Our lives are built of moments in time and space. And just as one moment of your life doesn’t define you, so one poem doesn’t define a poet.
Some moments of my life I wouldn’t want anyone to remember. Some moments beg interpretation. But not every moment of life warrants being grappled with or immortalized in a poem.
Some of my poems come out of my humanness / humanity; some come from the living workings out of faith; some come out of my searching, listening, and questioning; some poems come out of the sensations of a moment in time.
Some moments that inspire poems are microcosms of creation’s cosmic array, snapshots of life’s bigger pictures. Some poetic moments are unique flashes or epiphanies that I wish could be repeated but will likely never come again, at least not quite the same. These moments can change us if we allow them to, if we open our hearts to receive what they have to give. I think that is true, to some extent, of poetry as well.
I don’t sit down to make lines and rhymes, but to use words, rhythms, and metaphors to paint pictures of life’s moments of observing, noticing, being present to someone or something in a new way … of seeing a sometimes-startling new depth or aspect or facet of a fleeting, evocative, life-giving moment.
Poems come to the poet out of living moments that, penciled on paper, morph into verses of word art that can bring meaning to the reader’s own moments.
“Which do you like most? The mountains or the ocean?” My sister and I would ask each other.
I could never decide. In California for much of my life, I didn’t have to choose. We had both within close distance. I could look up and see the steadfastness of the Sierras or the Coastal Range with their redwoods, pines, deer, bears, raccoons, waterfalls and trout streams that fed the valleys. I could often feel the ocean breezes and smell the salt air from tides so full of power yet knowing their limits, from waves that lapped like earth’s heartbeat.
The metaphors we claim as our own come to us from our surroundings like a fawn stepping out of the forest or beach glass glistening in the sand.
“Which season do you like best?” was another question my sister and I would discuss. Winter offered Christmas. Summer offered school-less, barefoot days, swimming and camping. Spring meant orchards in bloom, Easter, newness.
When I returned with my husband in midlife to my native state of Colorado, I found that daily life was even more determined by the seasons here, especially winter and summer. I found that Spring near the Rockies is a matter of winter and summer fighting it out until summer wins a precarious victory.
But fall remains my favorite season, a time of the year that most inspires me to write poems. As I prepare Remembering Softly: A Life In Poems, I find myself in the Autumn of my life. Christmas doesn’t bring quite the same delight and anticipation except as our grown children and our six grandchildren share the celebrations with my husband and me. Summer I love in this high country, where wildflowers bloom from spring to early fall, the scent of summer rains on prairie grasses imparts indescribable sweetness, and sunsets paint glorious colors across the wide sky.
But fall … During this season of life colors have muted a little, most storms have settled, and anticipation of change keeps one mindful that each era of life comes—and then passes. We must gather the harvest, the fruit, the beauty—as I do from my garden—and preserve it, distill it, package it to sustain us in the winter and to share with others.
When we lived near the Pacific Coast of Northern California, we enjoyed hunting for agates on the beach any time of year. Sometimes as a wave receded, we’d see the semi-precious stones tumbling in the gravelly sand. This process had polished them to translucence, often revealing mossy patterns inside, each unique and formed by the accumulated years. Other types of agates are found in the mountains and on the plains. Each of these gems uniquely encapsulates the effects of pressures and changes in the formation of our earth home. Yet, looking deep within each agate elicits a certainty that these natural processes were guided by a beautiful, loving, almighty Creator.
I think poems are like agates.
This week I had a conversation with my sister, who has also written verse. “Where does a poem come from?” we wondered aloud. Sometimes it seems to rise up from some secret place deep within. Other times a poem—or the inspiration for one—seems to come from without. Our grandfather used to say with a twinkle in his eye that he wrote poems when the “muse sat on his shoulder.” To me it seems as if help comes surely, perhaps from a literary angel. In his poem, “The Country of Déjà Vu,” Wendell Berry asserts that his poems “came through the air, I wrote them down, and sent them on” like migrating birds stopping at his feeder. Perhaps that is as good an explanation as any.
I still marvel at an experience I had in my young adult years. At home with two toddlers, my husband busy with his career, I was emotionally bound up by griefs and losses, especially the death of my mother. I hadn’t written a poem for a long time. One evening I went by myself to a poetry reading at a religious retreat center near our home. I knew no one there. The woman poet read with warmth from verses full of life and light and love. I didn’t go expecting this to happen; but, somehow, soaking in the spoken rhyme, rhythm, and sense, awakened the gift in me. For months after that evening, poems began freely coming to mind. The opening of this fountain provided one part of the healing the Lord began working in and through me, which continues today.
