In April, David Shumate, a prose poet, gave the first in a series of lectures about craft at the Writers’ Center of Indiana. Not craft, as in “how-to,” but craft in the deepest sense: where writing comes from and how it is made. In his lecture, “No Maps, No Rules,” Shumate talked about the process by which his poems are dreamed into being out of silence. The poet is an architect of silences,” he said. Poets are hostages to silence; poems are the frames they make around the sacred space that only silence brings.
He writes in the early morning silence. “I wait and I write what comes to me,” he said.
I haven’t written many poems, but what he said made sense to me when I thought about how the poems I had written came to me, as if out of nowhere. It felt like magic, but it wasn’t. I was listening for them. I just hadn’t realized it.
Poet Marianne Boruch says poems come from the begging bowl, which is another way of saying the same thing. The poet humbly begs the silence to give her a poem; it is her sacred task to find meaning in what she is given.
Fiction, however, does not feel that way at all. Especially novels.
Last week, the novelist Patricia Henley gave the second lecture in the craft series, and during the Q&A session afterwards, someone who’d heard Shumate speak described what he had said about silence and asked, “Is it like that for you, too?”
“God, no!” she said—and described waking every morning to scenes unfolding in her head, voice speaking, compelling her to get out of bed.
Yes, I thought. It feels exactly like that.
Poets step into the silence and dream a poem into being; novelists step into an ongoing dream, alive, clamoring for their attention.
Where’s the begging bowl then, where’s the silence?
Once, working on a novel up in Michigan, I drove over to Empire, the little town near Sleeping Bear Dunes where the book was set. Walking the beach, listening to the mix of Sixties music I’d made that evoked my character’s past, I passed a young guy hauling rocks—some the size of watermelons—from the shallow water to the shore and setting them in little piles. On my way back, I saw that he had begun to form them into words. I stopped and looked, couldn't figure out what they were.
“What are you spelling?” I asked.
He grinned. “Will you marry me?”
I hadn’t been able to read the words because I had been looking at them as if he'd spelled them toward the lake. But I saw them immediately when he explained that he’d placed them to be seen from a lookout perch on the high dune that rose up from where we stood. He meant to take his girlfriend there that evening, he said.
By noon the following day, this small gift from the cosmos had made its way into my novel. This happens fairly frequently to me, especially when I’m in the middle of something, totally engaged.
Sometimes the nature of the gift is like the words on the beach: obvious, immediate, a puzzle piece I didn’t know I was looking for that makes everything fall into place. Sometimes I notice something in passing (or maybe I didn’t notice at all) and I’m surprised when, years later, it emerges—exactly what I need.
This is the magic of creative process, which, it took me a long time to learn, can’t be separated from the idea of craft. It’s all true.
You listen. You teach yourself to be fully alive to your surroundings. Poet or novelist, you keep your begging bowl at the ready. You take what the cosmos gives you and dream your own world into being.