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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Creating a Text – Robert Peake

What phases are involved in the creation of a text?

“A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.”

Randall Jarrell

This quote by one of the finest poetry critics of his time, Randall Jarrell, would seem to suggest poetry is purely a matter of inspiration – the cliched bolt of lightning from above; a good poem simply strikes. Despite a single exception in my writing career (doesn’t that, in fact, prove the rule?) – lightning-speed inspiration has simply not been my experience. The act of writing is a dance with oneself. The dance-hall is a process called revision.

Here is what I do: I get up early and write three pages that are purely uncensored stream-of-consciousness. Then I rip them up, go outside, crinkle them into a metal bin, and burn them. Next I read a few words to myself about why poetry matters to me – inspirational statements I’ve made as a kind of antidote to the internal critic, things I need to keep hearing to keep me going – so I tell them to myself. Then, I write.

Sometimes I have gathered snippets or ideas on a pad of paper I carry in my wallet. More often these days, I just dive in. Sometimes I go back to other poems and revise. Sometimes I read a bit of someone else’s work to get me going.

What comes out I file in a folder called “raw.” Other mornings, or evenings when I’m not too tired, I come back to the “raw” folder – especially if there’s something in there that is starting to cook. I can have a dozen or more such protean poems going on at any one time. I try to work on the poem to see where I can take it. Sometimes a new direction comes in, and I see how it can enhance the poem. It is exploratory.

I read aloud, I tinker, I make radical changes (often saving earlier drafts just in case). The fire, the energy, the poem-craft, comes in revising what has spilled onto the page. If I get to a certain point where I feel “too close to the trees” I might take the piece into a workshop or send it to a trusted friend (or faculty advisor). Some of those suggestions can be really good. I take everything with a grain of salt.

At a certain point, I know the poem is about as good as it can be for what it is. Then I have to ask myself: is it any good? As a reader, would I like it? Often, the answer is “no.” I have put time and energy into this piece, and it’s gone as far as it can go – but still isn’t something I would stand by years from now even if it did get published. If I don’t like it, why should a publisher? And even if they do – how will I feel years from now about having put out mediocre work? So I put it in a subfolder of “raw” called “hibernate.” You never know.

The propensity for a poem to wander its way into greatness through hard work and continual revision may seem on the statistical order of a lightning strike. But the reality is much slower, more patient – and I feel every effort, including the so-called “failures” help to make me a better writer. So I write, and write and write – shuffling poems in and out of my “raw” folder, dancing with myself and the possibilities of the poem, doing my best to enjoy each nonlinear dance step.

Robert Peake is a poet; you can find his blog here: Robert Peake

3 Responses to “Creating a Text – Robert Peake”

  1. Robert says:

    Thanks for posting this, John. I just finished burning my three pages and felt I should probably tack on a p.s. to say that I never read back what I wrote. Poetic inspirations and grocery lists that crop up during the process I copy onto a separate page and save – but the sludge I pour out onto the page isn’t anything I’d want to wade back through. I’m told that, psychologically speaking, that’s the best way to do it.

  2. Robert Peake says:

    Some Thoughts On Writing…

    John Baker posted some of my thoughts on the writing process today as part of his series on “Creating A Text.” Thanks to John for collecting such diverse and interesting viewpoints.

    The other side of the writer’s coin, of course, is reading. Tom…

  3. xensen says:

    This is a fascinating working procedure. It’s made me think about my own practice and how I can improve it.