Admittedly, I am not a disciplined poet. I can compose meter and rhyme on demand; but mostly I wait for that elusive and mysterious inspiration. The important thing is to capture on paper the phrases, images, and insights as they come; to sit with them, savor them, polish them like agates; and if they pass the test of holding together and ringing true, to share them.
I won’t limit each poem’s meaning by trying to explain the emotions and experiences that, for me, are encapsulated in each one. As I send them out, they are free to take on new meanings as each reader looks into them. Perhaps for you a poem will speak to a quandary, a sorrow, or a joy you are experiencing at this season of your life. That is the beauty of sharing a gift of poetry.
On the first day of June we decided to get clear away from office, computers, books, and other projects. My husband and I felt a hankering for bird watching and wildflower viewing. So we drove out to the Pawnee National Grassland, bringing our dog, Jasper, with us. This mile-high, protected habitat on the prairie of Northern Colorado provides nesting ground to a colorful variety of migratory birds.
Some years the grassland—a vast solitude under changing skies—is hot and dry. This time. after a wet spring, we found it cool and green. Wildflowers dotted the native grasses. Prickly Pear had started opening their blooms. And the birds! They foraged in the grasses, perched on fence posts, did aerial gymnastics to catch flying insects, scratched in the sandy roadside, hunted from the sky, and paddled on small ponds.
We walked a little ways on a trail through the grasses. Larry took a picture of Jasper and me:
We identified 25 bird species, including Vesper Sparrow, Prairie Falcon, and Loggerhead Shrike. At one point along the gravel road we spotted a bird that looked like a miniature roadrunner. It ran on the ground with its tail held high. We watched it through binoculars and checked our bird guide (and the birding app on my cell phone, the only technology we used that day). It appeared to be a Sage Thrasher. Then the bird lifted into the air and we thought our chance to observe it was over. But it landed on a fence post just ahead of where we had stopped our car on the narrow road (The occasional approaching car or pickup could be seen miles away, in plenty of time to pull over).
As the breeze ruffled its feathers, the Sage Thrasher lifted its head and sang! And sang and sang. What a show. It felt like a gift to have this bird—uncommon in our area—perch and sing for us. I took a picture the best I could with my smart phone:
Here’s a clearer photo of a Sage Thrasher singing:
Used with permission of sagegrouseinitiative.com
In the wonder of this bird perching and singing so close to us, we felt even more connected with nature around us.
Connection is important. We connect with people, share ideas, express creativity, and conduct business through keyboard, screen, digital images and sounds, artificial light and wifi. This virtual world is full of potential and offers fascination. But experiencing life through technology can gradually drain our souls. One way I know this soul drain is happening is, when I go to bed, close my eyes and, instead of drifting to a peaceful sleep, I see images and text, web pages and video flashing across the screen of my mind. (This is why I generally turn off my computer by 9:30 p.m.)
King David said, “He leads me in green pastures and beside still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23).
Once in a while we need to unplug, go out into a world that engages all the senses, and let our souls be restored. Nature and the rediscovery of wonder offer a gateway to a restored soul.Carol O’Casey, author of Unwrapping Wonder, writes, “I escape expectations … and take a walk on the wild side. Whether exploring field or forest, marsh or meadow, or the edge of the sea, in the natural world I am transformed. There, in the solitude of nature I experience God’s presence.”
That night, after a day of birding on the prairie, when I lay my head on the pillow, I began to realize what a gift I had brought home with me from the grassland. When I closed my eyes, my mind wasn’t filled with a screen through which virtual images came atme. No. Instead, I was still among the Lark Buntings, Horned Larks, and Longspurs winging, swooping, twirling in the air. I was still surrounded by the songs of Meadow Larks, Brown Thrashers, and Mountain Plovers. I was still watching Swainson’s Hawks soar on high and kite in the breezes. I was still enjoying the yellow, blue, and red wildflowers and smelling the sweet grasses. With these images, sounds and smells came a peaceful, delighted and deep sense of Presence—the presence of our Creator, the Restorer of our souls.
