20 Poems in 20 Days
Something to know about me – as a creative writer – is that I’ve always had an exceptionally hard time starting and keeping any kind of consistent writing schedule. Also, I’m terrible to put everything else in the world before my own creative energies and creative needs.
But, I’ve turned my whole life upset down to have this time here in Wales (I moved to Wales, by the way) to write and pursue writing aspirations. Even though I’m here, my mind is still going in 1,000 different directions, and I have so many ideas (and so many stresses) that I’m not sure where to start. What ends up happening is a lot of time becomes wasted thinking about writing, planning to write, reading with the goal of writing, but no actual writing gets done. For one, I’ve started – due to both internal and external pressures – to think about whole collections of poems rather than the individual poem, which of course, has to come first. When you’re thinking too much about the macro, it can be hard to hone in on the micro. Also, I sometimes think if I can’t write something publishable on a given day, why write at all? I’m embarrassed to admit this because I know this treats writing as a means to an end rather than what it actually is to me – a matter of living, experiencing the life lived, and sharing that experience with others. This sad realization also underscores a crippling perfectionism that spans many areas of my life and work.
I’m also honored to be in collaboration with a wonderful Dutch artist and to be teeming with ideas following two very hard years of my life. It’s time to write, for my well-being, for my growth, for the things I left behind, and for my aspirations for the future.
So, the other day I was looking at a list of poems I have ready. I looked at the list critically and tried to make a secondary list of other poems I need write in order to flesh out the narrative arc I see forming in the work as a whole. When I was done, I made a list of 20 poems. My heart sank looking at the list. How long would this take at my current creative output rate, 12 years? But, the thing is, the poems are already inside of me. I know the story; I know the emotions. These specific poems don’t need research; they just need me to sit down and write them. But, for two days, I tried and all I could see was the macro – the list of twenty. My ideas went back and forth from one poem idea to another. And, I made some good notes. But, you know what I didn’t do? Write one single draft of one single poem.
Last night, an idea struck me. Why don’t I try to do one poem per day for 20 days? There’s more… As per my idea, I have to go in the order of the list I made out of specific poems I need to write. No jumping ahead or backwards. I would treat this like a firm assignment, like I don’t have a choice. Also, I can only spend one hour on the poem (+15 or 30 minutes if the energy is really flowing). The limited time, I thought, might create a sense of urgency, like that jolt of productivity you feel when the essay is due in five hours. Also, no social media or email. I could only use my phone for the dictionary or minimum pertinent internet research if needed, Finally, it shouldn’t matter if the draft is particularly good – only solid and stable as a first draft. After all, revision is often where the magic happens.
So, I’m going to do this thing. And I’m going to give a brief update here each day to share how it’s going. And, since I just finished Day 1, I can stop talking theory and now switch to practice.
Day 1 – October 8, 2017
I began the first hour of the first day of this challenge around 1pm this afternoon. About two minutes after I began, I wanted to scrap the whole idea I had for this poem into the electronic trash bin. But, my eye glimpsed the time, and I thought “Okay, one hour. I can do this.” The limited time turned out to be a great idea! It made me 1) quickly jump into serious work but it also 2) wasn’t so long that I started to feel tied down or bored. The poem today (and for the next five days) is a prose poem, so I had many thoughts about the form over the hour, wishing I had more examples immediately around for me to read/review. I resisted this urge, however, feeling that it wasn’t a good use of my limited time or internet privileges to look up sample poems. Also, I thought that might prove to be more distracting than helpful. I worked toward a natural end to the poem and then began going back through and adding other layers to the content and shifting phrases around. I remember by the time thirty minutes had passed I couldn’t believe how deep I had delved into some very real feelings crafted in a decent draft AND I STILL HAD THIRTY MINUTES LEFT. I ended around 2:05pm with a draft I’m pleased with. Don’t want to marry it, but you know what, it exists and for that I’m pleased. Hope the success continues tomorrow! Excerpt from today’s writing: “The highway calls for elucidation like any another notebook…”
Day 2 – October 9, 2017
Today was hard. I was quite productive earlier in another area of my work, but as the afternoon progressed, I started to feel tired and unwell. So, I napped, but about 1.5 hours later, I was ripped from the nap by the horrifying scream of the fire alarm (fire drill). After I got back to my room, I just felt very unmotivated and also like it should be the next day (the confusing power of naps). But, I need to stop being whiny. Because I still did it. I still got my laptop out, all sluggish and annoyed. I checked the list of poems, and I wrote a draft. I had a hard time tonight staying focused. I kept wanting to look at my phone and fidget. But, surprisingly, I think the poem draft I completed tonight is much more polished and cohesive than last night’s. So, I’m pleased again. Note to self: don’t save creative writing until the end of the day: you never know how you’ll feel by then (Or, conversely, maybe I write better when I’m tired… hmm…). Excerpt from today’s writing: “That’s the muscle and meat of it. Once you asked if I was happy, you had already written the answer.”
