Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"I remember hiding my writing, embarrassed..." Further explorations on Why Do YOU Write?

This month we're talking to poet and long-time client Stephanie Noble!

WW: When did you start writing? Was there something or someone that sparked your desire to write?

SN: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. My first poem was published in the Akron Beacon Journal when I was seven as one of many student poems on a slow news day in Ohio.

Throughout my adolescence writing was my catharsis through journaling in what I called my Private Property Book. What a load of misery and angst! But there were poems as well. And one short story. I remember hiding my writing, embarrassed by the impulse to put my thoughts into words, as if I thought they had value. But it wasn’t about preserving my thoughts, it was about processing them. This is something most people understand today, but back then anyone who attempted to write was secretly working on the “great American novel.”

WW: What is your favorite form of writing? (i.e. essay, short story, poem) and why?

SN: Poetry has always been my first and foremost form of writing. In my late twenties, I went through a period where I wrote songs. It felt safer than poetry, since songwriters weren’t sticking their heads in ovens, or taking themselves too seriously, it seemed. But eventually the poetry just had to have its say.

I did write a novel at the age of 33 and that was an amazing experience. But poems have always just risen up within me and demanded to be put down on paper, so that is what calls me.

WW: Do you write in more than one form?

SN: I teach meditation and write up my talks, then post them on my website for those who aren’t able to attend my classes. I enjoy the liberation of prose, but I credit poetry for teaching me how to write in any form. My natural tendency is to want to say the same thing in a number of ways, just to cover my bases. This is actually a useful impulse when teaching as students learn differently. But poetry makes me choose the best of those and hone things down to their essence, and that’s helped me stay more on track in my prose writing as well.

WW: Do you have techniques that help to inspire you to write?

SN: I like to let a poem percolate in my mind until it just has to be written. When I was a mother of young children, this was a necessity. I couldn’t just stop and jot something down. I had to keep changing that diaper! So I learned how to hold a poem in the making as a creative inner process that at some point just has to be written.

Decades later I am less adept at holding it all in my head, and since I can easily stop and write it down, I do. This has meant more editing, because what’s written down is in a less developed state, but that’s an interesting process too.

WW: Who are your favorite writers and what have they taught you?

SN: There are so many novelists I enjoy as pure indulgence. I read at least a book a week, usually more, but I don’t have much retention for books or movies, with rare exceptions. So let me give you the rare exceptions: Stones in the River by Ursula Hegi, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. When I used to study literature in college, I retained much more, so there’s a lesson there for me.

But when it comes to reading poetry, I find I learn different valuable things from each one. And when I read a poem, after allowing for whatever feelings and thoughts come up, I often ask myself ‘What is this poet giving me permission to do?’ Like most writers I have many unexamined assumptions about what makes good writing, and this question frees me each time to go beyond those assumptions and find some new way of exploring with words and the images they evoke. The only poet whose poem blew me away who isn’t on everyone’s list is Martin Galvin, and I’ve only ever read that one poem ‘Introductions’ that was in a library dollar book sale anthology. But it really still is the most fabulous poem.

WW: Do you begin at the beginning, middle or end of your work?

SN: Hmm, I always think I am beginning at the beginning, but sometimes it turns out to be the ‘first pancake’ and what follows is the real stuff, so I toss the first part or rework it into the piece somewhere else. Other times there is a wholeness to the idea for the poem that feels like it’s shaped in a nonlinear fashion, even though, being words they always end up beginning and ending.

WW: Do you write longhand first, directly onto a device or do voice recording?

SN: Most of my poetry starts longhand in whatever my current composition notebook is. Currently I like those Decomposition Books with the pretty patterns on the outside that I pick up at the art store. They are made with 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper, so that frees me to ‘waste’ a page writing total garbage. Our family is full of stories of parental stinginess with paper. My mother was begrudging with her paper, though she wrote copiously on yellow legal pads. Our children claim I only let them write on the backs of already typed-on pages (Not true!!). And one granddaughter knows I’m watching that paper stack like a hawk, even as I rejoice in her delight in writing and drawing.

WW: Are you part of a writing group or class that supports you? Is this something you would advise for another writer?

SN: Absolutely. Living in Marin County, I am fortunate to be part of the ongoing Poetic Pilgrimage class at College of Marin, taught by Prartho Sereno, the current poet laureate of Marin County. I, like many others, have been studying with her for years. Even when the class is not in session, we get together, either with Prartho or on our own, to continue our writing together. Through the class I am exposed to many poets I would not otherwise have discovered, and she gives us very stimulating writing prompts. I probably write ten times as many poems as I would if I weren’t in a regular class! She also ‘publishes’ an 8 x 11” anthology at the end of each 7-8 week session. We supply two camera-ready pages and she has them copied, collated and bound with a cover that she draws and almost always a poem that she creates using lines from each of our poems.

