April 2018 | Productivity Through “Improvisations”

Photo by Theresa Barker.

I am sitting at my desk this Sunday morning, looking out at the overcast sky that promises sun later on. The 100-foot Douglas Fir tree outside my window is popping forth with small orange mini-cones – pollen pods? – on the tips of its green-needle branches, like little kernels of orange popcorn dusted across its boughs. A squirrel prances along a long branch inside the sheltered-needle casing of the tree, two – no three! – stories above the ground.

Squirrels are so amazingly unafraid to scamper along waving boughs of maple trees in my neighborhood, or atop the thin wire of an electrical connection to the power pole outside. They seem to think nothing of it. It makes me think: what am I afraid of, and how might I overcome my fears? Years and years of evolution have probably given the squirrels in my yard their tight claw-grip paws, the body-balance to scurry across slender passages of twig and wire to obtain what they need. Years and years of evolution. I am reminded that while their acrobatic feats are impressive, squirrels do have the deftness and agility to make their leaps and death-defying treks across branches and wires without falling.  Thinking about this, I can be inspired to continue to overcome my own fears, if I have the strength, determination, and preparedness to go forward in spite of my fears.  How about you?  What fears would you like to overcome?

Photo by Theresa Barker.

In Celebration of Earth Day, a poem

Today is Earth Day!  I came across this wonderful poem, aptly named, by Jane Yolen, “Earth Day,” and I thought you would enjoy it as well.

Earth Day
By Jane Yolen

I am the Earth
And the Earth is me.
Each blade of grass,
Each honey tree,
Each bit of mud,
And stick and stone
Is blood and muscle,
Skin and bone. . . .

Just reading this first stanza, I can feel an enduring connection between us and the earth.  “Each blade of grass, each honey tree, each bit of mud . . . ”  Even though it is only words on a page, you feel drawn into the natural world when you read it.  Ah, the power of poetry to transport us into another reality!  Isn’t it amazing?

Poetry Study – William Carlos Williams

I have been studying poems by William Carlos Williams in a course I’m taking at the University.  Spring and All is a collection containing twenty-seven poems, along with bits of prose and prose excerpts, Williams’s reflections.  These poems that include his famous “The Red Wheelbarrow” (No. 22):

XXII (The Red Wheelbarrow)
By William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The instructor in our poetry course talks about Williams’s conviction for paying attention, for noticing what is before us.  Williams believed that if we want to write poetry, or if we want to simply live in the world, we need to pay attention, notice things, not just go through life with our minds elsewhere.  He began a movement:  at a time when his contemporaries, notably T. S. Eliot, were writing about literary allusions and the decline of humankind, following WW I, Williams chose to focus on the real, the what’s-in-front-of-you details of his world.  – His work was the inspiration for the Beat Poets, thirty years later!  In this poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” it’s as though he’s saying:  so much comes out of the simple sight of a red wheelbarrow shimmering with rain from a recent shower, surrounded by bright-white feathery chickens.  Pay attention! he’s saying.  There is so much to gain from a small pleasurable sight, right outside our back door.

What do you see outside your back door?  What do you notice on your way to work, or school?  Are you noticing the small budded branches of trees and shrubs that may be starting to form spring leaves?  Do you hear the sudden chirping of birds returning from winter migrations?  Or perhaps you’ve seen small bumble bees or honeybees starting to visit spring flowers!  (I heard on Science Friday the other day there are more than 100 different species of bees native to the U.S., from bumble-bee size all the way down to the size of a grain of rice.  Green bees, too!)  There is so much to see around us, isn’t there?

Writing Tip – Improvisations

Are you sometimes hesitant to start something new?  Or, perhaps you are eager to write a new story, but can’t quite bring yourself to go back and finish a story or poem that you started a while back?

This month I learned that William Carlos Williams did an amazing experiment when he first began publishing his books in the 1920s.  His first book was composed of what he called “improvisations.”  Being a busy physician in rural New Jersey (he has said he delivered over 1,000 babies over his lifetime), he did not have much spare time in which to write.  So instead, for one year, he would jot down something in writing each day on little slips of paper, something like a snatch of dialog, or a brief image of mother and daughter, or the scene outside his car on the way to see a patient.  He put all those slips of paper into a shoebox at home, and at the end of a year, he took out all the papers to see what he had.  He organized them into themes – and then he wrote his own reflections on the snippets he’d written down.  This became his first book of poetry.

Let’s take a look at an example to illustrate how this was done:

[By the road to the contagious hospital]
By William Carlos Williams

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind- . . .

