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A Poet in Quarantine

Surviving COVID-19

Like many of you, I am adjusting to a life in quarantine. I consider myself an introvert’s introvert meaning, I can spend extended time in silence and solitude. Being in groups and talking can be emotionally and mentally draining. However, I do feed off of human interaction and touch (just not as much as others).

I have seen numerous posts on social media admonishing us on how we should spend this time. Personally, I think most of it is ill advised. What each individual is experiencing during this pandemic varies from person to person, state to state, situation to situation. Like many cases in life, a one-size fits all approach does not work.

Rather than grinding or hustling, I been spending my time watering my creative well. This is a principle I learned while listening to a live interview with Elizabeth Acevedo. Some of what I had considered writer’s block was my creativity crying out: “I’m in a drought. Pour water on me please.”

Watering my creative well has meant reading more poetry. If I am reading poetry, I typically am writing poetry. I also try to take walks or ride my bike. As a Southerner used to lots of sunshine year round, it’s challenging for me to spend most of my day indoors. However, I work at my kitchen table, which is positioned in front of two windows, so I can feel the sun.

Rather than ignoring what is happening in our world, I using it to water my well. I’m writing a chapbook, Wash Your Hands. I given myself a constraint: start every poem with the words: wash your hands. Write 30-40 poems around this line. So far, the poems are exploring colorism, relationships, identity, and home. Stay tuned for some recordings of those poems.

Writing Habits

Write a Poem Day: 365 consecutive days

At the top of the year, many writers set new writing goals and embark on new challenges. We are inspired to shed old habits. We promise to be braver, bolder and more disciplined. We vow to get a grip. 

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Robert Desno

Earlier this week, I wrote a post analyzing one of Robert Desno’s poems “Once There Was a Leaf.” Desno was a French poet and journalist who lived in the 1900s. In 1936, he “wrote a poem a day for the entire year,” according to the Poetry Foundation

Immediately, the wheels in my creative mind began turning. 

What would my creative life look like if I consistently committed to writing a poem a day for 365 days?

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Let’s be honest. This sounds like an impossible task. What writer, of any level, has time to write every day for an entire year? 365 days is a long time to devote to any habit. But then, I thought a little more. I have habits that I have done for 365 days for dozens of years. Every day, I brush my teeth, wash my face, take a shower and check my phone (multiple times). If I can do those tasks, why couldn’t I write a poem for 365 consecutive days? 

The two biggest obstacles are time and writer’s block. I could overcome the time obstacle by scheduling as little as 5-10 minutes to write. I’m not striving to write an award winning poem. I’m just trying to write a poem. Lowering the stakes makes the feat feasible.

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Jerry B. Jenkins

Recently, I have been investigating the sources of my creative blocks and its . I watched a video of New York Times bestselling author Jerry B. Jenkins discus how to overcome Writer’s Block. He has published over 200 books so I imagine he knows a bit about the subject. 

He argues that writer’s block is a myth. He asks: “If writer’s block were real, why would it affect only writers?”

Jerry Jenkins

Valid question. He says we don’t call our supervisors and say, ‘hey’ boss, I’m not coming into work today because I have worker’s block.’ Jenkins contends: “No other profession accommodates such an excuse to quit working so we, writers, shouldn’t either.”

His premise is that “writer’s block is a cover for fear.” Rather than entertaining our blockage, we need to use fear to humble us and to motivate us to work hard to create better writing. 

Creative writing is certainly a complexity with nuances that are easily explained. Depending on the work, writing daily may legitimately be a challenge, no matter the level of devotion. Writing a poem is not exactly like baking cookies. However, I think sometimes writers are not as consistent because we have such mindsets. 

So, I have decided for 2020, I will take the challenge of writing 365 days. My purpose is not to grind more or work harder. I honestly want to do more of what I love, and I want to tap into that love daily. I think this habit will help tear down the mindset that every time I write it has to be beautiful. And it will confront the fear that hinders me from showing up and trying. I picture this journey to be a messy, and I am seeking perfection. 

Hopefully, a year from now, writing poetry will be a lot more like brushing my teeth and less like pulling teeth. 

