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Friday, July 15, 2011

'River of Stones' — the Process

I’m participating in this month’s ‘a river of stones’ over at my Stones for the River blog. I did it in January too, with great joy, and intermittently between then and now. This time around, I’m noticing more about the process, probably because my husband has joined in this time and his approach is different from mine. Well for one thing, I’m a poet and choose to write my small stones in verse; he’s a story-teller, whether in fiction or memoir, and naturally seeks to make stories out of his small stones. But it’s more than that.

I love his writing, so what I’m about to say isn’t a criticism of that — but I notice he has real trouble simply paying attention to the world around him. He produces lovely pieces that don’t end up on his blog because they’re not actually small stones. They are diary entries, records of events and the way he feels about them. He talks, for instance, of running into a couple of old friends in town yesterday. After reading what he wrote, I know that this event happened and who the people were, what he felt about the exchange, and a little of what was said between them. I know nothing of the surroundings, or what the people looked like, or how their voices sounded — no description. The ‘small stones’ idea is all about getting outside oneself and noticing the world around us. I think it’s OK to bring oneself in if necessary, but from the outside, dispassionately observed. He manages it, but it’s often a struggle.

Back in January Kaspalita, who co-founded the river of stones, posted a piece on just this. It seems many people have the same difficulty. I don’t seem to have quite as much trouble with it, and I put that down to a few years of attempting haiku, tanka and other short forms which train one to pay attention to the world. However I worry that I‘m ‘doing it wrong’ in a different way. Although there isn’t any obligatory length, I keep thinking mine are too long this time. I was convinced that I wrote much shorter ones in January, until I went back and had a look. No, they’re about the same. 

I notice, too, that both my husband and I keep falling into the significance trap. What do I mean by that? I’ve been in a long-term writers’ support group (often by email) with Jennie Fraine and Leah Kaminsky for — good heavens! — 20 years. We are devoted to what we call ‘the anti-significance factor’. One of the earliest things we identified was that trying for deep significance is death to poetry. Or, as my friend Philip Martin used to remark, people don’t like to be buttonholed by a poem and told what to think and feel. Personally, if I try to write something deep and meaningful, it paralyses me, whereas if I just play with words or forms I produce poems — sometimes even deep and meaningful ones. It’s essential to remember that art is play. I think, with a small stone, the thing itself is what matters; no need to weight it down with any extra meaning. But human beings are very good at trying to add extra significance to everything, even the simplest things.

Difficult or not, I think the task is worthwhile, not only for the writing it can produce but even more so to have us engage with the world around us. It even led to me watering my geraniums, which badly needed it, because I stopped to take a good look at them. 


  1. I love the fact that the writing, the noticing, lead to something as practical as watering the geraniums... actually, that would be a lovely small stone in itself.

    I'm not participating in the River of Stones, but I love the idea of it. Maybe next time...

  2. Hi Jenny! There is a geranium small stone :)

    And you can join in any time.

  3. first, how cool it is that you and he have this to share...would love to have that with my wife..the lure of significa nce, i hear you on that...i always try to blend in deeper meaning and undertone as that is what i wrote before i wrote was recently i started listening to how words sound when put together and that has made all the difference...

  4. Brian, thank you for reading this so (obviously) thoughtfully, and commenting. Yes it is good to be married to another writer — particularly when we work in different genres, and so are lost in admiration for each other's stuff.

  5. I loved this piece..writing should flow freely from what is inside...I often write with few words...I feel a poem's beginning and when it wants to end...I rarely rewrite, perhaps there are those who wish i Yes, writing makes you take notice of what is around you...even may lead to watering geraniums. :)

  6. Staying present is the trick, I think, and then the words do arrive pretty much in final form.

    I often do rewrite, as in fiddling and reworking at the point of composition, so it's impossible to say what is first draft and what is fifteenth! It's all fluid until I say it's done.