I find writing neither quick nor easy. So elusive are the ideas and then the words to attach to them, I may as well be divining for water. Although I signed up for this 30 day Writer’s Challenge voluntarily, it feels a bit like cruel and unusual punishment some days. Like today. It is Day 13 of the Health Activist Writers Monthly Challenge, ten o’clock on a Saturday night when I should be watching a movie or reading a blog by someone else who can come up with a first sentence. I have produced nothing. I’m supposed to be writing a haiku or an acrostic or some other collection of lines about the condition I’m in. It is the kind of assignment with which I used to torture recalcitrant students in English class. Therefore, and because I’m feeling a little rebellious, being fifty and a day, I’m going to write about writing.
On days like today, writing is my least favorite thing to do. Bear in mind, I don’t do it for a living. I’m not under any contractual obligation to do it. Nobody even asks me to do it. All I know is the compulsion to do it every day. To write something, even if it means staring at a computer screen for long periods of time, thinking. About nothing. Laughably, some people have suggested I write a book, a memoir perhaps. I wonder when I would ever get that done? On top of that, what good would it do other than to provide two covers between which I could contain rambling thoughts about growing up in Northern Ireland, my hair, the cancer, what I wish I’d worn or said on certain occasions best forgotten, the nature of friendship and marriage (mine, no one else’s), motherhood, getting older, and the occasional dip into the always treacherous waters of politics and religion.
Sometimes, when I’m fatigued or maybe just delusional, I’ll sit down at the computer with a “playlist conducive to writing” on my Ipod. Usually, some random collection of bootlegged Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, John Lee Hooker, Joan Armatrading, J.J. Cale, Warren Zevon, Lou Reed, Tom Petty and, for good measure, Frank Sinatra. There’s always a place for Sinatra. Roy Orbison, too. Before long, I’ll be singing along to “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” with the heart of a young Linda Ronstadt and much to the consternation of my adolescent daughter. Inevitably, I will mosey on over to The Official Van Morrison website to see what my favorite curmudgeon is up to these days. Turns out Mr. Morrison will be doing a turn at the Solstice at Dunluce Castle in June.
It’s well for Van. All he has to do is sit down and tap into the mystic; whereas, I must resort to begging my brother – a writer by trade – for a sentence or two to get me going. That’s all I need, I tell him. He has yet to oblige, but the same fella has no problem sending me a random text in the wee hours of the morning, to confirm that James Taylor is, in fact, a genius. My brother may not be up for handing me an opening sentence for a blog post, or a memoir, but as he says himself:
When it comes to quoting the Czars of the early 70s bittersweet folk-rock phenomenon, my dear, I am always up.
The first sentence is always elusive. I can spend hours and hours just waiting for an idea worth exploring to come my way. Invariably, I will hesitate to commit it to the blank screen in front of me, because its potential might be diminished by an ill-chosen word or a clumsy sentence. Caught in this very hesitation on Thursday evening, I noticed file after file being added to my Dropbox folder. A gift from my brother, and when I clicked on the little blue “Happy Birthday” folder, I found Seamus Heaney’s entire collection, each poem read by the poet himself along with a copy of In Step with What Escaped Me: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney by Peter Sirr. A wondrous gift, indeed.
I love Seamus Heaney and have turned to his poetry on countless occasions throughout my life, when I knew that a poem was the only thing that would lift me up, take me home, or tell me the truth. I have always believed in the power of a poem to change things or make sure they stay the same.
In an interview for The Toronto Star, Heaney discusses The Human Chain, his first volume of poetry since suffering a stroke in 2006. As the interview progresses, he reveals that over the past fifty years, his approach to writing has remained the same:
I don’t think much has changed. I’ve always relied on that little quickening that comes from wakening up to something I’ve known all along. Call it by the grand name of inspiration. Without some inner beeper going off, I can’t get started.
But it is what he says about the relationship between writing poetry and memory that intrigues me. The interviewer asks if Heaney’s process is to tease out memories and shape them into a poem or is it the act of writing poetry that is the memory process, an end unto itself. Heaney responds:
Memory has always been fundamental for me. In fact, remembering what I had forgotten is the way most of the poems get started. At the best times, something wakens, there’s an almost physical quickening. So yes, the business of writing a poem is indeed a process of finding and shaping and keeping — gleeful when all is going well, gradual when you’re doing something longer — but there’s no knowing where a remembered image will lead you. It tends to be a case of what William Wordsworth called ‘spots of time’ that retain ‘a vivifying influence.’
I remember Wordsworth. Very well. At Antrim Grammar School, we had to learn by heart The Solitary Reaper, The Lucy Poems, and Composed Upon Westminster Bridge. To this day, when I see a tiny flower defy a crack in a California sidewalk, I think of Lucy. When I stand on the summt of Piestewa Peak and look over Phoenix, a desert city so far away from Wordsworth’s England, I can hear myself recite, “Dear God, the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still!” I can also hear Mr. Jones, my English teacher add, with a soft thump on his desk, “Great stuff!”
Those of you who visit here often know that my brother (whom I adore) pointed out recently that I am not the owner of a phenomenal memory. As you know, this came as a shock, because I had been operating – for years – under the misguided assumption that my memory was practically photographic. Hell-bent on making his point, my brother explained:
No, your memory and recall of specific events, places and things has always been appalling. You have good emotional recall; you’ll remember how you felt about a thing, but damn all about what actually went down
Then, in a failed attempt to soften the blow, he half-apologized, saying “I’m probably overstating it now. But your memory was never, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘amazing’. In any way, shape or form.”
That may be true, but the poetry I learned by heart, I will own forever in my heart. And, remembering how I felt about a thing almost puts me in the same league as Wordsworth! When asked in March 2013 what he thought of children being “forced” to memorize poetry, Heaney argues:
I believe in people learning poetry by heart, definitely. It’s the beginning of a cultural ear. Without it. it’s difficult.
He went on to say that poetry would later play a critical role for people in times of crisis as a source of comfort, offering a way to “stand up” to difficulties.
I cannot argue with him, and now I have his poetry at my fingertips. Any time I need it.
Thank you, Keith.