Creating Joy: get another elephant

photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

Last week I wrote about the origin story of my book, The Joy of Poetry. If all had gone as planned once I got the assignment, I’m sure I’d have more to say about those initial nine months of writing. Instead, as I look back I can see I was grabbing things from here and there, old and new, trying to stitch them together in a way that didn’t work nearly as well as I thought it did.

One of my quirks is that if you ask me what a trout has to do with a tree, I can link them. It doesn’t necessarily mean I should. In that first draft, I was basically forming unnatural connections between aquatic and arboreal species.

Halfway through the writing process I started contacting publishers to get poetry permissions, and that weaned the book down—either when I heard nothing or when the fee was too high. Then I gave the manuscript to two friends to read. They helped me find places to cut and helped me know which places were strong. I revised some more, trimmed, turned it in, and waited.

The feedback I received from the publisher was, “This reads like a series of disconnected blog posts.” That feedback came in the form of a two-page detailed analysis of the manuscript. Three different readers at TS Poetry Press contributed their thoughts, and the editor synthesized them into one document, which included encouragement and suggestions to explore in revision. I’d describe the tone as gentle but crystal clear.

The best thing I did was wait to respond. I emailed to set up a phone call a week later.

In the meantime I went to a writing workshop. One of the speakers said he usually needs to write his first draft to figure out what he’s supposed to be writing, what the book wants to be. It’s messy, but it’s his only way in. Then he retitles the first draft and opens a new document. That morning I had already retitled my first draft “Poetry Memoir” and opened a new document called “The Joy of Poetry.”

When I talked with my publisher, I was ready to hear how I might go about rewriting (I didn’t have a clue). She shoveled snow and I paced. Here’s the secret I hadn’t shared until that call: There was something in my life I didn’t want to write about. My first draft was an attempt to write without acknowledging the elephant in the room. I even had a paragraph about the unmentionable elephant.

“You can write about your mom, can’t you?” my publisher asked.

I’d always said I could write about my mom and her cancer, no problem, any day of the week. “Sure,” I said.

Maybe I needed to get another elephant.

If cancer was the elephant in the room while I was growing up, it was one we all knew, acknowledged, and cared for. My parents never lied to me, but, as in discussions the birds and the bees, gave me age-appropriate information. It’s a good thing they did because my mom wasn’t the only one to have cancer during my childhood. My dad did too, plus other relatives on both sides of the family. I literally lose count.

Since I grew up around cancer and have lost four people to the disease, when it came time to rewrite, let’s just say—to use Brené Brown terminology—I’d done my work. When I started rewriting, my mom had been gone for five years. I’d done therapy, spiritual direction, taken a trip with my dad, visited with Mom’s friends, and, most importantly, I’d written 72 poems about her.

Now I just had to use all that to write about this other elephant.


  1. Gosh, your publisher was forthright 😉

    Love this, Megan. Your willingness to go back, to find the story that was really aching to be told, to forge something surprising instead of holding on to what had felt sensible at first blush—makes you a very unusual writer. There are some who simply walk away.

    Because you walked *in*, instead, we now have one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about poetry (and a mother (or two), and a life).

  2. Looks like I may have to reread that book to figure out what the elephant is. I loved every page of it and maybe because I know you, I didn’t sense anything revelatory. Rather, I found a lovely, reflective apology for poetry . . . and for difficult but much-loved mothers. Both of which I share with you, just not nearly so expertly.

  3. Megan, you can’t know how encouraging this post is….I’m beginning the process of writing a memoir that I thought was about one thing, but is turning into something completely different (and a myriad of other changes). A year from now I may have something to let go to a writing coach and well, by then perhaps I won’t be so ahem-close to the process and will be able to receive any and all help.
    I have agonized about my ineptness in the process…but clearly, we just need other people to help us see what we have to say.
    I can imagine no kinder companion for that journey than Laura Barkat–I’m so glad she pulled that beauty out of you and that you were ready to write it.

  4. It must be so difficult to write about the things that go deepest, Megan. I so admire the work you’ve done.

  5. Oh, I L-O-V-E reading about the process! This is such an encouraging post, all the not knowing, the pacing, the importance of allowing space and time to find your way in. And, of course, the elephants. Where would we be without the elephants?