Draining the Swamp

October 9, 2007

When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp.
                   — popular wisdom about productivity

A few weeks ago I lamented the difficulty with which I focus on any given project. In studying learning styles, I came to understand that this may be a function of my personality type. I have myriad interests and lots of projects going at once, and when forced to choose one to work on I will do that but immediately begin worrying about the ones I’ve chosen to let languish. I put energy into wondering if I’m putting my energy in the right place, thus diminishing the amount of energy available for whatever did get chosen.

But sometimes, when I do choose something, I do it in the extreme. Especially if it means I’m avoiding something much more difficult.

In five weeks and two days I am leaving for a month in Wyoming. I have a million things to do before then, including figuring out what I’m going to do precisely when I get there (“write something” is much too vague) and which materials (notes, manuscript files, writing guides and exercises, etc.) I think I might need or find useful. I also have to produce a manuscript for workshop next Tuesday.

So what did I do for the past forty-eight hours?

I went through the house pulling from each shelf and pile in each room all the books of poetry I have, as well as several folders thick with poems photocopied, clipped from magazines, or copied out by hand on the backs of morning announcement sheets and absentee lists as I supervised study halls as long ago as 1972. I’d been prompted by a friend’s request for a poem I know I read for the first time around 1984, and my inability to find said poem because I thought it was by Czeslaw Milosz but it was really by Miroslav Holub. (And, honestly, don’t you sometimes confuse your Polish and Czech poets?)

The project was actually only half as hard as it might have been. About five or six years ago I did manage to arrange many of my books on the twenty linear feet of shelves in the library/family room into broad categories such as fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, so many of the poetry volumes were together and in a sort of alphabetical order. I’d also pulled out all the “feathers” sticking out of the books, those strips of paper I’d torn for bookmarks (another good use for old absentee lists) now curled and yellowing, and replaced them with colorful Post-It flags. But as life went on and I bought more poetry, and reached for a volume to read it or look up a half-remembered line, things got haphazard again.

For some reason, I find assembling, categorizing, and organizing a collection of similar things a very soothing activity, especially if it prepares me for (or keeps me from) facing a blank page to which I must commit original material. The exercise I began on Sunday was actually a continuation of a project that already had a format and some direction. This does not mean, however, that it was easy. There were two “draining the swamp” moments, one when I realized that I’d been sitting on the floor for an hour reading in an anthology of poems about heartbreak, and another when I found myself assembling materials to transfer the drawings of rock formations and trees I’d made on Sucia Island in 1995 from the sheaf of poems where I’d originally done them to a dedicated art journal.

Poetry CollectionI managed to pull myself up both times and get back on track. The result, seen at left, is that I now have three shelves with most of my poetry holdings lined up in alphabetical order, the Best American Poetry series first, then anthologies, then collections by individual authors, and several years of the magazine Poetry. (Some oversize books, my Emily Dickinson and my E.E. Cummings, and my autographed volumes reside elsewhere.) Everything was entered into my database on Library Thing. (If you go there, search for books tagged “poetry” to see the fruit of my labor.) My clip files are organized in alphabetical order, awaiting a decision about how best to catalogue them.

I may have started this project as a way to avoid something else. But by this afternoon I felt the urge to create rather than copy. While I was doing all the sorting and stacking and categorizing, I was also thinking about the manuscript I need to prepare for workshop next week. (It should be sent to my colleagues no later than tomorrow morning.) Suddenly a character whose story has been stuck in a pivotal moment for about two years wandered into another story, and I managed to sit down and follow what she was doing. By this evening I had completed revisions suggested at Bread Loaf in 2005 and produced a thousand new words.

Maybe I won’t be so lost in Wyoming.

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One thought on “Draining the Swamp

  1. Marg,

    As I read your entry for today I had a flashback…we were sitting in your library drinking tea and talking on a lovely warm summer afternoon. You had just shown me the nursery you were creating for your “new baby.” White eyelet and Beatrix Potter and cherry furniture, I think…tho’ my memory may be faulty on that, it’s been SO long!

    Your library was always a special, relaxing place for me. It’s one of those rooms I always remember fondly.

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