When I got a "real world" job after years of intermittently waitressing and staying at home, I stopped writing. Not because I wanted to. I found myself so drained of inspiration that I simply couldn't put pen to paper. Instead, I spent my days rushing to get my kids off to school, myself off to work, and by the time I got home and cooked dinner, I really just wanted to unwind by watching television that didn't require me to think.
The other problem was that I had carved myself into very specific aesthetic niche. If I wasn't writing poems that fit into that little box, it just didn't seem worth it. It felt as if I wasn't being who I wanted to be and if I couldn't be that poet, who would I be? How would readers recognize my work if it was constantly changing? I could never organize all these different voices I have into a cohesive collection, so I might as well not bother writing until I could match the voice I was publishing in the most. I also have a talent for coming up with excellent excuses for my own shortcomings. I am like my own scapegoat.
In two years, I wrote less than ten poems. And that is a generous estimate. My husband constantly harped on me about the amount of debt I incurred by getting a MFA in Writing and not using it. I tried convincing him that I used my skills in my retail printing job every day, but even I wasn't convinced. I had project ideas out the wazoo, but wouldn't work on them because:
- I wanted to write outside but it was too rainy/sunny/late in the day/cold, etc.
- I didn't have enough money or time to invest to make a project into reality, so why start?
- I suffer from depression, and when I'm down the rabbit hole, I struggle to even shower on a dependable basis.
- I didn't have the book I wanted to write the ekphrastic poem project.
- I didn't have the book I wanted to work on my persona poem project.
- I didn't have the energy.
- I could never write as well as __________.
- My kids were (and are) too loud and distracting when I'm trying to focus.
- There was a ____________ marathon that required me to forget about basic needs like food, so writing was definitely out.
- I had no inspiration.
- I had too much inspiration and couldn't focus on where to begin.
All in all, I've had plenty of time to fulfill my dream of becoming a more established poet. I'm just not. And that's definitely on me. I'm trying to rectify that lately. I'm trying not to listen the voice in my head that says it has to be perfect the first time I write it because I suck at revision. I'm trying to open myself to the possibility of other genres besides poetry. I try to be a good literary citizen by checking out poetry groups on Facebook and contributing, buying poetry journals at the bookstore (if only to make sure that someone's doing it, so they keep stocking them), commenting on work when I'm asked.
The trick is really to write. Write anything. Write actual words. I'm trying to break the habit of making excuses and develop new habits that work for me and what my life is like. Who knows if they work for other poets, but I finally feel like I can create habits that work for who I am as a person and poet now versus the poet I want to be someday. I've taken to doing the following, and it seems to be helping:
- I signed up for a freelancing site. Even though it's not poetry, I find that the act of putting words about anything out in the world, no matter the form, gets me into the habit of being in tune with what I have to say.
- Paying more attention to submission calls and bookmarking them, and returning to those bookmarks on a regular basis. This is particularly helpful when it's a themed call, because it's like a built-in writing prompt.
- Keeping my pet project sources right in front of me. They sit on my desk so I have to look at them constantly. When I need a break, I pick them up, even for two minutes, just in case something comes into my brain that I can jot down
- I write in pieces. I now keep a journal of notes and emotions. For a perfectionist who has a Journal Graveyard (a decorative box of journals that weren't perfect after 10 pages), it was hard to accept that it didn't all have to be beautiful and organized and have perfect penmanship. Now, I give myself permission to be imperfect and just blurt out whatever ideas, lines, or vents I have and go back later to see if I can build on them.
- I schedule time every day(ish) for writing. The biggest challenge for this is forgiving myself if the results aren't what I was looking for, or if I was late getting to it or finished my time too early.
- Learning to forgive myself for imperfection.
- I ask for help. If I need an idea, I reach out to my poetry friends and say, "hey, this is sucking and I don't know why" (or something like that). It gets me out of my own head and keeps me from abandoning something that could be great out of frustration.
Wherever we go in the poetry world, it's on us. We can't be real without being imperfect and it's hardest to give ourselves permission to do that. If I have nothing to say poetically or beautifully, how do I say anything at all? If I'm tired why make poems a priority? The answer is that no one can write my poems for me and if they did, I'd be super-mad because someone stole my idea (which would really mean they just wrote it first because I was too busy finding reasons why I couldn't write it myself). So, I write the poems I need to, in the form they come in, and realize it's okay if they're not perfect because I'm not perfect either.
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Jillian M. Phillips lives and writes in Northwestern Wisconsin. She holds an MFA in Writing from University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work has appeared in Menacing Hedge, Nonbinary Review, and others. Her chapbook Pretty the Ugly was published in 2013 by ELJ Publications.