One of my favorite Billy Collins poems, “Purity,” begins like this:
My favorite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants, and a pot of cold tea.
Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.
Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.
Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.
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Billy’s poem continues on in a more humorous (if slightly risqué) manner, as he is wont to do in so many of his poems, but the beginning section, to me, is a wonderful metaphor for what it takes to write from your soul: you strip down to your bare bones, and Soul (or Spirit) is all that is left.
In the first stanza, the poet talks about his pre-writing ritual. He has his favorite time to write—weekday afternoons, particularly Wednesdays. For me, it’s early morning, any day I feel inspired, or if I’m working on a novel, Monday through Thursdays. He brings to his work space his favored beverage, a pot of tea. I’m inclined to agree with his choice, although, when the temperature hits triple digits, as it has here, I often take that tea iced. Then he sheds his clothes and leaves them in a pile.
I don’t so much as strip down to my skivvies to write, even in this heat. But I do have my little ritual: I wipe all the cat hair from my desk top, ensure all my pens are in the right pen cups (kind of an OCD thing—I don’t mix my Sharpies with my ink pens with my pencils). I open my computer, then immediately shut it again, as my three cats and Chihuahua all decide this is the exact moment they need lovies. So, I spend twenty minutes playing with the animals before they settle into their favorite perches around the room (the youngest cat and the Chihuahua arguing over who gets my lap) and I can once again open my laptop and begin to write.
The poem goes on to talk about removing his skin and internal organs so he can write “uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.” This may work for a writer younger than I. I’m a post-menopausal woman, in my mid-fifties. I cannot completely disregard the preoccupations of my body. I have to get up and pee every hour, especially if I’m really going through that iced tea I mentioned earlier. I have cranky, tight shoulder muscles and a bad back; I walk around the house to get the kinks out every once in a while. If I am lucky, my husband will come into the milk room (which is what we call my studio—long story) and rub the kinks out of my neck and shoulders. I may not be able to make myself feel “uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body,” but perhaps these acts of peeing, walking, and getting my neck massaged are my way of metaphorically removing my skin and internal organs.
I can’t help but notice how lovingly the poet speaks of sliding his skin “off my bones like a silken garment” and hanging it over a chair; he “remove[s] each of [his] organs and arrange[s] them on a small table near the window.” He is treating his body with reverence, taking care of his skin and organs so they aren’t carelessly damaged. He recognizes the sacred nature of his body, the Soul’s home.
How do I, as a writer, recognize the sacred nature of my body? Those who know me, and many of my readers as well, know I was badly injured by a bolt of lightning more than two decades ago, and that my joints, my heart, and my central nervous system are still feeling the effects of that encounter.(You can read about this in my short bio, In a Flash, available from Smashwords or in my Short Story Collection, Vol. 1). My body is sometimes energetic and strong, able to climb mountains; more often, it is fragile and ailing in one frustrating way or another. But whether fragile or momentarily strong, it is my Soul’s home. I take care of it. I take my medications necessary to keep my heart and joints and nervous system healthy. I meditate. I eat right, a pescetarian diet with little processed food. I exercise as I am able, I try to get enough sleep. I cannot write if my body doesn’t work properly.
Billy ends this section of his poem with the line, “I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.” I have not yet found the perfect pre-writing ritual or way of caring for myself, my body, my Soul’s home, that allows me to feel pure, like that metaphorical skeleton at a typewriter.
But when I sit at my desk and begin to write, when I lose myself in my characters or become so absorbed in a blog post I lose all track of time, it doesn’t matter if I feel pure or not. I’m still that skeleton at a typewriter; I’m still writing from my Soul.
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