Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon's Willamette Valley. She's also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the second in an ongoing column about the creative practice.
I miss my book. I mean the one I'm supposed to be writing.
I don't miss the manuscript I completed last year. That one's alive on its own now, finding its feet, and doesn't need anything from me at the moment. Plus I've finally untangled my identity from it, after months of intense conversation, late nights, and needing to be together all the time. Writing that book (well, shaping it—we'll get to that) was a lot like falling in love. I can't live like that for long without exhaustion.
Which is precisely what it's earned me.
I had a second manuscript already in the works, so it seemed reasonable, thinking about goals for this year, to say I'll finish it by the time midwinter returns. All I really want to do though, this year so far? Is read.
About this time last year, I was making an effort to get back into the habit of loving reading. I think of myself as a reader, but I'd fallen out of doing a lot of actual, focused book-reading. I got better. But I was so busy
falling in love writing! It's now, when love writing has wrung me out, and left my usual defenses crumpled, that my re-made reading habit has moved in—insistently—to take its place. The place of lots of things, actually. Movie watching, multi-hour walking, and meetings for committees I care about quite a lot have also been victims of my pure exhaustion. Instead of them, I read.
It's glorious. It also puts my current manuscript mentally across the room from me, lounging on the rug against the scrolled arms of my loveseat, eyebrows raised.
I do know that the writing process is circular. Every artist needs to lie fallow periodically. You're not less of a creative person for doing it. It's just that I miss my current book. I'm excited about it; I want to fall in love again. And I am completely incapable of shaping that love into something beautiful, something outside my own self, right now.
Which brings me to the difference between this part of the process I'm feeling nostalgic for—I call this The Shaping—and the part I'm inhabiting now, the much quieter Gathering. These are, as far as I can tell, the two distinct phases of my own writing process, once of which feels much more like "writing" than the other. And therefore feels more legitimate.
The Shaping is the being-in-love phase. It's a furious round of writing up outlines, work-dreaming poetry, debating line breaks, revising revising revising, scrapping whole poems for parts, and changing my mind a hundred times about what order the pieces go in and what the sections are called. It's the part that gets me to a definable end, a goal achieved.
It's also the part that drops me right off that end like it's a pier, with the water down below cold and rough and deep and full of unknown creatures. It's tiring, swimming to shore through all of that. And here I am chafing to run headlong off that pier again, as soon as possible.
The phase that comes before this violent intensity of love is gentler altogether, and ambiguous as a cloud. It gets nothing at all "done." I call it The Gathering, because it has that feeling of wandering about, not aimlessly but not focused on a goal either, and questioning, investigating, enjoying what you run across. It's made up of daydreaming poetry, vague notebook scribbling, writing prompts, and joyful drafting; also literal wandering, journaling, dancing, deliberately putting myself in the path of new skills or ideas that have nothing to do with writing. And also reading.
Ah—reading. So I can say that right now I'm in The Gathering phase. If I'm being generous, which I want to be, so I will: lying fallow is a first part of Gathering.
(You should keep in mind that I've made these terms up to articulate some learning from my own experience. Also that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. You should ask yourself what the heck I know.)
Here's another thing I don't: when will the present (wool)-Gathering resolve into The Shaping? And if that's a mystery, how do I know I can write another book of poems in 2020?
Maybe annual goals written in January are something in the nature of a first draft. Maybe they clarify what you value, and then hold it up to the harsh light of what you need.
Besides a writer, and a reader, I define myself as a contemplative. "Contemplation" sounds passive, but it requires a lot of discipline. I'm so tired lately that sometimes I think I'm not rested enough to be a good contemplative. I get enough sleep, but I'm still trying to drop off during my morning silence-time. Contemplation seems to require space, by which I want to mean "not having a bunch of pressing demands on your schedule," and by which I more sustainably mean an inner sense of spaciousness and time.
The same thing poetry requires, in fact.
The Gathering is a spacious season. You need it, or I do anyway, to invite depth and surprises and Mystery to participate in The (eventual, unsummonable) Shaping.
I think The Gathering is about play, as much as anything. Mary Oliver has a line about "letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep."* I'll sleep too, I guess, and read books like I used to: constantly, playfully, with no thought of what they might teach me or how I might use their knowledge.
I'll wave sometimes across the room at my manuscript, who is actually fine over there alone, maybe Gathering too.
We'll have so much to talk about when we get back together.
*It's from her poem "Today," which for me is maybe something more like "This Month," or maybe "This Quarter."