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Planning Poetry Projects

In an earlier post, I shared with you my method of organizing projects by using binders. Another tool that has helped me start organized is a collection of Project Planner worksheets. I did some searching online and found Printable Pineapple. The owner, Shannon, has been featured on BuzzFeed. What I love about these worksheets is:

  1. They are affordable. It costs under $5.
  2. Since they are printable worksheets, I don’t have to have a separate planner for projects. The worksheets were automatically downloaded after my purchase. I print the appropriate worksheets and put them in my binder. This was a major win for me.
  3. I can break my projects down by week, by month etc. I highly recommend them. You can find other useful planning tools on her website.

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Staying Organized

Knowing where to start was a major barrier I faced when I sat down to write. I lost precious time searching for poems, gathering research or trying to be inspired. Much of the time I had allotted to write was wasted. A fellow poet mentioned that she created binders for her poetry projects and renowned dancer, Twayla Tharp uses boxes to store materials. (View a sketch note video on her book here.)

Putting all of my materials in one place has made writing less stressful and my writing time more productive. I’ll walk you through my process so you can try it out to see if helps you. 

First, get a binder. I opted for a quality binder so I didn’t want time and money replacing binders. I also purchased a binder that was pretty because visually appealing items inspire me. I got scrapbook binders from Hobby Lobby during a half off sale and a regular  binder from Target. 

Second, create sections. These vary based on the project. For example, I’m working on an audiobook of lynching poems. My sections include research, poems other poets have written about lynching, my old poems and new poems I am writing. I also have paper in the binder for writing new poems.  

I recently added a section of photocopied poems. Whenever I feel stuck, I look to these poems for inspiration on form, style, etc.  I may add a section of images since many of my poems are inspired by visuals. 

Create sections that are helpful to you. Add as you go and take away what doesn’t work. Consider writing an artist’s statement about why you are doing the project and include in your binder. It can serve as a motivator or a compass during low times. 

What if you are not working on a specific writing project, can the binder still work? I think so. You can create sections of different types of inspiration.This can be quotes, other poems, images, sketches, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Third, label your binder. Seeing the name of the project on my binder helps me be more connected to the project. I don’t fall into the out of sight out of my mind  phenomenon. 

Fourth, get to writing. 

What I love about my binder is that I can take it with me anywhere I go, and I don’t need technology. I don’t have to spend time looking for materials. I have everything I need in one more place. Now, I spend more time creating, and I feel less overwhelmed. 

If you prefer an electronic version, you could create folders on your laptop or use Padlet or similar programs. Here is a video a fiction writer made about her binder and one made by a writer turned business coach.

I think this system can work regardless of what genre you write in. If you give it a try, let me know how it works for you. 

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Dear Writer, please get out

Writers can be like hermits. We stay in dark shells and never come out. Sometimes we lie to ourselves and say that we must be secluded all the time to write. We believe we are following in the steps of Emily Dickinson. We are self-proclaimed introverts, and we are proud about it.

But, there are downsides to constant seclusion. We can be socially awkward, which is not a plus when you interact with those who love your work at a reading or a book signing. We can have terrible stage presence because we are not used to speaking in front of others. So writers, I am urging you to get out! Leave your couch or your table and get into the world.

Most of us write about humans so our writing can be improve by being around people. Dialogue and portraits can be richer by having more social interactions. Now, before you jump off this blog post because you think I am bananas. Let me express empathy. I consider myself an introverts’ introvert. I can spend days in solitude. I am pretty phenomenal at entertaining myself and keeping myself occupied.

I don’t like large social gatherings, and interacting with an audience after a reading is still strange to me at times. However, I know that my writing has improved, and my social interactions have improved through pushing myself to be around others. One easy you can do the same is by regularly attending writing workshops.

Writing workshops have been a much needed motivator and accountability partner in being consistent in writing. They have given me insightful tips to improve my writing, and the feedback I received from other participants has refined my work. I have not been a fan of every writing workshop I attended. That’s a part of the journey. However, I have found a few that I like, and I try to commit to going to two a month.

This doesn’t always work out due to my day job. However, I have experienced shorter writing hiatuses as a result of going to writing workshops. I want to encourage you to find a writing workshop or community in your area and get out there. I’m sure you can find on online, but push yourself to interact with other humans in person. It will make you a better writer. Dear writer, get out there!