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Writing Like Riding

I’ve been working on a long poem. And by long, I mean around 30-40 pages. My father died ten years ago. I stopped writing about six months after. I wrote a few poems right after he died, and I then just stopped. Writing didn’t matter. Words didn’t matter. I was shattered.

It took about two years before words started swirling in my head, wanting to come out. They came out in prose. Poetry was nowhere to be found. And the more I wrote, the more prose started coming. I was accepted into a non-fiction workshop and wrote essays about a ballet class and other mundane things. And then I tried to write about my father. I wrote and wrote and brought my piece into class; but it wasn’t working. For another year, I kept writing, trying to figure out what I wanted to say. It still wasn’t working.

About five months later, I was visiting my mom and went downstairs to my father’s workroom. He was a tool and die maker; and over the years, we just didn’t want to clean it out. It seemed too final, still too raw. I opened my father’s toolbox, and it was right there. Revelation. A tobacco mixture tin. My father had kept some small drill bits in it. Poetry. It was right there in his toolbox, and it hasn’t stopped coming since.

The first lines of my poem started appearing.

You will bury your father

on a bright Sunday afternoon in July.

No clouds, only a red-tail hawk circling and circling overhead.

You will shovel and shovel and shovel and shovel,

You will force yourself to stop.

He will be buried near a tree. It’s what he wanted.

For a while now, I’ve been thinking that writing might be like riding a bike. I believe that writing is innate; that we all have stories to tell. Most of us learned to ride a bike as children, and as the saying goes – whenever something comes back you – it’s like riding a bike. You don’t forget. We’re taught as we grow to write in different ways, to learn structure and form, whether it’s an engineering document or a senior thesis. Billy Collins said, “High school is where poetry goes to die.” And yes, we need to learn all these important ways of writing to get along in the world, but we tend to lose that creative writing we knew as children – that sense of wonder, exploration, freedom, and joy.

I took a long detour from my poetry after my father died. I don’t regret it. Of course, I wish I’d been able to work on this long poem immediately; but my detour, now that I look back on it, was necessary. I cried many times thinking that my poetry was gone. But it wasn’t. I just had to be patient and explore other ways of writing.

When my father taught me how to ride a bike, he told me. “Keep looking forward, and when you stop, turn around, and you’ll see how far you’ve come.” I just had to get back on my bike and pedal my way forward to poetry.

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