Cactus Blooms: Preserving Poetic Inspiration in A Digital Desert

Originally published on Upwrite Magazine.

The well is dry.

That’s how I felt a few weeks ago. I’d spent a beleaguered couple months consuming everything that crossed my path: tweets, magazine articles, conversations on NPR; everything from inspiration to information to vitriol. Yet no matter how much I’d cram into my mind — another poem, a few more pages, one more scroll through Twitter — I felt empty. I had no reserves from which to draw. As a result, I wasn’t writing well or thinking clearly.

The internet, you might have noticed, is a noisy place. We intake information at an astonishing pace, our brains opening tab after tab as we drink in words as though from a fire hose. And still, we struggle to replenish our reserves for creating meaningful work. Still, the well is dry.

I spent last weekend in Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine region. I stayed with a few friends on a ranch where we woke up to rooster calls and birdsong. Pepper trees shook their feathery arms over an adobe courtyard. I brought one book; there was no “service” and hardly enough Wifi to load Instagram. My level of consumption was narrow, my attention concentrated within the ranch’s acreage. I came home more eager to write than I’d felt in months — not because of information and stimulus, but because of its absence. In the narrowness of intake, my ideas had room to expand.

The goal of the poet — or the writer, or the artist — is to notice what other people do not. This is a hard task if we’re drowning in noise. I want to care for my craft — and my soul, while we’re at it — by building up better soil for words to grow. I want to be someone who attends to the details and mystery of life, someone who works to bind up their fragmented pieces through thoughtful consumption.

This isn’t an article on taking a digital fast, don’t worry. That’s a short-term solution. For those of us (all of us?) who can’t go off the grid for a contemplative life spent scribbling verse in the woods, how do we consume in a way that refreshes rather than drains? There’s a middle ground between fasting from media and drowning in it, and it has everything to do with narrowing our focus. Here’s what’s saving me from an unchecked digital diet right now.

Know your drip line…

In Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s wonderful book The Wisdom of Stability, he uses a tree’s drip line to illustrate our finitude. A drip line “offers a pretty good sketch of how far away from a tree its roots reach for the water and nutrients it needs to flourish.” In other words, a tree’s visible reach — the width of its branches — can’t extend the reach of its roots beneath the earth. Drip lines teach us that our limits give life. Curbing media exposure by being selective about what we consume is actually nourishing.

Here’s where I think the term “narrow” could use some rescuing. It’s gotten a bad rap, but narrow simply means something of small width, especially of something considerably longer or higher than it is wide. By narrowing our intake, our work gains depth and quality. As Saint Hedwig wrote, “All is narrow for me, I feel so vast.” Selective consumption leads to a spacious interior life, one that can sustain our craft. In art as in life, limits lead to expansion.

…And don’t apologize for it

You don’t need permission to not interact with everything that crosses your path. Thanks to the internet, we can open hundreds of links each day. Maybe I’m the only one who feels obligated to read whatever think piece my friends are circling on their social media outlets, or maybe you’ve felt that pressure too — a quick-quick-read-this urgency. I’m learning to step away from perceived pressure to chime in on whatever “conversation” — echo chamber? yelling match? — is taking place online. Silence and stillness will fuel more work than sound bites ever could, and poetry is not the product of urgency.

Identify the essential…

Rebecca Solnit’s guide to writing is helpful here. Read, and don’t read, she says. “Originality is partly a matter of having your own influences: read evolutionary biology textbooks or the Old Testament, find your metaphors where no one’s looking, don’t belong.” That is to say, be selective in what you read. Better yet, be unusual. Over-indulging in media — especially the loud, of-the-moment variety — will produce output with the same tone. What belongs to you? What is essential to your voice, your work, your form? What do you want to tuck away in your mental archive? I am increasingly drawn to long-form essays and poetry — two mediums that make room for — celebrate, even — nuance. Both are essential to the health of my writing.

…And eliminate the rest

This quote — “Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest” — comes from Leo Babuata’s book The Power of Less. In interior design, the goal of minimalism is to make more space for the good stuff. Most minimalists don’t own less for the sake of being ascetics; they de-clutter to make room for fewer, better things. Part of poetry’s job is to cut through the excess. Good writing flourishes with limited, quality input. This doesn’t mean shunning the internet, it means only letting in a certain amount of noise. Be selective with who you follow and respond to. Don’t click on every link. Select a few quality pieces and really read them. Sink into the prose instead of skimming it. Hopefully, they are long-form, thoughtful, and generous. Hopefully, they elevate your own work.

Sound bytes are not food for the poet, or for anyone interested in healing a run-down interior life. Our finite selves require finite, quality input. The urgent and attention-grabbing nature of much of what we read — online or otherwise — exists to impose meaning. But poetry (and all writing) at its best is not about imposing meaning but rather about making art, steering ourselves in the direction of beauty and truth.