Embracing the Screwy Path of the First Draft
Over the last many years, I’ve been slow-crafting my first nonfiction book. It centers on themes of imprisonment versus freedom, of judgment, of punishment, and of moving forward in the face of loss. It uses the labyrinth as a recurring image. As a poet working in a new genre, most days I don’t know what I’m doing, but still I sit down in the same chair and write, or I don’t sit down but walk and think, or I read something fortifying, or I accidentally write a poem instead, or I talk to another writer who’s walked this prose ground before me. The bulk of the manuscript feels like an unwieldy mess, and except for one slim excerpt that Red Bird Chapbooks published as Misplaced Sinister, I keep it pretty tightly guarded. In fact, I have completed two other poetry collections and begun a third while fretting over this memoir. I honestly don’t know how this prose book will become my idea of what it is supposed to become.
Ever having been a peripatetic thinker, the practice of walking back and forth, back and forth through a labyrinth fuels my associative daydreaming, and so the labyrinth metaphor, especially as suits the themes I listed above, fuels much of my recent writing. It’s spilled from the nonfiction into many poems, into my teaching, in ink tattooed under my skin. It’s become a bit obsessive. But when something’s got my attention, as a writer, I do not know what else to do but obsess. In fact, I believe it is my job to obsess.
I have walked a few dozen labyrinths by now, some repeatedly, and I have never had the same experience. Each time I bring a different question, or the same question carried a little longer, or I feel hopeless or hopeful, or it’s snowing lightly, or I notice a bluebird, or I mess up and exit before I get to the center. It’s as strange and varied as repeatedly sitting in the same chair every day to write.
Recently, I found myself invited to a weeklong poetry retreat on a small island in northern Minnesota with nine other women. Each of us was invited to lead an afternoon workshop, so I elected to incorporate the building and walking of a labyrinth into mine. Go figure.
That morning, before I was to meet with the other writers, I placed a few starting-stones—the seed pattern—at the top of the highest hill. Here was the only real clearing on the small island, edged with mullein, blueberries, purple blooms of creeping thyme. From up here, we’d have a view of the other tiny birch and pine-covered islands in the vast lake. We were going to make something called a Venus labyrinth, which I had learned from a website, celestiallabyrinths.org. I had drawn about a hundred Venus labyrinths in journals and had built one with rocks in my back yard. I stood on the hill and admired my start; this was going to be perfect.
Later that afternoon, we poets gathered in the big house, walled by shelves of antique books, crowned by a canoe and a sled perched in the rafters above us in our circle of scrounged chairs. “We are going to make a labyrinth, walk it, and write whatever comes,” I told the others. We talked about the myth of the labyrinth: Theseus, Ariadne, the Minotaur. One of the poets had, coincidentally, just released an entire collection of labyrinth-inspired poems and shared what she had learned. We talked about holding a question in mind while walking the path. I offered a list of possible questions for participants to bring with them into the path. We walked out into the sunlight to the waiting seed pattern.
Standing on the hill together, I gave some preliminary direction: “We’ll find more stones and small fallen branches and we’ll connect here to here, here to here, here to here.” I pointed while speaking. We began, and things progressed well, and quickly. Since I am not comfortable serving only as a director without pitching in, I walked away and back with the others, bringing field stones and other natural objects to our collaboration. Even as I worked, I noticed that it was inspiring to watch how we created the same thing, but differently. How each maker seemed to know just what was needed. “I love witchy shit,” said one poet collecting branches while another repeatedly emerged from the trees with hands cupped around tiny clusters of pine cones or very small stones and nestled them tenderly on the ground like punctuation in line with the larger rocks and branches.
We were shaping a magical, organic thing. As we were nearly done, I stood where the entrance would be to admire it and to check the path’s pattern.
It was flawed. I began to panic. A whole section was somehow blocked. Standing there, the current workshop leader, I could not make sense of how to fix it. Do we pull it apart and start over? It was humid and heading toward ninety degrees. I should have paid more attention.
It’s terrible to feel stupid in front of others; in fact, it’s perhaps my biggest fear, and I felt so profoundly stupid that it seemed I was close to indulging in my second biggest fear: crying in front of others.
The other women wanted to help. Partly because they are kind people, but also more importantly because on an aesthetic level, flawed or not, this was an objectively gorgeous thing we had just created together. Voicing my self-reproach would have served only to diminish our collaboration.
“We could just walk our imperfect labyrinth the way it is and head into the writing prompt,” I suggested, and the others agreed that was best. One poet suggested we could consider the blocked part of the path the subconscious.
I asked if everyone had decided on the question she would hold space for as she walked, and everyone had, so I headed in first.
While we had still been in the big house, I had offered the writers a selection of writing-themed questions, in case a current manuscript or poem or process was stalled or needed interrogating. Here they are:
What is at the heart of your project?
What is the monster (minotaur) of your project?
What do you do when you can see the doorway but cannot make sense of the path that leads there?
What are you the doorway to?
If I had chosen one of those questions for myself, now I was only wondering: how do I feel better about this screw-up that everyone is over except me?
First to enter, I was first to exit the labyrinth and return to our room in the big house to write. I wrote:
“How I struggle as a writer, a teacher, and a general living person to know when what I’m saying makes enough sense to others. When am I giving too little information? When too much? It’s what I’m struggling with inside my memoir right now and it’s what I struggled with outside as we ten poets created together. How difficult the labyrinth was, and what an uncomfortable surprise. That such a constant source of contemplation for me would have a new, difficult lesson.”
Every word seemed a metaphor for my sheltered, languishing memoir. It felt obvious the “answer” I had received to my question: Both in my prose and in my life, I tend toward guardedness with an anxious hint of perfectionism. I was going to have to move forward on all fronts with more love for the whole, vulnerable, imperfect current drafts.
The other poets had come in and written, too.
One shared how, toward the end, she realized that because of the funky way we made the path, she had a choice to exit or to start over completely. That choice answered her question.
The poet who walked last said that she thought she might feel crowded, but once everyone else had exited, she was surprised to dislike feeling alone in the center.
Another poet said she thought of several other questions she could add to my original list. For example:
Who is the hero of your project?
If you cannot save your project, who can you turn to for help?
Help? Help is also something that rarely occurs to me to ask for. And yet. Later that evening, one poet went back to walk our labyrinth alone, and she discovered that by moving one single stone, the whole thing opened up and worked perfectly. It was not the Venus pattern I had planned to follow, the one I was so focused on that I could see nothing else.
How can anyone know, before a thing is done, how it will become what it is supposed to become?