I remember sitting at my kitchen table after learning that my Aunt Maud had died. For weeks, I sat in the same spot writing poem after poem until a complete collection was done. The process of writing that book started as my reaction to a wound. I was angry and sad that I couldn’t attend my favorite aunt’s funeral because I was almost 8 months pregnant with my first child. No matter what “safety measure” or scheme I devised to take the trip, my then husband and my doctor weren’t having it.
Aunt Maud came to me in a dream last night. I was living in house with other artists, and I was trying to clean up the kitchen. Suddenly, the door opens and Aunt Maud is there wearing berry lipstick and a periwinkle blue pant suit.
She holds her clutch purse to her chest as I call her name. For a moment, she doesn’t know who I am. Then, the moment I know she recognizes me, her eyes soften. She relaxes her grip on her clutch bag. And she lets me hug her like I’m flattening her at the chest. My eyes, closes and water trails down my face.. I go into the bedroom that I share with a woman who seems to be related to me, though I don’t know her face in real life. I fall on my knees, still crying, to tell her Aunt Maud is back. I don’t even have to explain how someone dead could be waiting in our kitchen. She knows and runs out of the bedroom to meet Aunt Maud.
I am not much for dream interpretation. But somehow, any dream about Aunt Maud in my life signifies the arrival of new work. This isn’t even the second time she’s appeared in my dreams. I have learned to brace myself for what is around the corner.
This past weekend, some of the newness started coming when I took a Raleigh Review workshop with Zelda Lockhart. The focus for the workshop was “Mining the Mirror: Turning Emotional Landmines Into Good Literature.” It was exactly what I needed, since it pushed each writer in the room to write from a place of vulnerability. I didn’t expect at all to be writing about the subject that I did — the one that chose me, really — but it was one of the most powerful workshops I have ever taken.
We each generated raw-material drafts that Zelda would not allow us to revise. She said we needed to focus on keeping what was beautiful in what was raw and not trying to “clever” it up.. Although this is common sense to me, and something I have often taught my own students, it’s a lesson I seem to have forgotten for myself over the past few years. I could really feel the constraints I had been placing on myself to be clever, and meaningful, and deep popping off. I freed myself just by being honest and agreeing not to clean up a thing.
The result of this workshop is that now, I am in such high gear to add what I think has been missing from my Phantom Limbs collection. This is a book of poems about my children. But how could I write to them about their mother without telling them about mine? They come from all of that. It’s like a big riddle has been solved in my creative process, just because Zelda nudged me to focus on scenes and write through the moment of an initial wound. As a writing process, this method has unimaginable power.
I already know I will not look at the process of collecting poems the same again, but now, I will not write the same, either.