Amy L. Dengler Award (Winning Poem)
Leaving Mother Chechnya
My wife’s arms ached the night after
the orphanage turned us down, “No ties
to our culture; no way for the baby
to learn the ways of mother Chechnya.”
The orphaned girl with the scars may die,
“probably” is the Chechen translation,
and my wife sobs, rubbing her pale belly,
becoming an inconsolable quavering heap
on the sterile bathroom floor — her womb
a starving mouth waiting to be fed,
and she tells me she can feel it now,
rolling like an empty stomach, vacuous
in a way I can never fill, withering
by the hour. Waiting for our plane,
every foreign second feels like falling.
This classic American poem is iconic, but almost universally misunderstood. Many read it to mean that taking the road less travelled makes all the difference, a commentary on the benefits of individualism. While there are definitely good arguments to be made for individualism, this is not what Frost wrote about.
It’s interesting to note that Frost wrote the poem as a personal commentary on his friend, Edward Thomas, who took regular nature walks with Frost. Thomas was indecisive about leaving to join the war effort, and would regularly lament taking one path over another during his walks with Frost. His constant indecision and reflective laments amused Frost.
In the poem, it’s tempting to focus on the final lines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” But those lines are preceded by these two lines, which put it in context, “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence:” … As you can see, there is no actual declaration here—the speaker is imagining how, from the future’s perspective, meanings in the hindsight of life’s choices are manufactured (where they don’t exist). Like Edward’s constant (and amusing) reflection, these lines explain that in the future, the speaker will imagine the road he took made all the difference.
How do we know this is what Frost meant? Well, setting aside Frost’s own commentary, let’s look at how Frost describes the actual roads. He writes:
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
It’s obvious that both paths are equally trodden, neither being a road “less travelled by” but “equal.” The only difference between how well traveled these two roads are is found in the imaginings of the speaker, how his future self will reflect on the choice (which is no real choice at all) between the two paths he could have taken.
“Writing Exercises to Get You Moving!” When I read these kinds of blog headlines, I do get moving…to another article or another blog. I’m already aware that I’ve lost half of the readers this post might have had, if only I had started it another way.
I simply don’t want to hear it anymore. I remember college, the chore of the writing exercise. Then, later in life, I remember all the time wasted with books aimed at teaching the art of writing better through creative activities. And now, with the Internet as a platform for the skilled and unskilled alike, so much of what I read about writing exercises is fodder—written by people who can’t seem to earn a living with literature, but still feel they can advise others. Too harsh? Maybe, but I don’t want my writing advice from a professional educator, waitress, or musician—at least not at this point in my career. I want writing advice from professional writers, editors, and publishers — people who demonstrate their knowledge by earning a living with literature — it’s not their hobby, it’s their livelihood. These are the artisans from whom I want to learn the craft.
Fighting words? Not really. I freely admit that many other people have good things to offer. When it comes to articles about writing exercises, perhaps I’m lazy and cynical. I don’t want to decide whose voice is credible. I’m frustrated by most blog posts about writing exercises because so many of them smack of a motivational speaker that lives in a van down by the river. That said, their cliché slogans have a certain kind of truth, hence the appeal that made certain ideas cliché – “Just write something, get the pen moving, don’t overthink it, oil the wheels, spark your creativity….” Yes, obviously, there is truth there — a kind of mantra for the writer – but like anything that’s said too often, it’s little more than background noise, undeniably present, yet widely ignored.
My thoughts about writing exercises? Not everyone needs a personal trainer. If exercises help you, then incorporate them into your routine. Enough said. And if you are writing beyond college, or at least regularly, then you probably already know all you need to know about writing exercises – you can ignore articles about them in the future. For those people who don’t like exercises, you’re not wrong.
I reluctantly admit that this post is cynical fodder, but since you committed to reading this far, I’ll push this advice on you, from someone who does make a living with literature; keep writing. Just keep writing. That’s all. Trust me. You’ll get better with or without writing exercises. Fail better until you stop failing. Stop looking for advice about writing exercises. Go write something.
I’m not a million dollar artist, yet I’m thrilled that I sold a painting. Be happy, friends, with whatever comes. If you’re creating art, let that be your primary reward. I’m grateful for the bidders, and so pleased to be able to enjoy the artistic journey.
There is a long window that doesn’t open
overlooking the parking lot. In its
recess, a black leggy thing, weightless
and still, lays on its side. It is
to fly as the thing in the bed is to
my mother — holding only the shape
and none of the spontaneity. She too is
weightless, buoyant in the heavy air,
adrift in familiar halls — fourteen
disbelieving eyes stare at a shucked husk.