“Gatherer’s Blog” is an invited feature that provides emergent as well as seasoned writers with opportunities to reflect upon aspects of their own writing processes.
The Writing Life: Finding Inspiration and Learning to Persevere
All my life I have been too eager. If patience is a virtue, then it is one I seldom practice. I began drawing when I was three or four, trying, I presume, to imitate my Uncle Joe, a great artist and one of my earliest heroes. Seeing that I loved to draw, my parents sent me to art lessons when I was seven with a guy named Barny who taught a small group of aspiring painters and drawers in his second-floor apartment across the street from our house. I was the youngest and most undisciplined among the eight or ten students that comprised the class. Within a few months, I quit. I didn’t have the patience to follow instructions, or to learn the fundamentals of shape and perspective, or the color-wheel. I tried to run before I could even walk. I wanted to draw and paint what I wanted: King Kong, Lassie, and my famous (at least to my grandmother) magic marker crucifixion scenes of Jesus, bloody as Rocky Balboa, hanging on his cross. Yet all the faces I drew–Jesus’s included–had mismatched, amphibian eyes.
After painting it was music. I was twelve years old that Christmas my mother bought me an acoustic guitar and paid for lessons. I practiced every day and within a year I was certain someday I’d be a rock star like Jimmy Page. It took a decade for me to realize I was tone-deaf and didn’t have what it took to be a musician. After failing at both painting and music I arrived at poetry in my mid-twenties. Dylan Thomas was my first love. To this day, “Fern Hill” remains my favorite poem. But it wasn’t only Dylan’s magical words and images that I loved; it was his lifestyle. Never mind writing great poems, I wanted to be the drunken bard who died young. It would be years before I understood that that “lifestyle” was a way for me to hide from my disabilities. Being drunk, or appearing so, became an easy and habitual hiding place.
I was born with various, life-threatening birth defects, including esophageal, limb, and renal abnormalities, among others. Yet, it wasn’t until a life-changing surgery that finally rid me of diapers at age ten that I realized just how different I was. I stood in front of a full-length mirror in a back room of a pharmacy as my mother talked with a nurse about ostomy products I could try, when I saw my naked body for what seemed like the very first time. It is not hyperbole to say that a monster stared back at me. After that, even though my life had greatly improved, I did everything in my power to hide the fact that I had ostomies.
My first book of poetry, Watering the Dead, won The Transcontinental Prize. It contained narrative poems about my hometown. Some called them “working-class,” or “Rustbelt.” Only one poem, “Spared,” mentioned my disabilities. It was about how my esophagus kept constricting. I couldn’t keep food down and I had lost a considerable amount of weight. Everyone—doctors, my parents, and my teachers at school—presumed I would not survive. Doctor Jewett even told my mother to pray for a miracle. It would take several years for me to find the courage to write about my ostomies. Writing about my esophagus and prosthetic leg were safe.
It was my wife, Jen, who encouraged me to write more explicitly about my disabilities. If it weren’t for her, I never would have written poems like “Ostomy Bag,” which tried to capture that moment when I stood in the back room of a pharmacy staring at my reflection in the mirror. It was the most difficult poem I have ever written. It was terrifying. It felt like coming out of the closet. Would people think differently of me? Would they still be my friend? My whole life I tried to hide the fact that I had ostomies, and now, with twenty or thirty lines of verse, I was destroying that wall I’d built around myself. In the past I’d purposely avoided writing about my disabilities, save for my ever-constricting esophagus, and prosthetic leg. The leg had become a comic prop that helped me divert any attention from those disabilities I pretended no one else knew about. When a local poet reviewed my book on Amazon and posted this poem, commenting that it was his favorite, that it was brave, I felt a mix of shame, anger, and pride.
My process is to write a full draft of a poem in one sitting. When the draft is complete, I immediately, in my eagerness, email it to my wife and a few trusted friends. No sooner than I press the “send” button do I see the grievous errors of my poem—the misspelled words, the awkward syntax, the unearned ending, and, if I’ve gone so far as to send it out for publication, the wasted submission fee if my piece is rejected. I’m still too eager, ready to set off running, when I know I should take it slow. In my frustration I revise it several times—chipping away, adding, chipping away again, rearranging, removing, or replacing a word—emailing each version to my wife and friends, as I go.
My poems can go through twenty or thirty drafts, but if inspiration is not the impetus, there is no poem. I am unable to stare at a blank page and write a poem without inspiration. Writing prose is a different beast entirely. For the past two and half years, I’ve been writing a memoir. After the first draft, it’s no longer about inspiration, but dedicated work and perseverance. Instead of trying to capture a single moment, I find myself faced with a lifetime of moments. It can be overwhelming, putting my life on display like a specimen. Turning fifty last year (still surprised I made it this far), I feel an even greater urgency to get stuff out there, to leave something behind. And although I still send poems to Jen, in most cases she doesn’t get around to checking her email until I’ve bombarded her inbox with three or four drafts—but it’s all part of my process. Hard work and dedication to my craft, I’ve realized, are worth the endless drafts and years it can sometimes take. I still feel a sense of wonder when a piece of writing comes together even if it’s never published and only my wife and a few friends ever read it.
About the Author
Jason Irwin is the author of the three full-length poetry collections, most recently The History of Our Vagrancies (Main Street Rag, 2020), and two chapbooks. His awards include the Transcontinental Poetry Award for a first book and the Slipstream Chapbook Prize. He has also had nonfiction published in various journals including the Santa Ana Review and The Catholic Worker. Recent projects include a memoir in-progress, and the Pittsburgh Live/Ability Project in conjunction with City of Asylum. He grew up in Dunkirk, NY and now lives in Pittsburgh. Visit Jason’s website at: https://jasonirwin.blogspot.com/.