Where the Words Come From (I Can’t Say!)

My poem “Horse Dreams” was accepted, and published online this past Friday, by Vine Leaves Literary Journal. This was my first published poem. Last week, I made a not-so-subtle celebratory fuss about it here. Why the hoopla? you might ask. It was a 4-line poem, and thousands of people publish poems. What’s the big deal?

Image by Andrew Gray, via Wikimedia Commons.

Image by Andrew Gray, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the deal: I have spent over a decade in a miasma of confusion around my love of writing, and my lack of publishing credits. As an undergraduate (that’s 20 years ago), the editor of a Princeton feminist journal asked me to submit a class essay for publication, and I balked. I dillied and dallied, and I think I may even have pretended to lose her contact information. Soon after, an undergraduate advisor suggested I scrap the academic track altogether and “become a writer.” I was afraid to follow his words. I felt I barely knew what they meant.  And that refusal to accept the risk of moving towards publication, coupled with a reluctance to explore other forms of writing, never stopped all through my academic years. Even after circulating essays and asking for feedback from multiple professors on how to prepare them for publication, I would hold back, never polish, never submit (or never submit because I thought I needed to keep polishing). When my doctoral advisor recommended that I start writing book reviews, I didn’t listen. And when both professors and colleagues suggested that my dissertation was really close to good enough to send off to publishers, I stuffed the thing on a shelf and moved on.  I want to be a different kind of writer, I was telling myself by the time I finished my Ph.D. At least that was clear. But what kind of writer? I had no answer. I was blocked by some combination of not believing in myself, and also knowing, somewhere deep, that I had not found a form that felt like home. In the meantime, I became pregnant and shelved the question itself for a while.

By the time my daughter was a toddler, though, I had found my way into a creative writing class one evening per week in the sweet and funky little town of Sebastopol. The class was held in a lamplit, intimate space where we free-wrote and shared and made our pens keep moving across the paper even when we felt we had nothing to say. It was a revelation to see, and hear, what came out of me. A lot of  personal meandering, both dreamy and precise, a surprising amount of fiction, and some literally fabulous (fable-like, fairy-tale-inspired) meditations. During that time, I wrote ten minutes per day while my daughter napped, a cup of tea like a ritual potion by my side. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew that making space for imagination in my life was now a top priority.

But I barely ever returned to anything I wrote, never polished anything, and definitely never submitted. My block was not writer’s block, but finishing block, publishing block, a block not centered around how to write, but rather a block mysteriously positioned to deeply shadow the face I was willing or able to show the world.

This past year, almost everything about that has changed.

On the one hand, things have changed because I have worked at them.  I have actively resisted the demons of finishing and polishing and perfection, and have been practicing, ever since I began this blog one year ago, putting my words out into the world, a few paragraphs at a time, just to see what happens.

On the other hand, the process has not been about extra, or hard work, at all. Because here is what I discovered:  That ten minutes per day, which always seemed to produce abrupt pieces of writing lacking some or all of the classic elements of stories—I now see that almost all the work I produced in that way was actually poetry. Poetry! Seeds of poems, scraps of poems, words lilting and exploding unselfconsciously on the page. Words halting, gentling, trying on new voices, new ways to play or be. Poetry! Moments of exultation, rage, memory, imagination. Poetry! The practice of finding an ending, that might transmute, crystallize, or just fall, jewel-like, into a waiting mind. Poetry!

Where do the words come from? I can’t say!

But the words do not need what I thought they required.

They do not require plot, character, motivation, or a long-range life plan.

They do not even require more than ten minutes to emerge, as long as I am also reading and paying attention and making space for meditation (or “negative capability”) in my life.

And once the words are down on paper, what they need from me is not perfection. All they need is for me to fall into what I have always-already loved—the sound and rhythm and pattern of words on a page, and finding the ways they can work alchemy in a person’s mind and heart.  This falling into what I already loved, and knowing it’s okay, has been the biggest revelation of all.

So, to find myself writing poems almost every day, in my head, in my journal, in my sleep, is a wondrous surprise. And to actually put them out into the world, and then have one published, is, for me, a really big deal.

And it also just feels like real life.

So… here is “Horse Dreams,” and something else: a particular, playful stab at the question of where the words come from.  Because even if I can’t say, it’s still fun to try.


Horse Dreams
(Published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Issue #13)

Every time I see a horse lying down
I feel nervous,
as if my death is somehow wrapped up
in its fatigue.


Where “Horse Dreams” Came From

Every time I drive my
kids to school we
pass a horse ranch.

The Horse Ranch,

we call it. I’ll hand
you your water/snack/
homework when we
reach the Horse Ranch,  I
say, because it falls along a
rare stretch of straight road.
Although actually the road cuts
through two places, two fields—
one on the right and
one on the left, and
when you look you see
they are not one ranch, but
two different kinds
of horse homes.

sometimes in the
field on the left
there is a horse
(or two)
lying down.
And it scares me. For
just a moment
(or two). For
I know nothing
about large animals, and
why they do what they do.

And one day,
last spring, my
fear took shape
in words.
“Every time I see a horse lying down,”

I heard,
or thought,
or felt in my mind,

“I feel nervous. As if my death
is somehow wrapped up in its fatigue.”

That’s it.
There it was.
A thought-poem. Yeah,
I know it didn’t take much
work in the moment. I thought
about adding more words but
it felt just right. A gift
the universe, or the
horses, had given me.
And the bigger thing
than work, for me, is that
I was not stopped by fear. Instead,
I went home and put the words
I heard onto the page,
into the world,
into your ear,
and called it


Like this, here,

this stretch of jagged words.
It’s pretty loose, and rough, and
possibly too expository
to land with that

Image by Ian Britton, via FreeFoto.com

Image by Ian Britton, via FreeFoto.com

thud I so long to
create in your heart. So,
call it what you will.  I think
it’s just believing
that the way the world falls
into me cannot be wrong.




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