I am a sucker for a good how-to, easily taken in by the alluring simplicity of a numbered list of steps. Luckily, this is the age of the Internet tutorial, with the tackling of all manner of life’s mysteries now available in slideshow format. How to build a yurt. How to clean a dishwasher. How to make a fishtail braid.
A few years ago I was asked to write an essay on the importance of poetry in our time and place. I did not accept right away. The task was daunting; my impulse was to say no.
When I sit down to write, I pretend I am speaking at an event. I’m the plenary at the Festival of Faith and Writing, for example. Or I’m giving my acceptance speech for this year’s Newbery Award. Once, I pretended I was giving the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. I was never a student there, but I did teach step aerobics and my inspiring, motivational, and encouraging personality led the university to request my presence at graduation. In my fantasy, they would be giving me an honorary doctorate. For teaching aerobics.
“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”—Frederick Buechner
“Make it more obscure,” a student says in an undergrad poetry workshop. This after the assignment says be specific, always specific, and avoid abstraction. And cliché.