The Uncharted Journey: Guest post by Peggy Shumaker

Thanks to Peggy Shumaker, our September featured author.

Just before dawn, about a hundred Canada geese gather on the riverbank under our window. Everyone haggles at once, in screeks and gronks. Then as light penetrates fog lifting off the Chena, winged ones gather, rise in unison, circle, circle, circle, and depart.

The great straggling dotted lines of cranes, ducks, terns, and geese lead me to think about movement. What migrations have you faced in your work? Have you pretty much occupied the same territories since you began? Or have you traveled to unexplored places?

William Stafford warns us that we want “a wilderness with a map.”
Of course. We long for what’s uncharted but don’t want to get too lost. As writers, how can we deal with the great unknowns?

I’m especially interested in how we keep going when we’re not sure what we’re doing.

I wrote a whole book that way–Just Breathe Normally. After a severe wreck (bicycle vs. ATV), I couldn’t read at first. Once I was breathing by myself, reading and writing were top priorities. I began to scribble very brief pieces, just trying to get back to the world of words. During most of the writing, I didn’t know what these brief pieces were, what they could be. It was only after I’d written hundreds of them that the shape of the book’s journey began to suggest itself. My flock of trusted readers pointed out to me things I could not see. Not so different from hundreds of geese milling, moving by instinct , genetics, experience, endurance, and skill to a place they might survive the winter.

Often when we begin a new poem or essay or story the discovery drafts exhilarate us. We don’t know what this is yet. Everything is possible. Then as we make each writerly decision, we refine the world the writing will create and inhabit. Our focus sharpens. But even when we think we’ve found the ideal synthesis of research, memory, imagination, music, character, scene, and gesture, we can’t be sure–do we have on the page what a willing reader will need to stay with us? We can only guess.

Will you share your experiences with movement into and through the unknown? I’ll be interested to read them. Thanks!

Peggy Shumaker’s new book of poems is Gnawed Bones. Her lyrical memoir is Just Breathe Normally. She’s currently working on a manuscript of poems set in Costa Rica. Peggy lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and travels widely. Professor emerita at University of Alaska Fairbanks, she teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop and at many writing conferences and festivals. Please visit her website at Author photo credit: Barry McWayne.

4 thoughts on “The Uncharted Journey: Guest post by Peggy Shumaker”

  1. Re: moving into the unknown
    It may be trite but it's tried and true for me. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, whether proverbial or actual boots on the ground (or pages of the work in progress).
    Faith is paramount. And that is a whole other story…
    Getting comfortable without having answers seems to me as important to the writing life as the rest of life.
    Just keep moving!

  2. When my son Ben went into a coma and had to be medivacked to Seattle, I started writing sonnets. The thought that he might die was devastating, so the poems were therapeutic. It was a way of keeping contact with the writerly part of myself that felt endangered. I rarely wrote in tight form before this, but under that desperate circumstance I used the sonnet because it gave me a sense of control. Even as I wrote them, I knew the poems weren’t any good. I was writing them for me, to keep myself steady, to objectify the chaos of my emotions. Later, after Ben had recovered from the coma, I went back to them, thinking ‘maybe I can use the material for a memoir.’ But looking them over I found a couple of poems that I could salvage. Others just had information that I could use and out of this came the sequence "Spells and Auguries"–24 loosely constructed sonnets. None of them very much resembles the sonnets I started with, but that was the generative material.

  3. Your descriptions of the geese and the writing process are beautiful!

    Like your process, I find I usually don't know where I'm headed at first. Then the writing suggests a direction or structure, and I gain clarity as the book takes shape. Even then, the journey can change as characters tell me what they really want to do, outside of my original outline. But that's part of the fun, too.

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