Strange Bedfellows: Structure and The Muse

#WBReflects by Sonny Regelman

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s ode to creativity, Big Magic, she describes poet Ruth Stone hearing a poem coming towards her as she worked in the fields of rural Virginia, then rushing to the house to write it down before it moved beyond her. Reading this passage was the first time I’d seen a description so close to my own natural writing process for poetry. A central phrase or a line will arrive in my mind, I’ll “hear it,” and usually it has to swish around in there for a day or two (or more) before it will be ready to be captured on paper and surrounded by the rest of its context. This process has always been inconvenient because it’s akin to waiting for the Muse: she’ll arrive when she’s ready, and the more you try to summon her, the deeper she’ll hide.

I started writing poetry around the age of 12, when my father had terminal cancer and there was no other avenue for exploring my emotions. (Although I think my first poem was written on a school field trip to a grist mill in Pennsylvania and was an ode to nature or bunnies or some such—the classic technique of writing about something that’s not the thing out to fear of confronting it. That one strikes early!) When I began writing and straight on through my graduate degree in writing and publishing, this “waiting for the Muse” process was the one most often employed. Sometimes I wrote for assignments, but those poems never seemed authentic and weren’t among my most successful.

Then an interesting thing happened: life. I got my first job in publishing, I got married, I contended with my husband’s bout with cancer, I got laid off (twice), I moved from Boston to Austin in pursuit of building my career, etc., and the Muse took a hike. Either my mind was no longer a welcoming place for her, or I just didn’t have the necessary silence to hear the lines she offered me. This continued for nearly 15 years, and although I knew this part of my life, of me, was missing, the poetry was evasive. I was aware that something needed to change in order for me to embrace my creative self again, but I didn’t know or didn’t make time to figure out what it was.

In 2014 I was working as a director at a local educational technology company, which provided leadership coaches. My coach had me make a list of goals; the top few goals were related to managing my department, but since leadership coaching often bleeds over into life coaching, I threw #5 on the list: write a poem by January (which was some months off). Most of you will recognize that drafting a poem may only take a few minutes. So why did it take 14 years plus the number of months until January to break down the barrier? No more waiting for the Muse. Instead, I joined the Austin Poetry Society and started reading their newsletter, ironically called the “Museletter.” I saw a call for poetry submissions in a journal with a deadline a comfortable time later. I attended a family wedding in Charlotte that was emotion-laden for all the expected reasons. And shortly after I got back from the wedding, I heard her, my Muse, whispering a line. A few days later, the line made it onto paper with her friends, and Poet Me was back! I sent off the poem to the journal and got a kind response from the editor that she enjoyed it but didn’t think it was ready for publication. I’m sure she was right, since we were certainly out of practice, the Muse and I.

In the time since then, I was introduced to The Writing Barn and dedicated many Write Away Days to hanging out with my Muse. But I have also learned that structure really does support my creative output. At the beginning of this year, frustrated by the scant amount of work I had produced, I committed to writing a poem per week, which Bethany Hegedus graciously agreed to read as my accountabili-buddy. (Writers, if you don’t already have a group or a buddy of this sort, I highly recommend it. I also recommend that it’s not your spouse or significant other.) As of April 1, I had maintained that goal. Q1: check! I also recently read a poem written at a February Write Away Day at an open mic, and the same editor who rejected my post-wedding poem asked me to send it to her and has accepted it for publication.

What have I learned? Certainly, this journey has illustrated that you can’t expect creativity just to happen—or anything you desire, for that matter. This is common wisdom, but it has proven to be true for me. Structures such as goal-setting and reserving calendar time for writing may seem in contradiction with the Muse, but as it turns out, she appreciates some structure. Because she is me.

Sonny Regelman is a 20-year editorial professional. She began writing poetry in the 6th grade and was published frequently in her Pennsylvania hometown newspaper. She has a master’s degree in Writing and Publishing from Emerson College. Her work recently appeared in the Di-Vêrsé-City Anthology 2016. She also serves on the board of the Austin Poetry Society.