Once, a friend was giving me feedback on a poem that would appear in my first collection, Theories of Falling. He had concerns about the leaps of narrative that my draft was making, the wild associations between image and intent.
"Look," he said, "to write a poem is to build a wall. Every image is a brick in that wall." He made a gesture of wedging a brick in place, then troweling the cement around it, then shaving off the excess. Methodical. Neat. "When you lay your last image down, there's your story."
As much as I respected this poet, in that moment I knew I would be leaving this workshop group. I didn't want to build poem like walls. I wanted poems that could jump nimbly from idea to idea. I wanted, as Piet Mondrian termed one of his great, jazz-inspired geometric works, a little more Broadway Boogie-Woogie.
Some writers are able to articulate models as an explicit mantra. In Writing the Bones, Natalie Goldberg compares writing to baking a cake: "You have all these ingredients, the details of your life," she says, "but to just list them is not enough." For most of us the model remains nothing but a flicker, a gut guide.
So what's my model? My brain, I've come to realize, is an oyster. It captures some bit of grit (a notion, a face, a sound) and then worries at it, over and over, coating it with language, until the grit grows into a pearl. That's when a poem is waiting to meet the page.
This model helps me grasp why I start drafts after midnight: for me, writing is a process of (semi-)conscious accretion that reaches critical mass, inclined toward lyric intensity rather than narrative structure. I still dislike prompts--but then, I dislike cultured pearls too. And it's my responsibility to give this oyster a healthy bed, which means a reading diet that pumps nutrients in the water. (Goodbye, Us Weekly. Hello, Threepenny Review.)
Not too long ago, a reporter asked me to contrast being a poet and an essayist. I thought back to a recent visits to the Jentel Artist Residency and Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where for the first time I was working in prose (primarily memoir) rather than poetry. At each meal, artists would chat about the their progress. I realized the language I used with them had not been the language of oysters. It was the language of...omelets. Instead of grit sifted from the outside world, this material was being delivered in smooth, polished units of memory that belied the messy yolk within.
"I've cracked the egg," I would say in triumphant moments. Meaning that, while I'd made a mess of my life on the page, at least now I was committed. Time to cook, to make the mess palatable. Time to think about whether I want to dish up these narratives scrambled or over easy, slightly soft or boiled hard, and what rhetorical structures best matched those modes.
With a change of models comes a change in drafting rhythms. I jump into prose first thing in the morning--before my contacts are in, before my hair is brushed. It's not a natural way of life for me. But at least this model gives me a way to get a handle on it; eggs, after all, are a breakfast food.
What is your metaphor of craft? My bet is that you have one already, embedded in your process. Delineate it. Trust it. Can it tell you something about yourself, as a writer, that maybe you had not come to terms with before?