I recently had an experience that shook me up considerably. Not sure this will end up being necessary in this post, but to avoid the potential for clunkiness I’ll refer to it as The Crisis. Initially I couldn’t really tell that it had unsettled me – and then, I didn’t want to acknowledge that it had.
I avoided acknowledging it in interactions with friends to the best of my ability. When I was alone with my thoughts, I either ignored this pain that was throbbing beneath the surface of my thoughts, or I’d reframe the pain as something other than a signal to figure out what was going on.
But despite my attempts to avoid thinking about it, the funniest thing would happen every time I sat down to write for the ensuing days and weeks. I would start to write about something easy and unrelated to The Crisis, but after a few minutes I’d find myself subconsciously connecting back to it with different forms of figurative language.
This is a cool thing about poetry as a subset of language, and a cool thing about art in general: it offers us a side-door into topics that feel difficult or daunting to tackle head-on. Metaphor, second-and-third-person perspectives, unreliable narrators – all of these tools enable the poet to process difficult experiences and thoughts from a distance that feels safer than writing about them with plain language.
What often happens after that is exactly what happened to me after a couple sessions of beating around the bush like this: by tiptoeing into the topic I soon felt more comfortable exploring it intentionally. When I did, the words spilled more easily than rain tears from swollen clouds.
And man did it feel good finally getting some of these thoughts out there.
What I found interesting about this saga is that I write a new poem every week, but this scary poem was by far the one that I felt most invested in. I’m gonna try to avoid getting too far into this right now because I’ll probably want to explore this a little more directly in a future post, but we are often best able to access moments of insight or realization when we are able to access and collaborate with our pain, or joy, or frustrations; the more acute emotional experiences that would be unsustainable to live in but are deeply important to the art we make. I wasn’t quite ready to write that poem for the first couple of weeks after The Crisis, but I was so incredibly grateful that I had chosen to by the time I managed to get there.
Besides it being plain cathartic to get those thoughts out there, writing the poem helped me begin to develop clarity about how I actually felt about the thing I was wrestling with and thereby better understand my own values and priorities as they related to moving forward from the experience.
Writing also allowed me to see a whole slew of other poems on the horizon that I want to write to flesh out the nuances of these thoughts but that I wouldn’t have been able to write without getting past the first difficult one.
I guess the takeaway for me here is twofold: The first is that being willing ourselves to make difficult decisions – perhaps even slightly before we feel truly “ready” – is often a necessary prerequisite to doing the other things we might want to get to.
The second, which I should actually put first because it feels less important, is that I probably wouldn’t have ever written that poem unless I’d made the commitment to consistently stepping into the arena of writing. To be totally honest, I’m not yet sure what that looks like for professionals – but I think it might have a lot to do with taking more time to externalize our experiences with others, or to reflect on our own in solitude with patience but honesty.
Sometimes we’ll get hints about these difficult poems that want us to write them. When we find ourselves returning to thoughts about tough decisions or unwelcome realities that we actively shove off of ourselves, that’s probably a sign of growth to be had by exploring its exterior in whatever way feels comfortable before slowly moving towards its core.
But putting language to these feelings is how we begin to develop a vocabulary that allows other aspects of our being to come into clearer focus.