Day 3 – October 10, 2017
Bust 😦 But, it happens. And, luckily I make the rules! I’ve been dealing with a hurt foot this evening and a general tired/drained lack of motivation for all things thinking and doing. I’m going to give myself a break today, given the pain. But, the pursuit continues. 20 poems in 20 days must happen, so I guess maybe I’ll double up another day? TBD…
Day 4 – October 11, 2017
Well, the dream continues despite yesterday’s setback. I started around 9:20 tonight and really had to force myself to turn to creative writing over the other pressing, non-creative items on my list. I’m glad I did, though, and I’m glad to have started earlier in the evening before I got too tired. A few observations from tonight: I find myself starting each time very annoyed and detached from the work. At some point during the hour, that shifts. I suppose once a certain amount of raw emotion or original-ish lines come out in the work I start to feel invested in it, and the tone changes. In all three of the drafts I have written so far, I feel there are still some clichés, wordiness, and I’m probably being at times too crafted. But, again, I’m pleased with these existing as first drafts. Another not-so-new observation: I know I’m getting into some real emotion when after finishing a draft I start to cry. I hope what I feel when I write scenes like this translates to readers some day. Excerpt from today’s writing: “In their version of the story, we’d be bandits, derelicts, forever on the run from the law.”
Day 5: October 12, 2017
I didn’t write as long tonight as I wanted. I did the thing I said more than once I shouldn’t do: started too late in the evening. But, I start teaching a new class tomorrow for the first time, so I was putting effort tonight into finalizing materials. I also wonder if I started this 20 in 20 too soon after moving to a new country? I say this because my body is definitely still adjusting to its new surroundings: climate, walking everywhere, new food. I think I ate something that bugged my system because I’ve just been feeling not right for the last day and a half or so. But, still I got out my laptop and started plugging away at the fourth poem. Made it about four lines in when the fire alone went off (at midnight). Now that I’m back in my room, I’m just going to call it a night. Tonight’s poem was born; it will grow up soon enough. Tonight’s excerpt: “I’m measuring my life now in the weight of my key chain: the keys I’m removing; the ones I’m adding temporarily. Nothing seems permanent anymore.”
Day 6: October 13, 2017
Today I composed the first bit of a decent poem on my phone. I’m such a stickler for rules, but I broke one stated rule and one unstated. The latter being that I would properly write on my laptop. The former being that I would write the poems in the order I originally wrote down when I conceived the list. To this last one, I’ll say that I had good intentions when I sat out to try to force some rules on my unruly writing habits, BUT the first six I had written on the list were very intense and challenging, and the list was made out arbitrarily and before I started this challenge. I started to lose heart and so I decided to loosen the grip on the rules and write what felt natural. I think these kinds of changes are vital if good work and productivity are the end goal. Excerpt from today’s writing: “You tried to explain pressure to me. Submarine deep. Milky Way high.”
Day 7: October 14, 2017
Well, if I thought I broke the rules yesterday, then I really broke them today because the poem I wrote I didn’t actually WRITE DOWN. As I was winding through the hills of the Brecon Beacons here in Wales, I wrote another epistle poem in my head, thinking about the last time I rode through these hills. I probably spent four hours going over and over drafts of the poem in my head, and I’ll jot down this first draft over the day or when I get back home tonight. Two things I’m pondering today: 1) I once heard it said that if you’re thinking about work, that’s still working, especially if you’re thinking about it on vacation as I was yesterday. I believe I agree with this. 2) Why do I feel the need to justify changing the rules here in these little blurbs? Why are the rules (in this writing exercise and in life) so incredibly important to me? Maybe TOO important… Excerpt from today’s writing: “The Brecon Beacons haven’t changed for centuries, their rugged beauty intact and alive in the wispy and winding valleys, the craggy rocks which seem to grow out of the hills, the herds of sheep, their hides livened with spray-painted.”
Day 8: October 15, 2017
Tonight, I took one idea I had and broke it into two different poems, ending the writing session with one strong draft and one working okay draft. I’m happy with tonight’s work, and this also makes up for the bust on day three! I have eight drafts on Day 8! I am particularly proud of this because I am getting sick – head/chest cold. I’m trying to keep the illness at bay but not feeling my best. Still, I powered through. Also, a writing note: I think maybe I write better on an empty stomach. “Food” for thought… Excerpt from today’s writing: “I just got here, but everywhere I look there’s an injured bird.”
Day 9: October 16, 2017
I wrote two new poems tonight in addition to combining and recording several drafts written over the chaotic last few months. One of the new poems I wrote is a haiku in reference to the ME TOO movement that’s sparked on Facebook. The second is a poem about Hurricane Ophelia, which 1) came the U.K., a place that hasn’t seen a storm like this in decades 2) the storm brought dust from the Sahara 3) made planes smell like smoke as they were flying over 4) created a golden atmospheric effect with a red sun 6) what’s up with the name? What a great literary reference! Thank you, universe, for the overwhelming inspiration today. Excerpt from today’s writing: “Ophelia in the sky above me, in the wind that burns my ears.”
