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how the light

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Pat's poem, Barry Moser's illustration. Proceeds to AWA outreach. For the text of the poem, click here.

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Q: A poet/teacher asks: What about the “dry times,” when writing just won’t come, and it feels like the shadow of death?

A: I am moved by your sharing of the journey as poet/ teacher through the kind of “valley of the shadow of death” that most if not all of us experience at times in our writing life. It is not death, and we know it is not death, but the shadow may be more terrifying than the experience itself. Not having gone through the experience of death itself, of course, I can’t say for sure, but I do know that shadow, and it is fearsome. Your situation sounds to me like part exhaustion in your work as teacher, which does sometimes become feeding others the very food we ourselves are starved for – and part perhaps a need to do some concrete giving to yourself that will refresh the wells of your own creativity.

For me that kind of refreshment has tended to come in two ways: a silent retreat and/or working in a different genre for a time. First let me offer my own ideal, and then a “what if” that isn’t possible.

Ideally, I need to be away from home for at least eight days – the first three to rest, and five for work. I spend the first three days doing absolutely nothing that has to do with writing, with work, with projects, with answering the needs of others. Some people need the “silence” to be broken at meal times – I want total silence. Nothing but walking, reading for relaxation, sleeping, (great, generous, as-much-as-possible night and day-time sleeping) and taking care of the body’s needs. No “oughts” or “shoulds.” No cellphones or email. Then five days of writing. If I am deep into a project, I work on that one project – not more. If I am finished with a project, exhausted and empty, then I am gentle with myself, listening, waiting, doing simple descriptive writing of things around me, letters, or stream-of-conscious journal until words begin to come of their own volition. Write in pieces, in blocks, as a person might make a quilt, trusting that the pattern will reveal itself. Take the images as they come and refuse all inner and outer critics.

If that isn’t possible, it is possible to take out a year-long calendar and schedule some private times. Don’t base them on what I, or someone else recommends. Work with yourself. Think about the times of day, the amount of time, the place that has worked when your writing flowed freely. Give that to yourself again. Some writers recommend 30 minutes a day. That drives me bonkers! I just get warmed up, just get started in 30 minutes – and I’m mad as a wet hen when the 30 minutes are up. I do much better with two hours once a week in a local “greasy spoon” drinking their coffee and writing, than 30 minutes a day at home with family life around me. Work with yourself. Give yourself, schedule and keep faith with yourself, regularly. And try each year to schedule one or two longer times away.

At the heart, these dry times are usually transitions. One field of our work may have been exhausted and needs to lie fallow. That is when it is great to have more than one field. To change the metaphor — it is not healthy, in my opinion, to play only one note. By that I mean to work in only one genre. You are a poet – perhaps you need to let the field of poetry lie fallow for a season or more, and do some other kind of writing: a play? an essay? a short story? memoir? Writing is like fields – every writer should have several fields, and allow the ground to rest and refresh itself in one field at a time. When I come back to poetry after a period away, working as I did on a full non-fiction book, I almost always find myself at a new level of writing poems. A different place. And myself eager to explore it. Refreshed.

I hope something here is helpful. It is all projection, really, so don’t feel badly about filing it in the “circular file!”

Best wishes for refreshment and the springing up of new songs.

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ASK PAT . . .

Writers and leaders of writing groups, teachers of writing, and young writers are invited to write questions to Pat. She will choose one question each month for response. The questions may be edited, and will be anonymous, but if location and identity such as “Writer”, “Poet”, “Teacher”, or age of young writer is offered, that will be included. Offer a question: HERE

2 Responses to “What about the dry times…”

  • Pat:

    Your reading yesterday with John Berkowitz at the Amherst Senior Center was delightful. I haven’t heard you read in some time and I really enjoyed “Truth Enough” and the way you introduced other poets. I wrote about you in my blog and thought you might like to see it:

  • Angela McCoy says:

    Hello Pat. I purchased your book a few years a go and i was floored in the first chapter. Then life happened and I was torn away for things a bit. I went thru a ugly divorce. Prior to that my writing had always the go to place to heal and release and make sense of it all. It was were I could vent and release as well. During my divorce my ex began taking and stealing anything I wrote to try to use against me in court. He knew writing was my refuge and he wanted to take that away form me and did. So I stopped writing and just suffered thru it all without paper and pen. It was traumatic to say the least. Eventually I got out and on my own but I was so angry at God for the failed marriage and what I saw as a 13 year waste of my life being someone I hated and didn’t know, that I didn’t want to write anymore. Because it was to painful and all that stuff about God and life just lost its meaning I couldn’t relate to it anymore. I was so distraught during the divorce and right after that I acted out of character and lashed out at God a lot. Now I really miss it. And actually without realizing it I have been writing here and there along the way. I want to get back into the flow but its so hard to center, get quiet, and write. I feel like God took my gift away because of my behavior and ranting, even though I dont think I really believe that. How do I reconnect. I dont exactly want this published. Its really personal. I have enclosed my very out dated poetry blog. Here is my favorite poem:

    The Rusted Key

    What smooth tongues whisper
    The frantic ones, delirious, scream
    For beneath the boil lies the will, the hope, and the dream
    Essential powers, moaning a symphony of sadness
    Of beauty yet unseen
    Hope, drunk on sorrow, wanes
    But in one tiny moments madness
    Courage steals the rusted key
    And from the bowels of a widow’s like sadness
    Frees the will, the hope, and the dream


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Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) is the organization that is carrying on the work Pat established and carried on for more than 30 years. To discover how you can write with an AWA Method Group, or become trained as an AWA facilitator, please click this link.