Poetry as an Act of Attention
“Absolute attention is an act of generosity.” ~Simone Weil
When I was a child, I wrote poems as presents for my parents on birthdays and holidays.
I’d sit quietly and think of what I wanted to say. Then I’d try to turn that into musical language. I’d write those words on the page, and then I’d draw a picture to go with it.
It didn’t occur to me even to ask whether my parents would like my poem or not; I just assumed they would.
Then I got older. I stopped giving my parents poems for presents. I stopped writing poems.
I didn’t write poetry again until I was in college, and then I began to wonder whether my poetry was “good.” Were my poems “good enough” to get me into the advanced poetry workshop? Would they dazzle the teacher? Would the other students like them?
I paid more attention to the way the words sounded on the page than to what I actually was saying. The depth was covered up by surface. But, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to bring my depth to the surface for other people in my class to see.
I didn’t write poetry very much again until I was pregnant with my first child. Then what was inside me—literally—was calling my attention. I turned again to the page.
But there was still this concern about whether what I was creating was “good enough.” By then I was in a PhD program, and we were all trying to be really “good” at all the intellectual work we were doing.
I’d been dancing with that “good enough” question for many years.
I see now clearly that that question of goodness or enoughness isn’t just about my writing, but about myself—about my own interior life, and about the relationship between that interior and my external: Can my depth come out on the surface? Is my surface appropriate for my depth? Will I be seen, appreciated, understood? And how can I develop myself to the best of my potential, showing up and not shying away from who I am and want to be?
Now, many years later, I’m a creative writer and a creative writing teacher, and I see my students similarly worry about whether their work is “good enough.”
I often tell them that their concern, that comes out in relation to their writing, is really a deeper question about how they approach themselves in their whole lives.
I tell them that, yes, writing for so many of us brings out these insecurities, uncertainties, and learned patterns of thinking about ourselves that otherwise would lie buried. But that the writing doesn’t create those insecurities, uncertainties, or learned patterns. They’re there within us—and all around us.
From the time we’re little, we’re given messages about what it means to be a worthwhile person: people are expected to act a certain way, to look a certain way, to speak a certain way.
For women, our bodies often bear the brunt of these expectations about our physical selves: are our bodies “good” enough, thin enough, pretty enough, light enough, curvy enough, straight enough…
And for women and men, our writing often comes to be the place where our intellect is valued: our writing is judged in schools; our expression is given grades. We measure ourselves against others.
But if we’re always being judged—in body and mind—there is no space to be and to become.
The question of whether we are “good enough” comes from feeling judged, and this restricts us. We experience ourselves as lacking, and a sense of lack leads in turn to our not being able to inhabit our full selves, to our making poor decisions and to living in constricted ways.
So what happens when we put aside our judgment and allow ourselves to be with ourselves and with our creative voices?
What helped me overcome my worry about being “good enough” (or mostly overcome it) was being a mother and seeing what it’s like to love my children unconditionally.
When I’m with my children, it never occurs to me to ask whether they are “good” or “good enough.” Those questions seem absurd and meaningless.
I know that my children were born, as I believe all children are born, as wonderful light-beings, miracles with unimaginable potential and unique personalities and gifts. They are, like all people, uniquely themselves.
I also know that my children were born with the capacity to grow in countless ways. And this potential to grow and learn never stops.
Sometimes we think that if we accept that we’re already good enough, we’ll stop growing, learning, stretching. But quite the opposite. It’s only when we really accept who we are that we’re able to do our biggest most exciting growth.
My children are “good” but that does not mean that they were born good at walking. They needed to learn, as we all do, how to walk. They needed to crawl and then learn how to pull themselves up, needed to learn how to take one step and fall down and then another. At times, also, my children, like all of us, learned how to be more self-aware, how to say they were sorry, how to think about how their actions impacted others.
We all have room for growth-throughout our lives. We all have room for greater awareness and more skill. But as we mature and grow as people, our essential “goodness” does not change.
I try to take the same attitude towards our creative acts: we can learn how to be more skillful writers while still coming to love our creative voices just as they are in this moment. This is not a contradiction, but the beautiful synergy that comes with presence and acceptance. We can focus at the same time process and craft, on being and on becoming.
As a poet and writer, I needed to learn the skills to take my inner world and put it more effectively on paper. I learned from reading others and from having others read and comment on my poems.
As I wrote more poems, my poems got more understandable, more moving, more skillful. But it was only when I really let go of the idea of wanting to please others that I began to write my most powerful work — at least the work that I myself am most pleased with. I tapped into all my years of practice and I also gave myself complete freedom to do what I want: both went hand in hand.
I don’t think I was ever asking the right question when I was asking whether my poems were “good” or “good enough.” Because that’s the wrong question to ask about life and about the creative processes themselves. We’re not guilty people in a court of law being judged; we’re not born waiting to be absolved of any original sin.
Similarly, as a teacher, I can help my students have more skills. I can show them writing that inspires them and that they can learn from; I can give them tools to use in their pieces. But it’s never my job to judge them or to suggest that their creative expression isn’t worthy. Rather it’s my job to give them the tools they need to be as big and bold and free and original as possible — to break the rules and create their own.
We are all creative beings. Not everyone is given legs to walk, but everyone is given a unique story and a unique perspective and a unique voice. And who are we, any of us, to say that one story is “good enough” and another is not? Would we ever say that one birdsong is worthy and another is not?
When I write my poems, I don’t set myself up waiting breathlessly to be “liked” or not. Some people will like what I write. Some will not. What is important is that I set myself up to do, at any moment, the best I can do then and to accompany myself, whether I fall down or walk across the room.
When my children were little, I delighted in the freedom with which they played, danced, drew, sang. I want them to be able to be themselves as fully as adults, and to love themselves in the process.
And I want that for all of us, even for myself. For I know that if I want something for my children, then I need to be able to at least try to model it, otherwise what message am I really sending?
I tell my students: you might not write your most captivating poem this time around, but if you cut off your breath, then you never will write at your full potential. So take a risk: go for it, and keep trying. Read, write, learn from what you love and engage fully. Keep listening inside and allowing the process to move from the inner to the outer without judgment.
I started writing as a gift to my parents, but now I write as a gift to myself—and to the world.
For me, poetry is an act of attention, and presence and love. When I show up fully and listen, then I can create a passage from what is larger than me through my interior self and then out onto the page.
“ Absolute attention is an act of generosity, “ the philosopher Simone Weil wrote. When I pay attention to the world around and within me and to the language that I use that is an act of generosity and grace-to myself and to the world and perhaps, also, I can hope, to some of my readers.
For free writing prompts and meditations to help you unlock your own inherent creativity, and for a free ebook with the seven steps to write with more power and ease, visit my free resource library: https://nadiacolburn.com/free-resource
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Originally published at https://tinybuddha.com on October 4, 2019.