Here we have in the first three stanzas simple visual observations.  Mottled clouds, broad muddy fields, dried weeds, stuff of bushes and small trees.  The cold pre-spring things he would see driving along the road to the hospital. THEN in Stanza 4, we see Williams’s thoughts and reflections on what he wrote on those little slips of paper (I’ve put them in bold font):  “Lifeless in appearance, sluggish/dazed spring approaches-/They enter the new world naked,/cold,uncertain of all/save that they enter.”  That is, spring slowly comes into the world.  Tiny bare shoots come out of muddy fields, bushes and trees, etc.  Without knowing what’s happening, the shoots arrive.  So we have in this poem:

  • First:  the poet’s observations, what he sees, images of nature and the outdoors.
  • Then:  the poet’s reflections, his thoughts, what he thinks the sights mean to him.

Improvisations.  Williams didn’t have a lot of time each day, but he took the step to jot down something memorable, something he had seen or heard or touched, and he put it away for future use.

If you’re like me, you sometimes wonder, how can I get my writing done when I’ve got so many other things to do?  And more importantly:  how can I write something that matters, if I don’t have a long time to sit down and really write?  Like me, you may find it immensely reassuring to think that if we immerse ourselves in the small images and bits that we see and feel around us, if we pay attention, we can use those images and bits of our lives to make our own improvisations out of those little moments.  And that those improvisations can lead us into writing that can move, inspire, and evoke emotion in our readers.

You may want to try a similar experiment, perhaps for a week jotting down something each day from your daily life.  At the end of a week, spread out what you have written.  Does it suggest something?  Can you create your own poem – or prose piece – from these improvisations and your own thoughts and reflections?  Let’s give it a try!

Happy April!

18 thoughts on “April 2018 | Productivity Through “Improvisations”

  1. Ana Linden

    What a nice fir tree to have in front of your window! That photo and the squirrel story are wonderful reminders, we have so much to learn from nature. There are a few hedgehogs living in the garden around my building and sometimes they venture out on the street, so one has to pay attention when driving. Cute and brave little things, just like your squirrels 🙂
    I remember having studied “The Red Wheelbarrow” in high school. But sadly, I don’t remember much else about William Carlos Williams, so this was a very nice read. 😉

    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Hedgehogs! Wow! That sounds so exotic compared to squirrels. You reminded me, we also have coyotes in our little green ravine beside our house. People in the neighborhood are afraid of them, because they can be a predator to house cats, but I think, hey, they need a place to live, too! 🙂 (It helps that we keep our cats indoors-only)

      Thanks for the kind message about William Carlos Williams. I had no idea about his approach to poetry, either! I knew the “wheelbarrow” poem and the “plums in the icebox” poem, and I loved them. But the once or twice I looked at his longer poems (e.g., “Patterson”), I just shrugged and turned away, could not understand what he was doing. It’s been really intriguing to learn enough to make sense of them. They are still very very challenging, and I’m learning it’s because he layers his metaphors, just puts them out there without much explanation. It’s another kind of courage I’m trying to bring to my own writing, using metaphors boldly. 🙂 Thanks, Ana!

      1. Ana Linden

        I’ll settle for hedgehogs and squirrels, coyotes could be a bit much. 🙂
        I’m so glad you reminded me of the “plums in the icebox” poem too… well, of William Carlos Williams in general. His work is different in a good way, definitely worth analysing.

  2. Anne J.

    Writing bits and pieces work for me. For my Prose and Poetry, which is the planned second book in my Crossroads and Conquests: Odyssey of a Woman, I have those bits. As I put them together, new thoughts are added to the old thoughts. There are some edits but old thoughts stay. The same for the poetry. I think, this way of writing works.

    I love the pics, my friend.

    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Oh! don’t say frying pan! I’m confident you’ll realize benefits from going through the challenge of #NaPoWriMo! But I know it must feel exhausting right now. 😦 Hang in there, Luanne!

  3. Dahlia

    The shoebox idea is neat and doable too! Thanks for sharing this and the other lovely poems – a very educative post Theresa!

      1. Dahlia

        Thanks Theresa but in fact recently I havent been able to write much due to various other commitments/distractions. Earlier I used to post at least two flash fiction in a week. Hopefully I will be able to do so again soon 🙂

      2. TheresaBarker Post author

        Yes, Dahlia, hang in there! It is so frustrating to have writing in one’s mind, but then other tasks get in the way. Family, work, household obligations. Our parents, our children. But you’ve got it in you! Looking forward to reading more soon! 🎉

  4. Pingback: May 2018 – An Exploration of Voice | Theresa J. Barker

  5. Pingback: May 2018 – An Exploration of Voice | Theresa J. Barker

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