I definitely recommend getting together with other writers in groups or classes. It has to be the right group or class, of course. I remember decades ago I took a class at College of Marin led by a professor who scared me. He was very rigid and judgmental. So for the first time in my life I stopped writing altogether. Instead I obsessively cleaned our little apartment. My best friend came over one day, took one look around and said, ‘If I ever find your home this clean again, we will no longer be friends.’ So I quit that class and have been very selective ever since. No writer needs to put themselves in a position where another person, be it a teacher or an editor, causes writer’s block rather than inspiration! While we want to be open to learn, sometimes there are people who are just projecting their own anguish, and that’s really not a useful situation to be in.

Pratho’s class may be unique in that there is no critique whatsoever. We read and discuss poems by established poets she offers as examples of the theme she is teaching, then she gives us prompts to write for a while, either in class or anywhere on the campus. Then we take turns reading what we’ve written if we want to, and it creates this amazing shared space of creativity. Just hearing your poem as you read it aloud in a group can give you everything you need to know if the piece is working and where you might make some revisions. Since everyone in class has been improving over the years, this technique seems to work. And it beats writing poetry by committee, which is how some critique groups end up feeling.

In editing a piece, it seems the two questions that are most useful are: Where does the piece come alive? And what in the piece supports that aliveness, and what doesn’t? Then be brave enough to cut the part that doesn’t. If it’s too good to toss, just acknowledge that it might want to be its own poem. But it doesn’t belong in this one. One thing I’ve really learned through this process is how to write a shorter poem!

WW: How did you know it was time to share it publicly?

SN: For years I never bothered to send out my poetry. After all it generally doesn’t pay, and I needed to make a living. But at some point I put together a little handmade chapbook of my most meditative poems and Spirit Rock Meditation Center featured it in their wonderful bookstore. When I joined Marin Poetry Center, it just seemed in the spirit of things to submit poems there. It turns out to be very competitive as we have really remarkably talented poets in and around Marin. But I’ve been fortunate to have been included in every volume for the past six years. Then I became a Writers’ Wings client and suddenly my poems were being published far and wide! Wow! That shifted my understanding to include the possibility that this isn’t just some little thing I do for myself. Or it still is, but once the process is done, it can venture out into the world, as long as I’m not the one waiting at the mailbox (or inbox!) to get the rejections!

As to any individual poem, there’s a sense of doneness that can either be ‘I’m so over this and it’s getting tossed or ignored for a few more years’ or ‘Yes, this captures what I wanted to say.’ Of course any poet will tell you that you can edit forever, but I fear overworking as much as under-editing, so if it feels done and Marleen at Writers’ Wings is happy with it, I call it ready.

WW: Is your writing a form of activism? If so, in what way and what particular issues activate you to write?

SN: My issues are the environment and helping people be less stressed so they can live meaningful lives doing whatever it is that calls them to contribute. My prose writing is all about that. Poetry is a form that really has to be allowed freedom to be whatever it wants. But coming through me, my themes are meditative, nature, memoir or family, with an occasional quirky one that can’t be placed. My poems from my twenties are both angrier and more sensual. There was a strong women’s liberation bent to some of them. While I am happy to use my writing skills for any cause I care about, my poetry calls its own shots. That’s just the way it’s got to be for poets.

WW: Who is the greatest support in your writing and how does that impact your ability to write?

SN: My husband, the artist Will Noble, honors my writing time, just as I honor his painting time. And although he never had interest in poetry or meditation, he faithfully reads my meditation blog, and allows me to read my poems to him when asked, and has developed a good ear. Second is Marleen at Writers’ Wings because she sees all my poetry and cares about it deeply. She is like the shepherd for my little poetry flock. I will have forgotten about a particular poem but she knows them intimately. And it’s such a delight when she lets me know something has been published. It’s a celebration we can share, so that makes me feel more part of a team, which I love. And of course, my fellow poetry classmates and Prartho Sereno, who hear my poems first in their rawest form and don’t puke!

WW: Is there any advice you can offer fellow writers?

SN: I’d say if you feel called to write, give yourself the dedicated space and time to work. Let the writing itself guide you. Let go of goals to get published, but honor your work enough to send it out into the world when it’s ready. Find your tribe! Be vulnerable! And if you experience ‘writer’s block’ just remember that fields go fallow sometimes, but it’s a rich time, too. Just stay present with your experience and be compassionate.

Stephanie Noble’s poems have been published in the The Buddhist Poetry Review, Light of Consciousness Magazine, The Mindful Word, Atlanta Review, IthacaLit, DoveTales, Pilgrimage Magazine, Temenos Journal, the Marin Poetry Center Anthology, 2010 through 2016, the anthology Unsilenced, the Spirit of Women and other publications. She was a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee.
She has a BA in Humanities from New College of California and is a member of the ongoing Poetic Pilgrimage class at College of Marin, led by Marin County poet laureate Prartho Sereno. 

Stephanie teaches insight meditation in San Rafael, California and is the author of Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

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