I was presenting a poetry program last month and the seminar’s organizer asked me to read a list she provided of ways to more effectively promote conversation about poems.
So I read the list. And could go along with all the suggestions. But right in the middle of the list was, “Think about the poet’s big idea: why he or she might have written this poem.” And that’s where I disagreed.
I’ve written and published a good number of poems. But never once did I start out with a “big idea” to write a poem. I never sat down and said, “Today I’ll write about world peace.” Or true love. Or justice. Or any other big idea.
Instead, it was a very little thing that always got me started writing a poem. It may have been an arresting visual image. Or a phrase that got itself twisted into my hair and I couldn’t get it out. Or a word percolating up through my consciousness: a delicious, wonderful word.
Actually, the best image to describe how that happens to me – and I shared this with the teachers, who looked at me out of the sides of their eyes and nodded slowly – is to compare the process to looking at a stream. The stream is like my awareness of my surroundings. It flows around obstacles like rocks, with some considerable amount of spuming and spattering. Once in a while something large and floating bobs down and past me.
But – then—
Something small in the stream snags onto the bank, right in front of me. I look at it and it becomes the only thing in the world. It won’t let go, as if it has barbs, and those barbs reach up the bank and attach themselves to me and –even more wondrous – it begins to accumulate other things. Soon it has dammed the entire stream and even if everything starts piling up behind it, it won’t let go of me until I pull it and all its tendrils up and look at it.
And write it down.
Now, I realize that this is a blog about writing novels, but I wonder: Do you start a novel with a “big idea”? Or with something that snags on to you and won’t let go?