This year, in what was probably the most stressful academic year on record for me, I completed the National Poetry month Poem-a-Day Challenge. For those wishing to see the now password-protected drafts, please contact me (Twitter or Facebook would be a good way) and ask for the password. In any case, truly, this does not make sense. I have had fabulous years where everything is sunny and yet, did not finish the challenge. I’m going to try to analyze why here, since the answer may help me better deal with future hard times.
First, the situation, one that I’m sure many people share. Right in the midst of completing multiple projects, one of those projects the culmination of seven years of work, I had to face the demands of my mom’s health battles. I moved her here in July 2011 when a fall that broke her left upper arm and her right wrist gave warning that she was having more health problems more often and not dealing with them well. Dementia was beginning to take hold then, but most days she was recognizably herself. In December, the day I turned in grades for the Fall 2012 semester, I took her to the emergency room in great distress. She had been bellowing at the top of her lungs over the weekend that she couldn’t breathe, and blood test results on Monday showed that indeed, she did have fluid in her heart and lungs which led to a heart attack that day in the ICU. That was my winter break. She had two return visits to the hospital in the spring semester, one for internal bleeding that led to colon surgery and a later visit that began while I was at the CCCC for an unexplained, extreme rash that two months later finally cleared up after two medications were changed. Almost four months later, she still has faint red mottling on her arms, a reminder of months of itching and restlessness.
Through it all, she gradually became less herself. There is now no doubt that she has dementia, and I have a hard time with that. How do you console someone who is in considerable distress from something that absolutely did not happen? I’m not good at affirming what isn’t true, and she is not good at being the one who is not seeing the world the way it is. That was my semester. Grading and meeting deadlines set up years in advance had to happen anyway, and somehow it did. So, why would I take on one more writing challenge when I already had far too much to do and I was emotionally beyond drained? I didn’t think too much about why. I just did it.
For one thing, I was teaching Intro to Poetry and had a class that was mostly doing the work, but in a paint-by-numbers way. This is fairly normal for a beginning creative writing class. The fun part is when some students, sometimes most of them, break through to honest drafting, usually by poem four or five out of eight. I suspected that at least five, maybe more of them could go further and take 303 or even switch to a creative writing major, but as it sometimes goes, some of the most able writers were the ones who were dropping behind in turning in drafts or not being in class for in-class invention prompts or work with forms/tropes. I have never given extra credit before in this class, but I proposed to the class that those class members who set up a poetry draft blog and did the challenge would get significant extra credit. In addition, since it was such a challenging task, I would give partial credit for those who began and stopped, but at least made it halfway or further. As part of the challenge, I had to do it too and from time to time, showed my drafts. Other participants showed their drafts as well, especially for some of the more devilish prompts. Drafting and the need for revision has never been more transparent.
I would never have this as a class assignment for a 200-level class, but might consider it for 500-level. All the same, those drafts were what kept me sane this past semester. The stress has to come out somewhere, and for me it came out in private tears and poetry. I now know that both have healing powers. That was probably what kept me going through thirty days of drafts with two drafts on two-for Tuesdays. With so much going on and so much completely out of my control, this was one thing I could do. I could write.