Last week, I wrote about the origin of my book, The Joy of Poetry. If that book-writing assignment from my publisher had gone as planned, I’d have more to say about the initial nine months I spent writing the book. In fact, if things had gone as planned, those first nine months would be the story. Instead, I see now that they were just the necessary work to discover what I was really supposed to write about.
I began drafting The Joy of Poetry by grabbing things from here and there, old and new, and trying to stitch them together in a way that didn’t work nearly as well as I thought it did. It would be like you asking me what a trout has to do with a tree: I could link them, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I should. In that first draft, I was forming unnatural connections between aquatic and arboreal species.
Then halfway through the writing process, I started contacting publishers to get permission to use their poems in the book. When I heard nothing back or learned the fee was too high, that naturally weaned the book down. Finally, I gave the manuscript to two friends to read. They helped me find places to cut and helped me know which places were strong. I revised some more, trimmed, turned it in, and waited.
The response I received from the publisher was basically, “This reads like a series of disconnected blog posts.” That feedback came in the form of a two-page detailed analysis of the manuscript. Three different readers at TS Poetry Press contributed their thoughts, and the editor synthesized them into one document, which included encouragement and suggestions to explore in revision. I’d describe the tone as gentle but crystal clear.
The best thing I did was wait a week to respond. I emailed to set up a phone call a week after that.
In the meantime, I attended a writing workshop in which one of the speakers said he usually needs to write the first draft to figure out what he’s really supposed to be writing—what the book wants to be. It’s a messy process, but according to the speaker, it’s his only way into writing a book. Then he retitles the first draft and opens a new document. Just that morning, I had already retitled my first draft “Poetry Memoir” and opened a new document called “The Joy of Poetry.”
When I finally talked with my publisher, I was ready to hear how I might go about rewriting—because I didn’t have a clue. Also, I mentioned to her a secret that I hadn’t previously shared: There was something in my life—an elephant in the room, if you will—that I didn’t want to write about. My first draft served as an attempt to write while ignoring the elephant.
“But you can write about your mom, can’t you?” my publisher asked.
“Oh, sure, ” I responded. I’d always said I could write about my mom and her cancer any day of the week, no problem.
Growing up, my mother’s cancer was never treated as an elephant we couldn’t talk about. We did talk about it—often. My parents never lied and always gave me age-appropriate information. Her cancer was more like the elephant in Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant, the subject of Tweetspeak’s fall book club.
In the book, everyone in town knows about the elephant. It magically appears in an opera house and accidentally breaks a noblewoman’s legs. Later, the elephant is moved to a palatial residence, where people wait in line to see her. She is both a problem and, eventually, a solution in the lives of the main characters.
The elephant I was trying not to write about in The Joy of Poetry is not hidden among our family members—it’s discussed as much as my mother’s cancer was in my childhood home. But our elephant, like the one the magician summoned, is not in its rightful home. It belongs back in the wild, and we haven’t figured out how to return it.
I didn’t write about that elephant in the book, I don’t write about it on my blog, and I won’t write about it here either. The story isn’t finished yet.
But my mom’s is. By the time I had that phone call with my publisher, my mom had been gone for five years. I’d done therapy, spiritual direction, taken a trip with my dad, visited with Mom’s friends, and, most importantly, I’d written 72 poems about her. I was ready to write about Merry Nell and her cancer.
All I had to do was figure out how to leave that other elephant in the palace and write about the one who’d already made it home.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro