The other day, with many tasks calling to me, I decided to spend the afternoon doing something that is a ritual task-avoidance activity of mine, something not on any of my To-Do lists: I decided to move books from one place in my house to another place. I do this from time to time; my husband is used to it and he just rolls his eyes and ignores my sneezing (dust) and my talking to myself (about how silly I am to be doing it when I have so much else to do.) Several months ago, we had to eliminate an entire set of bookcases to make room for french doors out to the deck. Total chaos! It seems I’m always carrying big bunches of books from one place to another.
When I say “big bunches,” I mean big. This time around, I moved my collection of poetry (about 400 books) from the living room to my study. Why? Well, I didn’t want to do anything on my To-Do list, that was probably the biggest motivator. And I had been looking for some time at how messy the poetry books were.
Minus the Collected Works of someone, and minus anthologies, poetry books are a skinny lot – many don’t even have 1/2-inch spines, and they’re visually “busy” compared to fiction (which took poetry’s place in the living room.) Fiction is less cluttered, less multitudinous, less random in its trim sizes. The effect of a house over-filled with books is not always calming, and I was going for calm.
No matter what the motivation was, I found myself with stacks and stacks of books, wondering yet again (as I do periodically) about how to organize the poetry. Fiction, no problem – I do it alphabetically. But with poetry I wonder if the alphabet of last names should prevail. There are other possibilities on any given shelf of my poetry bookcases:
1. Poets I love 2. Poets who loved each other. 3. Poets by the century in which they lived. 4. Poets by the places they lived – England, France, Russia, Spain, (maybe a shelf of everything in translation?) and the American South, New England, the American West – poets known as “regional.” 5. Poets who have won the Nobel Prize or have entered “the canon.” 6. Poets who are private little discoveries of mine, or so I think. 7. Poets who are friends of mine. 8. Poetry reviews in which I have poems of my own. 9. Poetry criticism by poets. 10.Poetry criticism by non-poets. 11. Big anthologies. 12. Miscellaneous (sometimes, my favorite category – unclassifiable.
In the end, after all the pondering, the alphabet prevailed, except for a few I like to keep handy on my desk.
When I’m looking for something, I want to find it fast, so practicality won the day. Admitting this makes me feel slightly ashamed, but there it is. I do manage to keep a few special old books around the house.
For one afternoon of carrying great bundles of books from one room to another, thinking about ways these writers related to each other (Should I put Ted Hughes’s Collected Works next to Sylvia Plath’s? Raymond Carver’s next to Tess Gallagher’s? Should I make sure the Welsh and Irish poets do not get mixed in with the English?) and ways I related to them (Do I really love W. H. Auden enough to add him to the shelf with Seamus Heaney and Richard Wilbur? Do I love Walter de la Mare in the same way I love C.K. Williams or Robert Graves?)…for that time of pondering, I was gloriously lost in the world of poetry.
I opened quite a few books and read a poem or two or ten. And I was inspired. How wonderful to be a poet – that’s what I was thinking at the end of the day.
So I sat down and wrote a poem.
Moral of the story? Avoiding your To-Do list (“Write!”) does not always mean you’re being unproductive. It doesn’t mean you’re wasting time, not always, not if what you have in front of you (a good book…or 400 good books!) inspires you. And inspiration doesn’t always come from something intellectual – not always a book. It could come while your surveying the almost-spring garden, Sometimes it come when you’re in the kitchen – the color of an apple or the smell of an apple cake makes you feel creative and makes you sit down to write a picture book (yes, Julie Paschkis, I mean you.)
I honestly believe that everything a writer does is a source of inspiration. Moving books from one room to another, baking a cake, playing the ukulele, drawing, reading a personal essay in The Threepenny Review (oh, it is so good), pulling dandelions, pruning a tree, taking a walk, talking to a neighbor. Don’t feel guilty when you spend time not writing. Eventually, the desire to write will overwhelm you – when it does, pay close attention. Heed the call. Do it. Write. Let it take you over completely.
You might not be prolific if you follow my advice. But you’ll stay engaged with the world of real people and real objects. Engagement – that’s a good goal, and I think it’s what makes for good writing – and a good life. Touch things, move things, make music, bake things, get your hands dirty, unsettle the dust, sneeze.
Then come back to your writing, inspired.