“Did I forget to look at the sky this morning / when I first woke up?”
So begins Jim Moore’s,”Twenty Questions,” one of my favorite poems to read as a reminder to live attentively. When I take Moore’s attitude of inquiry into the day, I’m frequently rewarded with a high word count of odd snippets which I hoard like gold to incite new projects. And then I lose my words within the dozens and dozens of journals I’ve kept for years.
I once attended a reading where Charles Simic and Laure-Anne Bosselaar stood in front of a large audience and spun magic from their tattered leather journals, taking rapt listeners from first jot to finished poem like sure-footed adults leading children over stepping stones in a rushing river.
My process is infinitely messier.
I keep journals everywhere. Stacks of filled Moleskins pile up in a purple silk-wrapped box on my bookshelf. There are three journals on my bedside table, one in my purse, another in my messenger bag, and a water-spotted, sandy one in my beach backpack. There’s a slim brown journal in my car, a hardback one in my upstairs office, and the smallest journal of all waits downstairs by my muddy shoes. I slip it into my jeans pocket before every hike.
Writing is the easy part. Keeping track of my observations is the trick. Yet I find that randomly picking and choosing to read from this year or that, from land observations or seaside ruminations can be weirdly fun.
It’s never a good thing to be a cautious trumpeter, I wrote while listening to music at San Francisco’s now defunct Jazz at Pearl’s club.
Do not ever show an oak a photo of a pine. When you write about the aspen, don’t let the birch read a word about it, came after a late fall walk in the canyon near my house.
I’d rather lose an armpit than a finger, was gleaned at the AFI Film fest while riding the elevator from the parking garage to the ArcLight Theater in Los Angeles.
And then, my most promising:
This emptiness lies within the small leather book, decorated with with a botanical pomegranate image, that I picked up at Charta an exquisite book bindery in Venezia.
The proprietor, whose name I’ve sadly forgotten, warned me that I’d never write in this book.
“No one ever does,” he said as he wrapped the small book in gold paper. “But just so you know, I offer free refills. When you fill this up, you send me a letter and I will send you more pages.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll fill it up. I’m a writer.”
He nodded sagely, patted the package before he handed it to me.
“You’ll be the first.”
I think of this – self-fulfilling prophecies and keeping track of journal notes – as I bid my students a semester’s-end goodbye. They tell me they’ve turned into writers now and they want to know how to continue the practice.
Off the top of my head, I offer my own best advice.
* Write frequently, at least 1,000 words a day.
* Save your writing in documents titled by month and year.
* Take a journal with you everywhere. (Shhh, I didn’t tell them the story of what happens to mine.)
* Make a regular practice of transcribing your journal notes once a month. (Now there’s a thought.)
* When a new month rolls around, open a new document and begin again.
* At that time, make a regular practice of reading the previous years’ journal entries for that month. For example, every December I read all the December documents from previous years.
* And lastly, don’t ever let someone tell you that you won’t write.
I always miss my students, for their optimism, their tenacity, their freshness, and finally because without them I’d have no occasion to hear myself say aloud things I know to be true.
“Don’t ever let someone tell you that you won’t write.”
It’s time to face down the Pomegranate journal.
blue in the afternoon
There. In pencil, with eraser marks, a far from perfect entry. And then I remember my second favorite line from the poem “Twenty Questions.”
“Wouldn’t it be wrong not to mention joy?”
I scribble joy! in Pomegranate journal, just to remind myself.
Joy! I tell my students instead of goodbye. And then, because a statement offers no possibility for dialogue, I ask a question.
Will you remember to look at the sky at dusk?
He writes in the his fellowship profile about spending time in prison and learning that his fellow inmates were poetry lovers.
I discovered that a big notebook was kept secretly (passed from inmate to inmate so the risk was shared) and at some cost (its discovery would have resulted in the loss of good time, which meant a longer stay in prison) in which inmates kept poems—poems of their own and poems by poets whose work they loved, mostly Black poets, but I remember Neruda was there, Whitman, and Longfellow, of all people.
You can read the entire poem “Twenty Questions” here.