I kept talking myself out of it, even with the excitement that crackled every time I pulled up the screen, the joy that bubbled to the surface — usually my most trustworthy compass.
Yet when I stumbled upon a three-day writing workshop with a nationally acclaimed poet who I admire as a person and revere as a writer, I hesitated to sign up. Even though I often lament the dearth of such opportunities in this area. Even though it was taking place in one of my favorite Delaware River towns. Though it was significantly more affordable than the writing retreats of my fantasies, the ones that beckon with their spell of far-flung beauty — the Montana wilderness, a ranch tucked amid the canyons and cliffs of New Mexico, an old church hugging a blue Newfoundland cove! — and promise of deep attention to the craft.
And yes, even though I’d declared 2019 to be my year of “magic” and this workshop invited magic of a most beguiling and illuminating kind, I shrank from the opportunity even as I craved it.
To apply, I had to submit three poems — cue the fear of rejection and assailants of worthiness that can stalk so many of us who create and then must push these creations out beyond our tenderly kept confines. To share my poems with this particular poet, a professor of creative writing whose many accolades include a National Book Critics Circle Award and Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, felt incredibly vulnerable. I have never studied poetry, can’t tell a villanelle from a sestina, know nothing of form and device.
When I finally hit “send” on my application, I may have been proud of the poems I attached but I could only imagine how they’d compare to those of the MFA graduates and other more pedigreed writers who’d already secured their place in the workshop.
And then I got accepted! I was euphoric — and absolutely panicked. Did I really belong there? What if I struggled to write with the pressure of time constraints and prompts that defied inspiration? What if what I produced was middling, forays into the glaringly untutored amid a sheaf of voices defined by a more rigorous and distinctive poetic architecture?
The closer I got to our first session, the more nervous I felt. I had taken poetry workshops before, even spent a week-long writing retreat with one of my favorite poets. But that had been almost 10 years ago, when I could name only a handful of writers I read, when writing was more pleasure than pursuit of craft, when I had yet to claim poetry — the crafting, reading, listening, discovering and rejoicing in those discoveries — as a vitalizing spiritual practice.
Because the work mattered so deeply to me, immersing myself in those three days felt like a greater risk. No matter how I tried to temper my nerves or the encouragement I received from friends, I acknowledged it had been a long time since I’d felt such anxiety about anything.
Still, I had no choice but to walk that fear — along with my excitement, joy and uncertainty — through the door of an old Victorian house on a bitter cold night to sit among 10 other poets and our illustrious teacher. As expected, several participants had graduated from MFA programs, several taught creative writing and one was a published and lauded poet with four books to her name. But there was, too, like me a woman whose love of language eclipsed her formal study and another whose fitful writing practice held echoes of my own.
We were all treated to a rich and robust weekend where the focus was as much on craft as it was celebrating each other and resting in the places that brought us delight and surprise in our writing.
But this is not about the workshop or the poems we wrote or the camaraderie we found in this revelry of words.
I am immensely grateful to have been a part of those wondrous and strange, playful and challenging three days, and for a teacher whose generosity and heart pushed me to places in my poems I’d never gone before.
But I am also grateful to the fear I held. To its every quake and quiver, thank you for reminding me that your presence usually attends the things worth doing in life, that if you’re there, it matters deeply, and I want to pursue the meaningful. To each rattle that almost stopped and thwarted me, thank you, too, for bolstering me, for letting me know I can feel you, carry you and still walk toward the edge.
And thank you to those niggling voices, craving comfort and yet disruptive enough to nudge me past complacency, where there is little room for the aliveness I’ve felt all week.
The aliveness that thrust me out the door, in all its lush strum and bright cadence, after our final session on Sunday. Sending me across the snow-frosted sidewalks and into the icy air, flinging my gratitude to the trees and the sky, to the squawking geese and roosting crows above the canal, to the rush of water and every face that brimmed with a warming smile.
To this big, beautiful, mysterious world that invites us over and over again to give ourselves to what we love. To take the risk. Open up. To be companion to our fears.