Make Room for Surprise in Your Writing
There’s nothing wrong with writing what you know. But in this post, Grub Instructor Ben Berman looks at how the writing process also offers us the opportunity to discover what we know.
My five-year-old always protests whenever she sees me bring out my poetry bag—the briefcase I use when I go out for readings—knowing that I won’t be home in time to tuck her in.
But a few nights ago, upon seeing it in the corner of the living room, she pumped her fist in the air and announced: Aww yeah! Bring out the videos and candy!
I looked over at my wife, who was vigorously avoiding eye contact, and suddenly felt like I was a character in one of those children’s book where all the magic happens behind the parents’ back—though typically, in those books, it happens behind both parents’ backs.
There was something, too, about my daughter’s line that reminded me of a former writing teacher who used to say, a poem doesn’t start until it startles you.
I don’t think I really understood what he meant at the time because when you’re eighteen—and jumping from one existential crisis to the next—it’s not exactly hard to startle yourself.
Now that I’ve settled into middle age, it takes me longer to shift into that exploratory state of mind that John Cleese refers to as the open mode.
I think this is why I like to get up so early to write—while my dream mind is still active and I am more capable of being in [the] uncertainties, Mysteries, [and] doubts, that Keats wrote about, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
I am more likely, then, to return to what Zen Buddhist’s call beginner’s mind, more open to the spontaneity of composition, more willing to relinquish control and follow my words wherever they take me.
And, on my better days, I find that parenting works in the same way—my daughters are constantly unsettling what I think I know about them.
The kids that I lather in sunscreen before camp are not the same kids that I greet with juice boxes in the afternoon—they have made and lost friends since I last saw them, taken great risks and suffered small humiliations.
I never know—when they get into the car—if they’re going to ask if we can stop for ice-cream on our way home, or if they’re going to ask, like my seven-year-old did the other day, how do babies even get in there in the first place?
I want my poems and stories to be as surprising and unpredictable as my daughters.
There’s nothing wrong with the old dictum write what you know—but the older I get, the more I appreciate Flannery O’Connor’s quip that we write to discover what we know.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman