Any writer will tell you that one of the most paralyzing, put-a-halt-to-all-efforts games you can play is the Comparison Game.
“I don’t write as well as ___________.”
“I don’t understand stories like ____________.”
“I don’t speak up and articulate myself as well as _____________.”
Technically, it should be called the Contrast Game, but never mind semantics — we all warn against playing the most joyless game invented, yet most of us play it.
I was in several rounds of the game while attending a graduate residency on the campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, when I stumbled into a bookstore and found Rumors of Water, by L.L. Barkat. I knew the book well. Frankly, it’s the book’s fault I was in Santa Fe in the first place. For me, the book was a life preserver. She showed me that it was possible to be a mother and be a writer. Every page helped me see myself differently. Every page offered a way into the writing life, and mamas were the VIPs. The moment I finished the book, I wrote to my dad (who’d sent me Rumors of Water), and said, “THIS is what I want to do!”
That afternoon, L.L.’s book was a friendly wave hello. “Remember me?” I imagined it saying. “You can do this.” I remembered why I’d come to Santa Fe — I was there to learn to write.
Perhaps it’s weird to think of books as friends, but that’s how I thought of Rumors of Water, and seeing it there made me feel less lonely. I gave the book a little pat and turned around feeling as though I could stay in this uncomfortable place a little longer.
Lettered Creatures, by Brad and Mark Leithauser, was the book I saw next. I was hoping to find the Complete Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins instead of a book about the ABCs, and I paged through it reluctantly, wondering if children’s books would be the only stories I’d ever understand all by myself. It turned out to be a reminder of what I could do with who I am: a woman and a mother who sees the world through stories.
Each letter gets a two-page spread: one for a creature that’s in the shape of the letter and one for the poem about the lettered creature.
For example, here’s H:
I’m called a wader, although given my
Habit of standing idly by
And just how hard it is to catch my eye,
You may prefer to think of me as a waiter.
To the fish swimming round me, such distinctions will
Come to seem striking only later –
Since I’m of no account to them until
They get the bill.
I bought the book for my daughters and dreamed up an afternoon when the three of us could make our own lettered creatures and poems. I left the bookstore still feeling shaky and scared, but refreshed and excited too. I would be like the heron and wade into this strong current of words. I would listen and observe and wait for the words to take hold and shape me into something both strange and familiar.
For this week’s prompt, write a poem about a letter. It can be about a creature, as in Lettered Creatures, or maybe you want to use food or cities for your inspiration. If you wish to draw a picture of your letter that is more than just a letter, feel free to add that in the comments below.
Thanks to everyone who participated in our recent poetry prompt. Here’s a poem by L.L. Barkat we enjoyed:
I learned patience
on the floor.
I can still feel the lines
of our linoleum
under my fingers
as I crawled and stifled
listening to his breathing
heavy with smoke
and the day’s curses
into night, into the unliving
ice within, pristine
as the waterfall
now paralyzed out back.
On the paneled wall,
near the windowed door
hung a plush red stocking
filled by my mother’s hand.
I crawled for hours,
it seemed, to reach
that velvet candy cane.
— L.L. Barkat
This is a book about being a teacher, and about being a mother, and, in its way, about being a writer. But it is most fully a depiction of living with a work of literature, about the conversations literature can spark and the memories literature can hold and reconfigure. The acknowledgments suggest that writing this book helped Callie Feyen remember why she loved teaching. Reading it made me remember why I love to read. —Lauren Winner, bestselling author and Associate Professor, Duke Divinity School