When I was a kid, I had a wooden dresser with two round knobs on each drawer. It was the stereotypical bureau that many kids had in the 1970s. Every time I pulled a drawer out, the wood groaned and rubbed against the frame. Summers, the drawers swelled and the groaning turned into a grating. I hated dragging the drawers open in July. I just did what I could to avoid changing my clothes.
It was only years later that I figured out how symbolic this dresser was.
In July 2001, I attended a poetry workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. (Note: If you have any kind of artistic ability and dream of getting away to a studio, the Fine Arts Work Center is the only place to be.) It was like playing hooky from my life: Yoga in the early morning, writing classes during the day, galleries and eclectic shops in the afternoons, and poetry readings at night—all for a glorious, long-stretching week.
Gregory Orr was the instructor—he is a brilliant writer and teacher. The course focused on the personal lyric, poetry that is musical and image-rich, but also has a narrative edge. Some of Orr’s most powerful writing reflects on the hunting accident when he was 12, when he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother.
At the time, even though I never used specific form or rhyming schemes in my writing, most of my poems fell into a pattern. They had an even number of stanzas, usually with four or five lines each. No matter how many times I tried, my poems seemed to always finish there.
The endings also wrapped up too neatly. An instructor once told me about endings of literary works, “You can’t cut them like you cut brownies.” The problem with wrapping things up too neatly in art is that it leaves no room for the reader to bring anything to it.
When I got home from the workshop, I discussed with my friend Erica why my poems felt stiff and restrained. The topics were things that I cared about, deeply personal and full of emotion. But the poems seemed to stay in a safe harbor, delve only about six inches under the surface. And for a piece to truly move readers, it has to go deep—30,000 leagues under the sea kind of deep.
Suddenly, it hit me.
“I figured it out!” I told Erica. “My poems are stuck in a dresser!”
I was obsessively organizing words and images like I’d organize socks in a drawer—arranging lines like I arrange my life. I was trying to use order to hold the emotion. But the structure constrained the energy, keeping the art from working its magic. The poems were too organized to be real. Their imperfection was hidden underneath the safety of symmetry and predictability.
It was an important lesson to learn. And one that extends beyond poetry.
These days, I allow my poems to breathe. They look and feel different on the page. The structure varies much more frequently. They open doors more often. And all of this makes them more authentic, more powerful.
I still sometimes rely on a comfortable form. With some topics that are tough to write about, you need the structure like some furniture needs an anti-topple device—otherwise, something or someone may end up on the floor.
Now, when I seem to be stuck in the status quo, or when I’m avoiding feeling difficult things in some way, I ask myself, “Am I in the dresser on this? What would it look like to step out of the dresser?”
Dressers are very utilitarian. They hold our costumes, the masks we wear, all day when we are out in the world. They may even bring comfort, because no one can see what’s inside them. But the structure really is an illusion. Something may appear on the surface to be organized and contained, but when you open it, what’s inside can be messy and wrinkled. Oftentimes if you dig a little deeper underneath people who are obsessively organized, you can see chaos under the surface that is just itching to escape.
I recently had to cut a massive sheet cake at a large event. I gave the crowd a quick glance and roughly figured I’d need about 150 pieces. I mentally cut the cake in half, and in half again, and in half again (do you know how to calculate the half-life of a cake?). I then estimated how large the pieces could be to make sure I didn’t run out.
An engineer once taught me that if you want to cut a cake equally, you should use dental floss and mark the rows before you cut it. But I didn’t have any Glide in my pocket, and even if I did, I didn’t think the group would have appreciated a waxy mint aftertaste. Plus, they would have steered clear if they saw me touching the cake with dental floss, and that would have skewed my estimate of how many pieces I needed anyway.
So I just started cutting. At first, the pieces were generous, thickly rectangular, and full of frosting. Downright inspiring. But after an hour passed and the crowd wasn’t thinning, I started cutting that amount in half, and then in quarters.
Still, there was something immensely satisfying in putting pieces on the table that were irregularly sized. There was something completely random, messy, and disorganized about it. I laughed at the odd angles and shapes. Some did not even deserve to be called veritable pieces of cake. But I plated them all the same.
In the end, it didn’t really matter. It was a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a sunny celebration of something new. And every awkward piece was full of love.