The Origins of Inspiration

What the Heart Knows, by Joyce Sidman; illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski.

What the Heart Knows, by Joyce Sidman; illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski.

I’ve been talking lately about staying fresh through a long career, but what isn’t evident in what I say—I’m aware that I always sound so sure—is the uncertainty I sometimes feel myself about being able to continue to do just that.

A small voice has been riding in the back of my brain lately, an insistent, unpleasantly whining voice, saying something like, “Okay. So the novel you’re working on now is a challenge, but still, it’s more of the same. And you’ve written a verse novella, which was new for you and fun, but then you just went on to write another, which was a repeat of a form. You don’t really have anything new up your sleeve any longer, do you? Maybe you’ll never have anything new to bring to your work again.”

But then, right while I was busy ignoring that niggling voice, a new idea bowled me over. And I thought it might be useful, since the origins of this particular idea are all here right in front of me, to describe the process that brought something fresh into being.

The idea came from three different sources, and it was the confluence of those sources that added up to a small, but welcome bit of inspiration. Something entirely new for me.

First, a writer friend said to me, “Why don’t you write a memoir?” It’s a suggestion I’ve heard before, but I said, as I’ve said before, “I can’t. To write a memoir I would have to write about other people in my life, and I have made it a firm rule of my career never to do that.”

Second, I belong to a small group called Wellspring that meets bi-weekly at my church. For Winter Solstice we were all asked to bring in something—a picture, a poem, whatever we liked—that represented both light and darkness to us. I thought immediately of my son, Peter—he was always both—and chose a photo. But I wanted a poem to go with the photo and I could find nothing out there that spoke the truth of my relationship with my son. So I wrote one and took it to the celebration.

Third, I saw a poem from Joyce Sidman’s newest book, What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms and Blessings, and found myself thinking, I’m not the poet Joyce is. In fact, I couldn’t touch most of her work, but I could write something like that. In fact, I did just that in the poem I wrote about Peter.

And that was my moment of inspiration. I could write a memoir if I did it in verse, dipping in and out of my life wherever a memory might call. Moreover, it’s a project I could work on in the cracks of time without leaving behind work meant for a reliable market, and therefore it wouldn’t matter whether it ever sold. And because I could pick and choose my moments and touch each one lightly, I could assemble such a memoir without exposing anyone’s vulnerability except my own.

And suddenly the idea for a new project lay spread out before me, full blown.

Peter, at 3 months.

Peter, at 3 months.

I’m thrilled. As I am with any newly conceived project. And I’m reassured that what I’ve been saying remains true, I can stay fresh by taking on new challenges!

What follows is a piece of this new idea, the poem about my son. I present it with gratitude that inspiration does, indeed, continue to visit from time to time.

Remembering Peter      

The wait so long,
the dream so bright,
the struggle
at last
a child is placed in your arms.
You peer into his wizened
old man’s face
and ask,
“Who are you?
Who are you?
Who will you be?”

But because you are his mother,
you already know the answer.
He will be magnificent.
This child has been sent—
you know it—
to save the world.
And you.

each time
you take him into your arms
you ask again,
“Who are you?”

 And little by little he answers.
“I am not you,” he says.
“I am not anyone you called for.
I have come into the world
to show you
just how imperfect
it is possible
for your love to be.”

And then,
and then
he dies.

And you are still here.


17 thoughts on “The Origins of Inspiration

  1. Joanne Toft

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. The art of creation is powerful and it was helpful for me to see how it comes from the bits and pieces of your life. (Books and poems, experiences and reflections)

    Your poem also shows the strength of letting ideas come in their own time when you are ready to bring them forth. This sounds like a wonderful project and one you might want to let spill into larger spaces in your life instead of just slipping in and out of the cracks. Such powerful work!

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      You’re right, Joanne. I might, indeed, want to make more space in my life for this project. And the fact that verse can be written in the cracks of time doesn’t mean it must remain there. Right now, though, I am re-immersing myself in a long novel, and this time around that must hold my attention or I’ll have to give up on it. And I don’t like giving up on something I’ve already invested so much of myself in.

  2. Ann Jacobus

    Thank you for sharing this inspiration and this poem, Miriam. Because I can’t imagine enduring what you have had to endure, or how the heart of a parent left here by their child feels, (and I’m drawn to what I fear), I hope you’ll write at least one poem for your project that picks up where this one leaves off. I sincerely hope to see this in print and wish you all the best with it.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Ann. And thanks for the suggestion. I haven’t in any way found the shape of this project yet. I think the shape will just find itself in what I’m drawn to write. But I can imagine that Peter is a topic I’ll return to many, many times.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Debby. I found the process illuminating myself. Because so often ideas cling to one another until they become a full-fledged IDEA without my ever quite knowing how the gathering process happened. This time, the different elements came in quick succession so that I could easily look back at the process and say, “Oh! That’s how I got here. How nice to know!”

  3. Joy Acey

    What a beautiful heart wrenching poem. The only thing sadder than your poem, which does bring tears to my eyes is your thought of writing poetry “in the cracks of time without leaving behind work meant for a reliable market.” It is sad there isn’t a reliable market for poetry and most people writing poetry have to face the fact they are writing for themselves and the work will not be published or earn income.
    Thank you for the insight and inspiration.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I hear you, Joy, and agree that it’s sad that poets do usually have to write “in the cracks of time” while they are supporting themselves doing something else. I have lived a privileged life for a writer, to have supported myself with my work and with related work such as teaching and lecturing, though it took fifteen years of writing full time for that privilege to take shape. However, for me, there is no sadness in accepting the idea that I won’t be writing this memoir in verse for any market. Rather there is a freedom in considering no readership but my own . . . and perhaps my great, great grandchildren.


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