Balzac drank close to fifty cups of coffee every day. Before he wrote a single word, Steinbeck set twelve, freshly sharpened Blackwings on his desk. Poe made scrolls of narrow sheets and sealing wax: a tiny scroll for every final draft. Hemingway stood; Capote reclined; Dickens paced.
It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can — I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in her or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. – Stephen King, On Writing
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
– From “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz
“Have you been writing lately?” I cringe a little every time I’m asked that question. There is no good answer:
Yes, I’ve been writing and no, you can’t see it; or
Yes, I have been writing but it’s all terrible; or
No, I haven’t been writing, and please please please don’t ask me why.
Writing poetry is not a pleasant process. Any writing is uncomfortable, I suppose, but there’s something uniquely dreadful about poetry. Czeslaw Milosz says a poet is a demoniac city; poems rise up like devils, unannounced, before they are exorcised by page and pen. A poet’s demons are caught, subdued, and arranged in neat stanzas for other’s perusal.
Pinning down your demons to be scrutinized like bugs under glass is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. No human is comfortable being openly frail and vulnerable in front of other people. When a poet writes, they struggle to capture the total essence of their humanity; their fear, rage, ecstasy, sadness, and joy. It is not easy to display yourself at your most human and your most vulnerable.
Yes, I have been writing lately. It is not a comforting process. No poet’s process is. Poetry is wrestling with your demons like Jacob wrestled with the angel; it’s private, it’s desperate, and, hopefully, there’s redemption at the end.
Poetry Editor Tania Runyan responds to the question: What are the challenges of writing poetry in the suburbs?
The suburbs kill individuality, don’t they? Every vinyl-sided house, tree-named cul-de-sac and video-equipped Toyota Sienna is toxic to the poet who needs a diverse urban neighborhood or fresh country air to survive. And how can a poet of faith possibly unearth the mysteries of God in this manicured nightmare? It’s almost impossible to hear the Spirit’s voice amidst all those kicked soccer balls.
I know sameness has its deficits. I’ve experienced the disorientation of walking into an out-of-town Walgreens with the same life-sized, cardboard Taylor Swift placed approximately twelve feet from the entrance, slightly to the left of the nail polish end cap. I’m far from home, but I can be anywhere. In fact, is there really such thing as home when you live in a place so much like other places? Can poems get made here, and more, can I pick up my cross?
The act of writing poetry has helped me follow Jesus in the burbs simply because poetry makes me notice. I don’t wait for inspiration to hit. If so, I’d never write because I wouldn’t have the energy to “feel” inspired. Let’s face it: nothing supernatural is going to leap out of my Caribou cup as I drive past Gurnee Mills for the fourth time in one day. But in writing, I must engage my senses with whatever seemingly dull moments my suburban life sets before me. And the life is not dull. Sure, there may be some uniformity in houses, cars, moms’ hairstyles and children’s activities, but that very external sameness is what turns me toward the inner realities of the people who live here. How do they cultivate a meaningful life amidst the suburban “rat race” (I’ve never seen rats race, by the way)—the real people, including me, who were designed to follow their creator regardless of geography? The sights and sounds of a place like Venice Beach or the Rockies would be too easy to poeticize: the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Wine-O, the herds of moose crossing ridiculously impressionistic fields of wildflowers. But what about the man who backs out of his driveway in Lake County, Illinois, at 6:42 each morning, travel mug in hand, knot in his stomach? The man like and unlike so many others? What is the landscape of his life?
Those questions enable me to write a poem, but most of all, they help me to see my daily life through the spiritual lens. And really, the spiritual should be my vision, not just a lens. When I approach my geography not with disdain but with grace, curiosity, and the dignity of fascination, I no longer see anonymous mini-malls with interchangeable Starbucks and mattress stores but sacred places where people wrestle with each other, themselves, and sometimes God. If I dare to imagine it.
Relief contributor David Wright wrote a pantoum in honor of a certain suburban woman experiencing angst over her sofa-shopping adventures. Here we see an example of Christ infusing our blandest suburban moments. The original “postcard poem” and illustrations can be found here.
And a Woman Goes To Find a Couch
And despairs at the impossible choice
and sits on every sofa in the suburbs
and lies down in a store to rest
and falls asleep one afternoon
and dreams of every sofa in the suburbs
and sees Jesus in a blue recliner in heaven
and wakes from sleep one afternoon
and is haunted by the whole vision
and seizes at Jesus in a blue recliner in heaven
and questions the Book of Revelation
and is haunted by her holy vision
and the blue-dyed decor of our eternal home
and questions the Book, the Revelation
and despairs at God’s improbable choice
and his blue-dyed decor of our eternal home
and rises up and calls her own home blest.
Jenean McBrearty’s short story “Reliquary” appears in Relief 6.1. The story encompasses cloning, child-rearing, and the Shroud of Turin, among other things that evoke our relationship to the past and to the spirit world.
Red, white, or old and rugged, the cross is an awesome symbol of Christ’s power over darkness and death. In hoc signes vinces. In this sign, you will conquer. Constantine saw the message written on the heavens, put the cross on his shield, and the world was never the same. Dracula ignored the memo, and we know what the symbol does to him! Context is everything.
When life gets complicated, when its course runs, as it inevitably does, and it’s time to say good-bye, the things people leave behind in this world—their relics—are precious to the people they leave behind. They are personal symbols of the awesome power of life, of love, and experience, symbols that are testaments to God having let us be. To breathe and cry and laugh, and do all sorts of amazing things.
I’ve always been fascinated by diaries and faces, toys and tools of people who were once on this earth. Their artifacts are as holy to me as the cross or the baptistery. We live in a privileged era. Our relics will last a long time. Especially our words. They’ll last as long as the Internet, and that’s predicted to be as close to eternally as any man-made thing can be.
I wonder. Do the dead touch us back when we touch their relics? Maybe. Maybe the line between the living and the dead will disappear with enough technology, enough research . . . but we should never mistake a marvel for a miracle.
Jenean McBrearty has been published in Main Street Rag Anthology—Altered States, Wherever It Pleases, Danse Macabre, bioStories, Cobalt Review, and Black Lantern, among others. She has self-published two novels and a short story collection. She now resides in Kentucky. God has blessed her with wonderful children, a kitty named Mr. Baxter, and a navy blue Pontiac. Her website is: Jenean-McBrearty.com.