Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Nicole Stellon O'Donnell: Advice to Poets: When Opportunity Knocks Consider Slamming the Door in His Face

We so enjoyed Nicole's posts last month and we're glad she was willing to do another for us. Thanks, Nicole!

The doorbell rings, and there stands Opportunity, flowers and promises in hand. He has a crooked, charming smile and intense eyes. Sometimes he even rides up on a motorcycle with tousled hair and a leather jacket. He seems like a great idea, the next big thing, a chance that can’t be missed.

But for a poet, he can be a terrible distraction.

I got carried away on Opportunity’s motorcycle. He showed up in many forms—a series of spoken word pieces that led to trips to National Poetry Slams, newspaper reviews and articles, radio commentaries, mini-essays, editorials, and finally, a blog, with its addictive instant gratification, stats page and links.

I became an opportunistic writer, jumping at tasks with a clear finish line.

Unfortunately, poems never guarantee that a poet will make it to the end. At the beginning of writing a poem, it’s not always clear that I’m going to make it to the third line let alone the end. I have to write into it to find my way out. That’s the only way I know to write the kinds of poems I dream of writing—the kind that can be collected into a book and published someday. Opportunity kept me too busy to finish that book of poems.

Then one morning, I realized that I had to put the work I considered important first. Looking at my then one-year-old and three-year-old daughters eating breakfast, I thought of the twenty minute writing blocks I was able to eek out of our busy days. I realized that my life wasn’t going to get easier. I knew if I was going to finish a book of poems I would have to change myself.

I dropped all my other writing projects. I shut down the blog, stopped writing short essays, and put a column proposal on hold. I learned to say no to create the time I needed to do the writing that an editor would someday say yes to.

For the first time, the book came before all the other writing.

And in a conscious effort to invite the time to write poems into my life, I wrote one last piece of prose—a grant application to the Rasmuson Foundation . That Individual Artist Award provided me a precious year’s worth of writing time devoted to a book-length manuscript. I feel grateful for that every single day.

It worked. When I put the poems first, every time I dipped into the well, I pulled out more. Those poems became Steam Laundry.

It took me a long time to figure it out, but now I know the truth. Writers only finish the hard work when they put it first. It’s easy to put the little things first, to see them with their sparkly deadlines and by-lines. It’s more difficult to go into a tunnel that seems to have no end and keep walking even though there’s no light. But that’s where I have to go because that’s where all the good poems are lurking.

Now when I hear the doorbell and peek out the window at Opportunity shifting anxiously on the doormat, I don’t always answer. I weigh what he’s offering. I ask myself if it’s going to move my poems forward. Most often, I let the curtain fall and sneak back upstairs without answering.  I’d rather be up in the office staring at a blank page, or better yet, doing the hard work finishing my second collection of poems and sending those poems out into the world.

Sometimes I open the door, smile, and offer some coffee. That’s how I wound up writing this post. Thanks 49 Writers for letting me visit for a little while. Now it’s time to get back to those poems. Whether I can see the end or not, I know they have to come first.

Nicole Stellon O’Donnell lives, writes, and teaches in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her novel-in-poems, Steam Laundry, was published in January 2012 by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Dogwood, The Women’s Review of Books and other literary journals. This month, her column, Subarctic Mama will begin running at Literary Mama.


Sandy Green said...

Good for you and excellent advice for me. Thanks!

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Thanks for the advice. Sometimes we forget what we're really writing for, get lost in the other stuff.

Writer Yogi said...

I appreciate it. It really gives perspective and focus. Sometimes opportunity is great,and other times its misleading. Great to keep in mind and to help stay focused!

Sharry Miller said...

I love the irony of juxtaposition. The most recent issue of Writers' Digest had a column (I'm sorry, I don't remember the author) who suggested that a writer should say "yes" to all writing opportunities (or at least those that aren't objectionable) as they all provide different benefits that can be capitalized on. She also advocated doing a variety of writing projects simultaneously to keep your focus on each fresh rather than stopping work on one to pick up another that needs to be completed first. Different strokes for different folks.