Nicole Stellon O'Donnell: Advice to Poets: When Opportunity Knocks Consider Slamming the Door in His Face

We so enjoyed Nicole’s posts last month and we’re glad she was willing to do another for us. Thanks, Nicole!
The doorbell rings, and there stands Opportunity, flowers
and promises in hand. He has a crooked, charming smile and intense eyes.
Sometimes he even rides up on a motorcycle with tousled hair and a leather
jacket. He seems like a great idea, the next big thing, a chance that can’t be
But for a poet, he can be a terrible distraction.
I got carried away on Opportunity’s motorcycle. He showed up
in many forms—a series of spoken word pieces that led to trips to National
Poetry Slams, newspaper reviews and articles, radio commentaries, mini-essays,
editorials, and finally, a blog, with its addictive instant gratification,
stats page and links.
I became an opportunistic writer, jumping at tasks with a
clear finish line.
Unfortunately, poems never guarantee that a poet will make
it to the end. At the beginning of writing a poem, it’s not always clear that
I’m going to make it to the third line let alone the end. I have to write into
it to find my way out. That’s the only way I know to write the kinds of poems I
dream of writing—the kind that can be collected into a book and published
someday. Opportunity kept me too busy to finish that book
of poems.
Then one morning, I realized that I had to put the work I
considered important first. Looking at my then one-year-old and three-year-old
daughters eating breakfast, I thought of the twenty minute writing blocks I was
able to eek out of our busy days. I realized that my life wasn’t going to get
easier. I knew if I was going to finish a book of poems I would have to change
I dropped all my other writing projects. I shut down the
blog, stopped writing short essays, and put a column proposal on hold. I learned
to say no to create the time I needed to do the writing that an editor would someday
say yes to.
For the first time, the book came before all the other
And in a conscious effort to invite the time to write poems
into my life, I wrote one last piece of prose—a grant application to the
Rasmuson Foundation . That
Individual Artist Award provided me a precious year’s worth of writing time
devoted to a book-length manuscript. I feel grateful for that every single day.
It worked. When I put the poems first, every time I dipped
into the well, I pulled out more. Those poems became Steam Laundry.
It took me a long time to figure it out, but now I know the
truth. Writers only finish the hard work when they put it first. It’s easy to
put the little things first, to see them with their sparkly deadlines and
by-lines. It’s more difficult to go into a tunnel that seems to have no end and
keep walking even though there’s no light. But that’s where I have to go
because that’s where all the good poems are lurking.
Now when I hear the doorbell and peek out the window at
Opportunity shifting anxiously on the doormat, I don’t always answer. I weigh
what he’s offering. I ask myself if it’s going to move my poems forward. Most
often, I let the curtain fall and sneak back upstairs without answering.  I’d rather be up in the office staring at a
blank page, or better yet, doing the hard work finishing my second collection
of poems and sending those poems out into the world.
Sometimes I open the door, smile, and offer some coffee.
That’s how I wound up writing this post. Thanks 49 Writers for letting me visit
for a little while. Now it’s time to get back to those poems. Whether I can see
the end or not, I know they have to come first.
Nicole Stellon O’Donnell lives, writes, and teaches in
Fairbanks, Alaska. Her novel-in-poems,
Steam Laundry, was
published in January 2012 by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. Her
work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Dogwood, The
Women’s Review of Books and other literary journals. This month, her column,
Subarctic Mama will begin running at Literary Mama.

4 thoughts on “Nicole Stellon O'Donnell: Advice to Poets: When Opportunity Knocks Consider Slamming the Door in His Face”

  1. Thanks for the advice. Sometimes we forget what we're really writing for, get lost in the other stuff.

  2. I appreciate it. It really gives perspective and focus. Sometimes opportunity is great,and other times its misleading. Great to keep in mind and to help stay focused!

  3. I love the irony of juxtaposition. The most recent issue of Writers' Digest had a column (I'm sorry, I don't remember the author) who suggested that a writer should say "yes" to all writing opportunities (or at least those that aren't objectionable) as they all provide different benefits that can be capitalized on. She also advocated doing a variety of writing projects simultaneously to keep your focus on each fresh rather than stopping work on one to pick up another that needs to be completed first. Different strokes for different folks.

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