, you forget where you are. You have found your groove. Your sweet spot. You have founded a flow.
When you are there, it’s an awesome place to, but getting there is most writers’ greatest challenge. But what if there was a way that entering a flow wasn’t so hard? What if there was a way that finding your flow was like turning on the water faucet in your bathroom: steady, constant, sure. According to a distinguished psychological researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly flow can be described as concentration “so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.”
Concentration is no longer the multi-lane highway that many of us have when we are trying to write. Instead, we have single lane of traffic headed in one direction. Csikszentmihaly goes on to say in his book Flow that flow is not something accidental, random or happenstance. He explains that in most cases, it happens as a “result either from a structured activity, or from an individual’s ability to make flow occur, or both.”
If you want to learn various structured activities that can increase your writing flow, join me for a free writing workshop May 3 at the Gail Borden Library from 4-5:30 pm in the Grove Room. You can register here. See you there!
Reference: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.
Earlier this month, I did a reading at Gail Borden Library to commemorate National Poetry Month. I also invited a couple of friends to read alongside. Since the event was held in the River Road, we each read poems inspired by the river. Elgin is one of several cities that are nestled along Fox River.
During the reading, I took questions from the audience about how I write poems and the creative process.
I shared new poems for a collection I am working on about Elgin’s early African American residents.