My very first post on “Written Beneath the Palms” in March 2012 was called Looking for Inspiration. The piece was about the Santa Rosa Mountains which edge a portion of the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs. They rise abruptly from the desert floor, hinting of the color in their name, steep-sided, full of crags and crevices. They are the farthest thing from rolling green hills you can imagine. Every time I look at them, they offer mystery, inspiration, and wonder. I decided I wanted to turn the short essay into a poem.
Which I did. Several times and several times more. I didn’t like what I wrote so I left it alone. I didn’t tear it up, just left it alone. Something was wrong. I wasn’t getting at whatever it was I wanted to get at. And that was the problem. I really didn’t know. I had a lot of description but nothing to pull at a reader. I did know it wasn’t a nature poem.
In the interim I had a personal essay accepted by an online journal called Six Hens. The editors publish personal essays and creative nonfiction by women about moments in their lives which changed them, redefined them, changed how they saw themselves. My essay was returned to me by one of the editors for some edits. Only one line of what I had written in the essay had been crossed out. Nice. But.
There were a series of questions inserted in the margins. How did I feel? What did that make me do? When was this? What happened next? Why? What did I sense? I thought I’d done that. But there was more digging to do.
I went through a series of edits. What these comments and questions did was make me dig, get closer to the incident and, more importantly, get closer to myself. Finding what I thought, felt, feared. The nudges were gentle and persistent. As I responded and incorporated the new writing into the existing text, I found the process made me sweat, think, curse, and discover. I felt I was in good hands with an editor who knew the genre. I didn’t. I am new to it. The piece, which finally has gone to the copy editor, will be published within the next month or so in Six Hens. The essay is called “Inner Canyons.”
Meanwhile, the poem sat, occasionally gnawing at me. Then one day I realized what was missing from it. I wasn’t close enough. The same problem I had with the essay. I wasn’t inside of it enough. Inside of me enough. And that’s what was missing. The first round was a description of the mountains. Yeah. Nice. So? The next rounds got me into it. What the mountains do to and for me. It’s still in draft mode. I’m still digging. The poem, called “I know the mountains…”, will eventually be published in a chapbook format done with an associate.
When I write a short story, I strive to get closer to the characters, know them, and make them relatable to the reader. For the reader to know the way the characters feel, think, what they fear, say. I want the reader to care. Well, as I learned, I need that same process of getting closer, that same getting inside when I’m the “character” in a personal essay. I didn’t make the connection. It’s more difficult when it’s yourself. Oh, and one word of caution with a personal essay. Only put out there what you are comfortable for others to know.
These two recent writing incidents were cases in point, teaching and reminding me about the need to search more, discover more. Get inside, get closer. Unearth the truth and the essence.