Gifts are always better when shared. To my surprise, when Larry got in bed and turned off the light, after just a few moments he remarked, “I’m still seeing birds.” Lying side by side in the darkness, we compared notes and agreed that it had been a wonderful day.
A special sense of being attuned and restored has stayed with me—even as I type this at my computer.
If only we could get away for a while to some quiet, sacred place and find rest, renewal, and transformation. Surely, then, our writing, as well as our lives, could be revolutionized.
But our lives are so daily. Made up of moments piled on moments, experiences both planned and unexpected. Perhaps, though, your daily routine includes habits that you don’t even view as being a “spiritual exercises” but that are gradually giving you the perspective you crave. That was the case for me.
To speak or write effectively to others, in a way that reaches hearts as well as minds, we must speak and write from our hearts. But first we must get in touch with our own hearts. I’m going to share with you a way I found to do that.
Jesus said “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” If you want the words that flow out of your mouth or pen to be purposeful, meaningful, life-giving … then first tend to your heart. How do we as writers tend to our hearts? In his book, Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together, Ed Cyzewski describes his practice of daily self-reflection that “grew into an essential exercise that also revolutionized my writing.”
I have experienced something similar. A few years ago I felt overwhelmed and pulled in various directions by duties, desires, and demands, and I felt a need for focus and clarity, an unbroken sense of the Lord’s presence, and a new release of creativity. At bedtime I began the practice of thinking over my day, and I focused my mind on the best thing that happened that day: the time during that day when I felt the most joy and life. I saw those moments as gifts and drifted to sleep embracing the gift God had given me that day:
a child’s laughter
sunlight dancing on a pond
flowers blooming in my garden
a surprise visit from a friend
the way the Lord spoke to me in a scripture and came close to me in prayer
the way the phrases, rhythms, and rhymes of a poem came together.
These moments I treasured in my heart; they gave me hope and a sense of anticipation for the next day, to see what the next day’s moments would bring.
Then I found a charming little book by Linn and Linn, Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, and I learned that what I was doing was a type of Christian spirituality taught by the Ignatians, called “the Examen.” You reflect prayerfully back on a day (or a week, a year) and ask, “What today gave me consolation and life?” You also may ask, “What took life from me, gave me a feeling of desolation?”
It is good for the soul to embrace and hold to the life-giving, consoling moments of our days. And over time, we can observe patterns and learn what we really should focus our energies on, because God indeed speaks to us through the experiences of our days; He wants us to experience His life and joy and consolation in a way that will flow out of us to others. By practicing the Examen you may even discover your unique gifts and calling.
As a Christian writer, this practice and the resulting insights indeed could revolutionize your writing. Rather than laboring to write something you think you ought to write, or that others seem to expect, write the form, subject, theme, and style that engages and expresses your heart as well as your mind, that fills you with consolation, hope, joy, help, and fulfillment. And most likely what you write will do the same for your readers.
Are you listening, in prayer, to what the Lord may be asking you to do? Are you watching for His answers? Susan Roberts describes how saying “Yes” to the Lord led her on an adventure of devotional discoveries. I interviewed Susan to find out why and how she wrote Everywhere I Look, God Is There.
This marshy field teems with life. When our car speeds by it, though, we don’t notice or experience the wildlife hidden in the grasses, wading in the mud, singing from the reeds. One day we stopped our car, rolled down windows; looked through binoculars; listened, felt, smelled; tasted the breezes. Myriads of bird life, colors, textures of fauna and flora brought the place alive to us. Good writing does that also: draws in the reader, reveals hidden things, opens possibilities.
I taught from the following list at a recent writers workshop. Afterwards, a couple of wide-eyed writers said to me, “You really want good writing.”
Well, yes, I do! The better-written a manuscript comes to me, the more I like it. Here at Cladach we may resonate with the premise and material of a nonfiction manuscript—we may like a novel’s characters and plot—so much that we are willing to devote the editing time needed to bring the writing quality and style up to these standards. We may ask an author to go back and re-write/revise/re-work a manuscript. Then we also do in-house macro editing, line editing, and copy editing. The following list gives most of the elements of style and “good writing” that we look for in a manuscript and strive for in the books we publish.
Here’s how to give your writing pizzazz so readers will want to invest in it, engage with it—be entertained, convinced, and inspired by what you say. Check your writing against this list to make sure it communicates as clearly and persuasively as possible.
