Guest Post, Cameron Barnett: Write the Poem You Can Write

Pen on Paper

The shower has long held the title of “Place Where the Best Ideas Come To You,” but I would humbly submit that a close contender for this title would be the treadmill. I would also humbly admit that the idea that came to me weeks ago on my last treadmill run was not wholly my own, but inspired by that most august of 21st century muses: an audio guide on my running app.

After writing, running is my second love, but for many of the same reasons that writing is my first: the tendency for it to be a solo activity, the flexibility for it to be a community activity, the simplicity of tools/gear needed to do it, the need for persistence, focus, and self-determination, the way in which fundamentally your biggest rival is really yourself. I only started running the year I graduated from college, and since then I’ve logged thousands of miles and completed dozens of races, some of them half marathons.

And then I became a teacher. And suddenly running time was in shorter supply than I had ever known. The runs themselves grew shorter than the list of reasons why I couldn’t go for one. Races—deadlines of a sort—became goals to cram for, sometimes at the risk of injury and occasionally at the expense of the same. Now in my 4th year as a teacher my second love has become more acquaintance than partner; my first love has fared much the same.

I am not special. The teaching/writing life is a well-worn one that has made or broken many a writer, or for most of us it’s made us want to break something. The underlying assumption driving this maddening symbiosis is that writing time is valuable and so should be the fruits of any such time. When this isn’t the case, it’s hard not to think that the time could have been better used on work. Likewise, a run that gets off to a bad start makes you think “Maybe I should have just gotten straight to my grading,” or “Now I have even less time to plan that lesson.”

For a while now I’ve been thinking on and grappling with this reality. Last year at AWP in Portland, OR, I presented on a panel about maintaining a beginner’s mindset in the classroom. Panelists wrote, shared, and discussed poems inspired by the work in the classroom around writing novices and amateurs, stressing the point that putting yourself in the mindset of someone writing for the first time—all the risks and mistakes and clichés included—is a liberating and rejuvenating activity vital to the writing lives of teachers and other professionals. I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience would be the first key advice shouted trying to bore its way past the writing impasse and into my ear.

Then came through the other ear (quite literally) this running advice from my audio guide: focus on running the run you can rather than the run you want to (paraphrased, but shout out to Coach Bennett). It’s a corny image, isn’t it? A writer on a treadmill nearly knocked over by a prerecorded, linguistically basic piece of advice that ought to make any beginner think “Well, duh.” But that’s the whole point: the fundamentals. It reminded me of the start of my karate classes as a high schooler, watching highly ranked black belts spend several minutes practicing simple punches on a punching bag when they were capable of high flying kicks. The kicks aren’t the goal and the bag isn’t your adversary—the perfect punch is both.

Sometimes experienced writers can be quick to forget or even snub the wisdom of those early, foundational years. Count me among those who have strayed down that path. Count me, too, as the hypocrite who has told students glibly that writer’s block is a myth and that what the sensation really means is that you need to push through your bad writing to get to the good writing, then turns around and throws up his hands as his own inability to get started on a writing project.

Humble pie is bitter but nutritious, and the slice served up by my audio guide has been fueling me ever since. The crappy draft poem writing is all the same as the flashy and deft poem writing; the smattering of blasé lines scrabbled together on a piece of looseleaf but containing one solid image, one beautiful sentence, is valuable in its own way; the one or two mile run you’re capable of right now is more valuable than the six or eight mile run you want to do but, for now, is out of reach; keep it as a goal, something that you aspire to much as a beginner might.

I’m lucky. I have an MFA, a book published, and a few awards to speak of. Rather than finding myself in a false position of grandeur, I’m finding myself back in that beginner’s mindset. I find myself asking “How can I write another good poem?” while simultaneously thinking “Shouldn’t all your poems be good?” And yet, I’m finding myself lacing up for a half marathon knowing I haven’t so much as run a 5k in months. I’m finding myself pushed, externally and internally, for a specific set of writerly goals: “Write this often,” “Write this way,” “Write at this level all the time.”

Writers must learn to replace these impostor mantras with simpler affirmations. A good poem and a bad poem both have in common that they are poems; good and bad runs share the same stride that can get you a few feet or a mile; the same twist of the hips lands weak and strong punches alike. Ignoring where you started is as flawed as assuming you know where you’re going. So for me, my starting and finishing point going forward is one and the same: write the poem you can write. That’s it. Sometimes you get lucky and write a stellar draft, or run miles at your best pace; sometimes each mile feels like a ball and chain around your ankle, or the poetry refuses to come clean out of the pen no matter how much you drag it across the page. But no matter your level of experience, the path of progress is that of a beginner. Keep punching out works on the page. Keep punching the bag—the only thing standing between you and that perfect strike is yourself.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post, Cameron Barnett: Write the Poem You Can Write

  • February 15, 2020 at 11:52 am
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    Thank you so much for sharing this advice. As an avid runner who just came back from a three month injury, I’m all too familiar with getting back to basics. I never thought how this mentality could also help me with writing. Write the poem you can write. I’ll keep this in mind next time I feel that evil writer’s block coming on.

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  • February 16, 2020 at 1:32 pm
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    Thank you for this advice! It really resonated with me as I am in the process of writing stories and find that I put a lot of pressure on myself to write a perfect story. I have also taken up running, and get mad at myself when I can’t add distance or take off any time, so this was really reassuring to me!

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  • February 16, 2020 at 7:58 pm
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    I often struggle with the mentality of getting myself to sit down and write. I’m always thinking of the things on my “to do” list and prioritizing them. As a new writer, your advice is helpful and I could definitely benefit from following it. It’s so important to keep writing even if you feel like the poems or stories aren’t any good.

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