Guns, Tea, and Eating Chicken

The writing workshop instructor rests his hand gently between my shoulder blades, ready to brace me against the kick of the MP5. Shooting guns—you need to know how if you’re going to write about it, he’d said before leading our class up to this firing range hacked out of a West Virginia mountainside. It’s not something I’d ever planned to write about, but how could any poet turn down such an opportunity to add to his or her arsenal of subject matter.

Orange foam plugs in my ears, sunglasses on, I start with a single pulse of the trigger. Wham, thrown off my stance, I’m grateful for the steady hand behind. The next one I’m prepared for. Then the automatic: the submachine gun a wild animal writhing between my hands, the cardboard target pulsing in the dust. Thirty rounds of ammunition. Frightening how thrilling it is, harnessing that power to annihilate. 

 “. . . Unforgettable” reads my coffee cup, as I write about that experience now. The clunky off-white porcelain cup is a cousin of Fred the Mug. Fred’s journeys are chronicled in a photo journal at the café where I write. There he is filled with a margarita in Florida, floating on a lake in Montana, propped on a curb in Manhattan . . . will work for latte. Fred could be a writer the way he’s out there shamelessly gathering material.

My muse travels too, no longer waiting at my desk at home. A new job has rudely taken over the space with neon-colored post-it notes filled with to-do’s. 

Review proposal    Call Norm    Work on mailing list    Draft agenda  

She fled in the face of so many uncompleted tasks. I finally tracked her to the coffee house in the next town over. I can see why she likes it here. The café is full of found stuff: discarded kitchen tables and chairs, spring-shot upholstered sofas. She’s devoted to a heavily scarred gateleg table and a wheatsheaf chair with a faded red and blue striped seat.  Magic can happen only if they’re available, so there is always a tense moment as I cross the threshold: Has anyone else grabbed them?

That’s just part of the ritual though. It must be early morning. I must have something to read, a new poet or a book of essays. The tea has to be jasmine, and it’s auspicious if Bert is behind the counter to fix it.

A silly process but it works—at least for now— and like a shaman’s drumbeat, it gains power through repetition. The more regularly I enact it, the more likely the muse is to appear. If everything is just right, I’ll be able to think of six impossible things before breakfast, flush out a new poem or hit on a revision that finally makes everything on the page click into place.

Still, there’s no guarantee, and mostly I wait. Write and wait. So far nothing substantial has come of the gun experience, and it could be years before it surfaces in the right poem. Same with the handmade sign in front of a farm house I pass on the way here: “EATING CHICKEN.” (Is “eating” meant to be an adjective or a verb? More fun to think it’s a verb, the family inside never leaving the table, surrounded by discarded bones.)

Writing Is a Verb. At least that’s the title of a new “how-to” guide. Notes I have from a fiction writer’s lecture say what you need are: a subject, something to say, a reason, and occasion to say it. I can have all of that and write and write and write… and still nothing happens. Where’s the magic?

The best writing advice I ever got was from a more experienced poet who said: “Number 1: Don’t do lunch.” I don’t think she meant never do lunch, but those three words say everything about priorities, the value of unstructured time, the solitary nature of attending to the muse.

“I wish we had DSL,” the flip-flopped teenage boy following his mother out of the café is saying. “It’s so much faster.” She rummages her purse for her keys as she walks, distracted. “I saw this smart house,” he continues, waving his arms in excitement. “It’s the house I really wish I could have, except it’s got to have a secret underground bunker.”

I think I’ll write that down, play with it awhile, see what happens.