The Writing Process-What I Remember; What I Don’t
A student once said to me that she appreciated me telling the class to keep everything. Keep each and every draft of your writing, your manuscript. Did I say that?
Actually, I save nothing. Okay, next to nothing. When did I start letting go? It’s not about keeping what brings me joy. My writing isn’t joyful. Although, someone once said it had sass.
I have always decluttered. Every two or three months I purge-this includes not only things, but sometimes, people (sometimes they purge me). But since the Pandemic, actually even before, I started a momentous purge—maybe it was when I turned 70 and knew any day now could be my last and why make my children go through my things, things they wouldn’t want. Even worse, if they, without paying any attention to who I was, threw them out without a nod or a recognition.
My office files are fairly pristine. Sorted, labeled, shelved: insurance, taxes, car, condo, publications—mine and those of my friends. Yet, as the piles of my essays and poems thin, I am heart struck to notice a journey of words that repeat, that sail forth, that bring me to my writing/life today at the age of 73.
I have a book forthcoming. March 2021, LHP: Septuagenarian: love is what happens when I die. Now that’s a scary title if not understood as a metaphor. The mock-up of the cover has the sub-title in small font size. What does that mean? Are we afraid of death? Actually, the title came from a poem within the manuscript and it stuck, the line in the title, not the poem. It’s a metaphor. Clarissa Pinkola Estés said What must I give more death to today, in order to generate more life? I say, what must I let go of to generate love, be love, give love, get love.
As I fumble through boxes of what I have not yet been able to discard, I discover a few poems that haven’t yet found their way to the trash. One poem in particular, but there are others, starts out like this:
“I woke up knowing I was dead. The first thing I’ve been sure of all my life. The marks stretched, some visible and some invisible. Stretched past cardboard boxes. None of them empty, Each box filled with an arm or a leg.”
The two-page poem contain boxes each labeled by a decade. It ends with: “This was love. She had finally gotten what she wanted. But she was no longer who she was. She didn’t recognize herself….”
The poem was dated October 15, 1999. Only three years after I earned an MFA. There are hand-written revisions. There is a short version printed in red. A note says Vulva Riot. There is a chorus that reads: “Stretch marks, mark time, highway marks, passing marks, remarks, earmarks, market, marker, question marks, magic markers, grave markers, stretch marks.”
Sometimes we don’t know why we say things, do things, save things—write things. But there is significance to our actions. I am glad I saved this poem. If I had come across it earlier, it would be in my book. It would be the Introduction, the Foreword. I am going to edit the poem. This poem will not be discarded. There are no rules I told my students. Save all your drafts or don’t. Discard everything so future generations won’t be bothered, or save what has been your life line and hope someone will embrace it.
WRITING EXERCISE: choose a word, such as mark and explore it and all related words by sound, by meaning, or both. Create a chorus/a short verse. Let it be the pattern that emerges. How do you fill the empty spaces in-between? Are they boxes marked by decades such as:
“One box, marked 1953-1963, contained Hostess Cup Cakes. Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. Barbie dolls. Captain, May I. Sorry. Sugar and Spice. Axel and His Dog. Captain Kangaroo. Nancy Drew. Bobbsey Twins. The Little Engine That Could. Pop Beads, Roller Skates. Crinolines. Hula Hoops. Red Rover. Pony Tails. Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. Kool Aide. “Go Tell Aunt Rhody the Ol’ Gray Goose Is Dead”. The Salvation Army Book Store on Nicollet Island. Government Surplus. A metal Grocery Cart. Trading Cards. Air Raid Drills. Standish Elementary School. Woolworths. Wonder Bread.”
I probably did tell the student to save all of her writing. I probably meant it. Much of my writing, my former life was left behind when I made, yet another relationship move. This one sudden. Sometimes things aren’t saved because we can’t take them with us. But sometimes, a book authored and signed by you to another poet will show up on a Google search and you know not everything is lost, it just might have found a new home.
Sherry Quan Lee
February 18, 2021