>Thoreau on the Writer’s Life (in Nineteen Words)

>When I returned to the beach after the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford (November 11-14) I started a new writing project. This one is now running parallel with the novel-in-progress. It’s a poetry memorization project, inspired by Beth Ann Fennelly, one of the keynote speakers at the conference. My plan is to memorize a poem a day (sometimes skipping weekends) for 100 days, and to write a brief reflection on the poem, paying special attention to how (and if) the activity affects my prose writing. (Working title: Sleeping With Poets: How 100 Days (and Nights) of Memorizing Poetry Pimped My Prose.)

So, the first ten days of the poetry project took place on the beach, which was a great way to get started, since I didn’t have the distractions of everyday life which were waiting for me back home. It was also nice to print off the poem each morning and take it with me for a walk along the water’s edge. Sometimes I found the rhythm of the poem and the ocean’s waves crashing on the shore blended into a perfect cadence for walking. But now I’m home and everyday life is coming at me with a force as strong as those ocean waves, but I’m determined to continue the project, even throughout the busy days of planning for Christmas. Here’s a draft of today’s reflection. I hope you enjoy it and will leave a comment to let me know how and if poetry is a part of your life, whether or not you are a writer.

Thoreau on the Writer’s Life (in Nineteen Words)
Day 11-Sleeping With Poets

Home from a month of writing on the beach, I chose another short poem (there was unpacking to do and re-organizing my office and laundry and groceries to shop for, you know?) for my first day of memorizing poetry back in Memphis. It’s from Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862):

My life has been the poem
I would have writ,
But I could not both live
And utter it.

Done. It’s really only a rhyming couplet (spread out to four lines) in basic iambic pentameter. (You stress the words in all caps.)

da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM

That’s the easy part. Pondering Thoreau’s meaning is a bit more difficult.

But I could NOT both LIVE and UTTER it
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM

He could not “both live and utter it”? So, did he live and not “utter it”? Did he not write about his life in his works? Or did he mean by these words that he didn’t really live—that he sacrificed “having a life” in order to be a writer?

Twentieth century American writer and literary critic, Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) said: “One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time and in others’ minds.” This speaks to a commonality I think many writers share—a longing for a place to fit in, to feel at home. And also a strong desire to share our words with others.

I know it’s cliché, but the old saying came to mind as I was penning this: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If I wrote the Great American Novel and it didn’t get published, would it still be a great novel? Some of my writing friends would say YES! Writing is for the soul—we don’t do it just in order to be published. But like Kazin, I want to make a home for myself with my writing—especially in other people’s minds, but also on paper and in time. And so I blog. Three times a week for the past three and a half years I have shared my art, my life, my musings, book reviews, family news, my ups, my downs, with whoever will listen, whoever will read the words I have poured onto the page. When something big happens—whether it’s good news or trauma—my first instinct has always been to share it with someone, to write about it. I kept a diary when I was a little girl, and jumped on the journaling band wagon when it became popular. Like the tree in the woods, I want someone to hear it fall, and to validate my pain or my joy or my very existence.

For about fifteen years I published a newsletter for my church. It was monthly for a while, and eventually bi-monthly. During those years I was at the church just about every time the doors were open, and always with my camera. I documented every event—every baptism, every wedding, every feast day, every children’s play, every birth, every death—until one day I realized that my news radar was preventing me from entering into the life of the church organically. I was so wrapped up in capturing its life in words and pictures that I was missing the life itself, or that’s what it felt like. So I quit publishing the newsletter. I just showed up to worship and to feasts and to committee meetings, without my camera, without my pen in hand. It took a while, but eventually, I think I began to find that organic core I had been missing when I had been so concerned about capturing everything for the newsletter.

I wonder if this is what Thoreau meant when he said, “But I could not both live and utter it?” I haven’t been to church or seen any of my friends here in Memphis in over a month, and yet on my first morning back, my inclination was to find my way to my computer and write. Not to telephone a friend or stop by and see someone I haven’t seen in a month. I’ll see a lot of people at church tonight and tomorrow, but today—even amidst the piles of dirty laundry and the empty refrigerator—my characters are calling to me from the novel: “What’s going to happen to us next?”

Maybe the writing life is about balance. Don’t we have to live a full life in order to have something to write about, in order to have something to feed the lake? I guess I’m just not willing to completely give up on either—living the poem or writing it. Maybe I’ll stop by and see a friend on the way to the grocery store today, right after I finish one more chapter….


  • frank_ezelle

    November 28, 2010
  • Susan Cushman

    November 28, 2010

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