Why I Write: Maintaining My Practice

Linda Joy Burke is a performance poet, writer, picture taker, workshop facilitator, and interactive music maker. She’s also a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review. We’re grateful to her for this blog post.

I bought a T-shirt from a poet colleague at a local literary festival, a couple of decades ago, which had a picture of a quill pen and ink, and the phrase “practicing poet” on it. I was delighted with my find, until the passing stranger at another literary festival read my shirt and asked me, “do you have it right yet?” I immediately felt a little insulted. Not thinking that practice was about right and wrong. He just didn’t get it, I thought–his view of practice was limited.

Back when fountain pens and penmanship was still a thing, and moleskin journals were cool, I strove to write every day. These days I don’t try to fill up pages for the sake of writing everyday anymore. Instead I fill up pages when I am following a thread, an idea, the snippet of a story I may have observed or overheard that demands more attention.

Looking back on some of those journals from my early years is both boring and enlightening. (Mental note to self: I should probably bury those books before I take my last breath.) Thankfully the content did improve as I aged, and life’s vast experiences became the spice that guided my words.

I generally try to write something for consumption in the public domain every day, through a social media channel where I am counting characters. This everyday writing model is so different than the free flow words of my younger days, since in this medium we write for vaster audiences of folks who are largely unknown. In this age of 24-7 spin and intense political and social turmoil, honing craft in this domain adds a level of responsibility which at this point in my life I welcome.

I lean on immersion in nature, making and listening to music, reading, deep listening and long periods of silence so I can troll my inner life for inspiration. I am prone to just let words come and then walk away from them–sometimes for years or more as part of my practice. When I’m ready, I go back through books and books of script, and Word work-in-progress files, to find what’s worth saving and re-working. This essay is an example of that mining for material.

In the abstract, accepting challenges is part of my practice. Sometimes the challenges push me to my limits, but in the scheme of things all experience is fodder for the muse. I try to do something different every day, which was recommended by artist Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. I’ve had a long history of doing something different dating back to the early sixties when I was in elementary school, where I developed the chronic condition of extreme curiosity.

There was the time I went AWOL in first grade and showed up at a noon mass at the parish church next door to the school. I wanted to see up close, what this communion thing was all about. So, with a fuzzy concept of right or wrong, (at 5 I hadn’t learned about the Catholic concepts of original, mortal, and venial sins yet), I walked up to the rail at the front of the church, knelt, stuck out my tongue and committed my first sin. When the priest asked if I had had my first holy communion yet, I told him yes. He didn’t believe me, and life got very complicated for me after that–which is a longer story than what I want to write here.

If I regularly drive to a destination and I have time, I try different routes. I’ll get lost in neighborhoods where I’ve never been before and avoid highways when I have the time to spare, which bothers my loved ones but excites me. I don’t recommend getting sidetracked through the mountains in dense fog, or at night on the highway during a blizzard unless you’re into extreme fear-inducing experiences, however. I speak from experience.

I’ve come to know my 21st century practice as a writer/artist as a fluid combination of  curiosity and being present and open to life’s peculiarities and complications sans judgement, which enables me to stay inspired, to conceive, and create.

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