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My Writing Process
by Mary Jo Balistreri

In thinking about my writing process, I realized that a number of things have changed due to a basic change within me—I am less will-driven and more cyclic. I wane and wax like the moon, the tides, the seasons. Steady but not driven, I come to my writing in increments the way night slowly opens to day.

First is meditation, and then coffee at the kitchen table where I do nothing
but look and listen. When in Wisconsin, that means the movement of the trees, the rhythm of the pond, what birds fly in, who’s at the feeders. My notebook is open, dated and the day already entered. I jot down these particulars in the red college ruled notebook. I use drafting pencils and never leave home without one. I take my time, sip at the coffee and when I begin to get a feeling for the shape and color of the day, I read two or three poems and then walk. I like the physicality of my body’s involvement. My mind is freed by the walk and ripe for ideas, images, whatever catches my attention in the landscape, or nothing.

By the time I arrive back home, have showered and changed, I am ready for my yellow legal tablet, for I start my writing longhand, do as many revisions as I can before ever going to the computer. And that might be it for the day, or I might be lucky and a poem will catch fire and I will lose sight of the time and be shocked that the afternoon is well on its way.

When I’m in Florida, the process changes slightly although the meditation is still first. I walk for 3 miles immediately after and I carry the book of poems I’m currently reading and my red notebook with the slip-in slide for the pencil with me. This "on the go" brings gifts for the entire day. I encounter otters, alligators, spiders in the mangroves, varied shore birds that feed in the tidal flats, and estuaries. I walk alongside of them on berms or planked paths through the trees. The last leg of my journey is along the shore of the gulf, where crabs, snails, shells, and fallen coconuts attract my interest, along with schools of minnows, ibis, egrets, colonies of terns, and the ubiquitous seagulls. Sometimes there are dolphins and on those days I feel like a divine ray has zapped me on the shoulder.

And then I am at the Sandpiper, an open-air restaurant and workout place, where I write most mornings. The coffee is free until 11 o’clock and I take a table next to the railing and look at the water, read, write, whatever happens to present itself. It can be a noisy place with aerobics and occasionally loud conversations, but here is where a hearing loss is an asset. All becomes a bizarre kind of background beat, a thrum that is just part of the scene. People often come over and talk to me for a few minutes and it feels okay. And I think, like being in Wisconsin, it is okay, these intrusions, because the day has been allowed to unroll at a pace I can take it in. We’re comfortable with each other.

What comes of this is hard to say. Certainly appreciation and gratefulness of the world we live in, and sometimes happiness that comes out of nowhere or sadness too. As for my jottings, well the same process as I described above, nothing mechanical until much later. Some of the fragments remain as they are—my witness to this day, this particular space and place in time.

As to a finished poem, I try not to hurry the process. I learned from years of playing the piano professionally that even when one thinks the piece is finished, it usually isn’t. It needs to sit awhile, so if possible, I like to do that with my poems. Very few come directly from head to paper. I also believe finished is a relative term. Even poems that were published years ago, and I thought were good, are reminders of just how shaky that word is. There are also folders full of poems that just never got off the ground. But for me, the joy of writing is in the process itself.

You may read this and say well, who has that kind of time? I believe my answer is everyone—life is theme and variation. There are days skewered with medical appointments or family crises, and I can’t find this time totally my own, but I can always find parts of it, and if writing is a process, then this is part of the process too. To be a writer, you are always thinking of writing, even when the words won’t come, and in this respect, writing is like a friendship you spent years cultivating. You take your friend with all her quirks, and virtues, her nasty habits and her admirable qualities. It’s all of a piece. And at the end of the day, you are left with Thank you, and that seems like enough.



My husband asked the other day, Why do you always have to carry that red notebook? And my reply, to give witness to the day. And maybe my own existence in this day. He seemed satisfied. Poetry is the path I have chosen to walk or perhaps it has chosen me. In any case, it is like a burr on my leg and I can't shake it off. It has become part of who I am. I am grateful to have shared some of these poems in publications such as Crab Creek, Windhover, Echoes, Verse Wisconsin,Passager, Spindrift, Quill and Parchment, and others. Bellowing Ark Press published my book of poems, Joy in the Morning.


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