1. Have you written from your heart as well as your mind? (If not, read this post. If yes, go on to the rest of the list.)
2. Write in the active voice. Choose strong, active verbs.
3. Write concretely, rather than abstractly. Show, don’t just tell. Appeal to all the senses.
4. In nonfiction as well as fiction, use storytelling as much as possible.
5. Stay in a definite, consistent POV. Through whose eyes is the reader seeing?
6. Hook the reader on the first page/ first paragraph/ first sentence/ first word.
7. Keep the reader’s attention as each word, each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter leads to the next.
8. Maintain a logical or chronological flow of thought or action. Use transitions when needed.
9. Strive for precision and conciseness. Cut extraneous/ repetitious words and phrases. Less is more.
10. Give thought to word choices—consider subtleties, connotations, nuances; find the zing and zest of the right word.
CS: Hello, John. I’m wondering what inspired you to write a novel based on the events of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 Colorado?
JB: I’ve been interested in the story since I was a child and saw the painting by Robert Lindneux in a book. Even at that young age I could tell something was wrong with Indians displaying the American flag while being attacked by American troops. About five years ago I read Stan Hoig’s 1961 book, listed in every bibliography of Sand Creek publications. I couldn’t help but wonder what was the reaction of the Christian community in America at the time, especially the missionaries sent to the Cheyenne reservation.
CS: You blend fact and fiction skillfully. What offered you the most challenge in writing That Day by the Creek?
JB: Early on I realized I was writing an incredibly violent story for a Christian publisher and wondered if the climactic event of the massacre would survive the editing process. To Cladach’s credit everything remained intact. The atrocities I describe all came from eye-witness accounts and what is there is only a mere fraction of what occurred. Not to include the horrific acts would not do the story justice.
CS: Well, you weren’t graphic in your depictions. As you say, it is what happened. You balanced the tragedy with lighter fictional characters and scenes. That brings me to my next question: Which fictional character do you wish was real?
JB: Porcupine Pete, of course. It would be great to sit around a campfire some night with family and listen to his tales of living with the Indians and trekking through the Rockies. Surprisingly, he was an easy character to come up with. I didn’t want to just throw Josh out into the wilderness by himself. I don’t think he would have lasted out there too long. Having a mountain man who is like a fish out of water while around government bureaucrats and politicians, but perfectly comfortable in the formidable mountains, seemed a natural choice. That’s how I came up with Porcupine. I am kind of curious how he survived wrestling that grizzly bear on a cliff edge.
CS: Porcupine Pete is my favorite character, too! What fun it would be to listen to his stories. … Then, of all the historical characters in That Day by the Creek, which would you choose to talk with, and why?
JB: I have two answers to that question. First is Making Medicine. During my research I found his biography, a real gem. I would love to hear his story and look at his artwork. Second is Silas Soule, even though he had a tragic end. Anyone who has been in the military knows what a serious offense it is to disobey an order from a superior officer, especially in the heat of battle. He was essentially ordered to murder women and children, and he refused, and ordered the men under him to do likewise. In the end it cost him his life.
CS: Did you bring any of your own life experiences into this novel?
JB: I wasn’t sure how to describe the wedding between Josh and Sunflower, so I used details from my own. My wife Eva and I had a simple Catholic wedding in the Philippines at the hotel where we were staying. Afterwards, friends and family members brought in dishes of food and we had a real nice potluck.
CS: Do you have plans to write more novels? Maybe a sequel?
JB: Of course. I’m about four chapters into a historical novel about the Pleasant Valley Cattle War that took place in central Arizona in the 1880s.
CS: Sounds great. Here’s another question: Where do you write? Describe your writing space. What helps you focus and stay inspired?
JB: I have a spacious office at the house here in Tucson, aka “the man cave.” A large, L-shaped desk holds my computer and other accessories. Shelves are filled with books, CDs and DVDs. One shelf holds Bibles and concordances. The room also has a TV, stereo, and a hide-a-bed couch for overnight guests. Often the stereo is tuned to K-LOVE to keep a sense of spiritual peace in the room. The door to the rest of the house is always open, so my wife Eva or our German shepherd Rocky can enter at any time. I can’t stay focused on a writing project that starts to get boring. If it’s boring for me to write, it will be boring for someone to read. When the pace starts to slow, I add another element to keep things interesting, which usually keeps me inspired.
