Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive. -Henri Nouwen, “Theological Ideas in Education”
I was born impetuous and energetic by nature. I’ve spent a good part of my life hitching myself onto ideas born in the moment, dashing them off, and catching the next ride. There was a time when I was the answer man, and it didn’t take much to let me blast you with my expert 17-year-old opinion.
Thankfully, life and a little maturity happened and taught me to shut up and listen a bit more, to read and think a little longer before speaking. And yet, as I started to get serious about writing in my late teens and early twenties, the impatient fire continued to burn in other ways. I was under the impression, in those early days, that all good and genuine creative writing had to come in the moment, and that to later change or edit this inspiration from on high would somehow destroy the purity of the work.
Thus, a lot of my early poetry and songwriting remained “as-is.” I realize now that while some poems and songs do seem to come as they are given, from some strange place I know not where, more often than not, and more often in recent years now that I think of it, I get only a melody, or a series of chords, or an image, or a memorable phrase. Then the struggle begins, to find the words that give voice to notes, or to tease out an image into a scene, or a phrase into a poem.
As the title of this post suggests, I’m learning that good ideas are often given as seeds, or maybe buds, that have to be watered and watched and nurtured until they open up their treasures for us. This requires a few things:
Time to be. I have been learning a lot about this over the past few years. There must be filling before there is outpouring. You need time to be before it is time to act. Madeleine L’Engle is great on this in her book Walking on Water:
“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator who brought them all into being; who brought me into being; and you.”
Patience. Doing good work requires patience with your material, and not trying to force something out of time. Anyone who has worked with plants knows there is a lot of tending, pruning, and waiting that goes into the process. The same goes with artistry. As Dorothy Sayers writes in The Mind of the Maker:
“The only way of ‘mastering’ one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself upon the domineering artist.”
Perseverance. It does no good to have the seed of an idea if you do nothing with it. Tomato plants usually do not produce great tomatoes if you just throw them in the ground. You have to water them, train them, and pluck those suckers out from between the branches. As Denise Levertov said in The Poet in the World:
“Though the inspired poem is something any poet naturally feels awed by and grateful for, nevertheless if one wrote only such poems one would have, as it were, no occupation; and so most writers, surely, are glad that some of their work requires the labor for which they are constitutionally fitted.”
Like any other vocation or craft, artistic endeavors require work and discipline.
I know taking these ideas to heart and putting them to practice is helping me, and it can help all of us grow our ideas into their beautiful full forms.
Chris currently teaches writing and literature to community college students in Massachusetts. He is the author of six books of poetry, and can probably be found reading a book, drinking chai, and wearing flannel. In 2018 he and his wife Jen co-founded The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, hanging out in coffee shops, and poking around used bookstores.