September 14, 2022

Do You Live to Write Or Do You Write to Live…

Sara M. Robinson

And does it have to be an “either/or”? How do you approach your life as a writer, and in this case, an approach to poetry? What is your mindset when you sit down to start composing?

I don’t think I live to write, but I think writing is a vital component to my living. When I observe what is going on around me, perhaps taking notes, and letting my mind and hand wander, I feel like I am inside the life I am living. My words are my portal to the outside so I can then see what I am feeling or seeing.

All poets have their reasons for writing the way that they do. Some notable poets wrote to help them deal with mental illness, such as depression. Examples are Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. They belonged to a group, the Confessional poets. In their case, I could make the point that they were “writing to live.” They were encouraged to get what was inside their troubled minds out on paper so they could examine themselves and perhaps find ways to cope.

Other poets, such as Mary Oliver, wrote about the joys of nature and faith. Perhaps she lived to write about how this joy gave her life purpose. Still others, have written about horrors of war, racial divides, and social inequities. These poets of witness could be considered “bridges” between the two approaches.

We don’t have to conform or place ourselves in either category, but it is a meaningful question to ask as a way for us to understand ourselves better. What motivates us? What is provocative enough to start us to write? Does that mean we are living? Of course not. We live no matter what we write. But when we are aware of our surroundings and of our inner workings, we have hints of what may give us a reason to write. And it doesn’t have to be complicated.

One of my favorite poets is Barbara Kingsolver (Yes, that same Barbara Kingsolver). In her recent poetry book, How to Fly, she has a terrific poem, “How to Love Your Neighbor.” That poem starts off, “All of them. Not just the morning shoppers, / the man who walks his chortling dog, the couples / with strawberry children. These are the given. // …” The poem continues about how diverse our world is, and how close our world is to us. I think she wrote this poem so we could live.

Enjoy life…maybe even write about it.

Until next time…

Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).

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