Day 10: October 17, 2017
Total bust. I’m super sick with a chest infection.
Day 11: October 18, 2017
Total bust again. The chest infection continues with its fever, aches, and general awfulness.
Day 12: October 19, 2017
Although I didn’t get as much done today as I hoped, I did sit down and type out the beginnings of a poem draft. I’m trying to slowly get back to work after this week of being confined and largely bedridden.
Day 13: October 20, 2017
Day 14: October 21, 2017
Interesting experience of writing a poem tonight that I think I’ll probably in a day or two trash. But, I think this was beneficial to try something I was unsure of and let the draft be imperfect and fragile. Previously, I wouldn’t have even started a poem at all unless the idea was so polished in my mind that it warranted a trial run as an actual draft. I haven’t before put down half-baked ideas. But, I’m committed to getting more down on paper, even the ideas that don’t make it out into the world. My idea of writing poems from the POV of fever dreams might not work out after all. But, that’s okay.
Day 15: October 22, 2017
Tonight, I got the idea for a poem draft from looking at a certain kind of Facebook post. I used to be cheekier in my poems and more ironic. But, then the subject matter I was focusing on changed a bit, and most of my work since has been in earnest, tone-wise. It was nice to go back to the playful, even though some real emotions are worked out in this draft. I think that cheeky tone is quite authentic to my voice, and I’m trying quite hard in this project I’m working to let my personal voice come out more, including the snarky, the dark, the messy, the obsessive, and the confused. Excerpt: “If you say you’re unhappy aloud, does the sky rain down in shards of glass?”
Day 16: October 23, 2017
A New Orleans poem tonight. The last time I was there I kept a journal, trying to remember the folklore, parts of the city, the way I was feeling at the time. Now, it’s time to make good on those promises…
Day 17: October 24, 2017
Another New Orleans poem tonight. Part of why this 20 in 20 is timely as well as super productive is that there are emotions in me that are presently rapidly changing. But, those emotions are in part a large key factor to the book I’m trying to finish. It’s like, in some ways, racing against the clock to try to get down some diminishing feelings that, once they’re gone, can still be written about but will have lost immediacy and fire. Well, even now, I’m writing from memories instead of feelings. Or rather, memories of feelings. This is why Anne Lamott is right about Shitty First Drafts. I wish I had some half-baked poems from when I was really in the thick of it. But, the problem is that it’s so hard to do Eros in poems, almost everything is a cliche. I never could really come up with the right configurations. But, I’m trying to let those anxieties go. Love may have been written about in all ways over and over, but there will always be room for more of it because people like the stories. They like feeling love and remembering love. One shouldn’t run away from writing about love. One should push at the hard wall that it is until the very authentic realities of the particular story comes through the writing.
Day 18: October 25, 2017
Tonight, I tried to write a poem inspired by the fever dreams I had when I was sick. And just the general loneliness one feels under the duress of a high fever when you have to be your own caretaker and your own sickling. No idea where this one will lead. Maybe its future is a solid poem, maybe its future is the delete button.
Day 19 & Day 20: October 26 & 27, 2017
Although I did finish the 20 in 20, I am woefully behind on updating! To close out the writing project, I went back to those more emotionally raw prose poems I started with in the beginning. Taking a break from that series gave me the space and time I needed to revamp and re-inspire myself.
CONCLUSION & TAKEAWAYS
*In the end, I finished the 20 Poems in 20 Days project with 24 pages of new poetry, even with the days I took off when I was ill.
*The exercise was wildly successful in pressuring/encouraging me to write regularly – daily in fact. It became a routine, something I did at the end of each night before bed. I allowed myself to write a couple of shit poems, but I am overall quite impressed by how far along many of the poems ended up. In the days since, I have not gotten back into the same swing. I needed a bit of a break. My plan is to start a proper and consistent writing schedule in the next few days and stick with it. If I don’t, I may do another 20 in 20 again. With that being said, I suppose doing a 20 in 20 every other month could be its own writing schedule, rather than thinking a writing schedule should be daily 365 days a year.
*Here’s the most important takeaway – I had to be imperfect to finish this goal. In my mind when I begin, I just knew I would sit upright with excellent posture at my desk every morning, sip coffee, and write poems on a perfectly set routine. Why do I do this to myself? I’m 33 years old – don’t I know myself yet? I rarely write at a desk. I write in bed – on my laptop with five books laying open and mechanical pencils lining the spaces between the books. Also, there were days it didn’t happen: days I was ill, one day I just didn’t have it in me no matter how hard I tried. I was honest about that in my write ups and let myself be with an almost-minimal amount of guilt. But, by giving myself this grace, I rewarded myself because there were other days that energies and inspirations were high, and I completed two poems drafts in a day instead of one. I still had to push myself on days, but allowing myself to be imperfect, to be human, to break and tweak the rules I outlined for myself is the only reason I finished this project. And, that’s the most important lesson that I, (myself – as a painful perfectionist) could have learned. By nature, I follow the rules; it’s natural to me and makes me feel steady, but in my writing life, it may be time to go rogue!