CS: Do you have any upcoming author appearances online?
JB: Yes, I recently gave an in-depth interview to fiction writer Faith Parsons on her blog.
CS: Thanks, John. Readers can know you a little better now. We look forward to further stories and inspiring plot twists coming out of your time in the writer-man cave!
Christina Slike has assisted in the editing and marketing of many titles for Cladach Publishing.
Today I’m sharing a guest post written by a friend, a retired pastor who writes encouraging, daily meditations for his Facebook followers. This kind of writing takes discipline and a heart that is attuned both to the Lord and to people and their real needs.
Writing is good for spirit, soul, mind. I don’t mean texting or e-mailing. I mean paper, pencil, and eraser writing. Because it’s slow. You have to be thoughtful. There is time to choose words, create effective phrases, eliminate unnecessary words, refine thoughts, evaluate what you are saying.
Things written penetrate deeper, with more impact, and last longer. Proverbs 7:13 advises writing God’s wisdom and instruction deep within your heart. Hebrews 8:10 records God saying, “I will put my laws in their minds and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
I think it was my friend, Jim Copple, who said to write something every day. In writing, spirit, mind, and soul get to breathe deeply. A spark of thought grows into a flame, and I grow. Having lighted a candle, I may pass the little flame on to whomever may need or find it useful.
Write something every day. No, not a “to do list.” Write a prayer, a personal note, a journal entry, or even just random thoughts. Paper and pencil have advantages over lighted screens and keyboards. A writing, praying, thinking place in your home is also beneficial.
I hear writers bemoan the demands and distractions in their days (including technology) and how hard it is for them to achieve balance in their lives. Perhaps you’ve felt that, too. You’re working at the computer and think you’ll just check Facebook for a few minutes. An hour later, you wonder where the time went. Or you hear the musical tone that tells you new emails or text messages have arrived on your cell phone. You were just about to focus in on the theme of a blog post you’re preparing to write. You touch your phone screen, read the text and one thing leads to another. Let’s see, where did that inspiration, that thought, that focus go?
I ought to read more, pray more, call so-in-so, go shopping, attend those meetings, deep clean my house/office, sort through papers, watch those recommended movies, re-decorate my house, exercise more … while tweeting, blogging, posting, submitting copy to editors.
So, how do we achieve “balance”?
Or, is that even the right question?
I got help on this issue a few days ago when I attended the “Writers on the Rock” Christian writers conference in Lakewood, Colorado, as a workshop presenter. Happily, I had opportunity to go to a session taught by Allen Arnold of Ransomed Heart Ministries. “Balance isn’t the key,” he told us. “God wants us to write—not for him or about him—but with him. This leads to a wildly unbalanced life. Let other things fall away.”
Demonstrating his teaching, Allen presented a creative, God-breathed message that brought clarity to my mind and both piercing and encouragement to my heart. In fact, the heart was his theme.
“Infuse Your Creativity with Heart” was his topic. “Nothing great was ever achieved without great heart,” stated the workshop blurb in the conference program. “Yet writers often become disheartened, discouraged or overwhelmed” (that’s where I started this post, remember?) “and when they do, their stories slowly begin to die.” Allen’s workshop promised to tell us “how to discover the truer you, consecrate your creativity, and feast on hidden Spiritual Manna.” He delivered on that promise.
A tall man with a joyful smile and eyes that seem ready to laugh with you or cry with you according to your need and the Lord’s leading, he said, “God cares far more about the story you’re living than the story you’re writing. Live well. Then write well.”
Does living well mean keeping up with everything the world, and even the church, often tells us we should keep on top of and keep “in balance?”
“You can’t write a better story than you’re living,” Allen Arnold states. “Nothing is more important than how a story was born—what your heart is like at the time of writing. … Your writing changes when it becomes about presence over productivity.”
If writing and connecting with readers to encourage them, lift their sights to Jesus, come alongside them, instruct them in the living Word, bring them hope through a well-told story, is what gives you life … then this may be what the Lord is calling you to do; and to live out this calling, you will have to let some other things fall away.
Tend to your heart. Then write and connect and live a “wildly unbalanced life” in—and flowing out from—the presence of Jesus.
Update: I recently got Allen Arnold’s book, The Story of WITH : A Better Way to Live, Love, & Create. I recommend it! ~ C.L.