Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas




April 2007

"The best writing is not a parroting of what others have said---or what we have said---before. It is an exploration of a problem we have not solved with language before."
Donald M. Murray, Expecting the Unexpected. Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH.



Making Both Art and Poetry: What's Alike, What's Different?

Dear Reader,

On January 27, the University of New Hampshire held a memorial for one of its most distinguished professors, Donald M. Murray (Judy's Journal - February 2007). It was sad and thrilling at the same time because 600 of us were gathered to celebrate the life of a productive, humble and generous man who had a major effect on writers everywhere. While we waited for the ceremony to begin, a slide show of Murray images pulsed on a big screen.

Three men were seated in front of me. I eavesdropped on their conversation and surmised that they were Don's friends, the ones who were also sketching/painting partners. I leaned forward and began a conversation with them. "What was it like?" "What was he up to with his sketching?" They told me that Don was intensely curious about how art and writing were interrelated and was collecting information about the processes of making both art and writing, especially how the processes were alike and different. I know that he was always working on several things at once, but I don't know how far he got with a manuscript, or if it was even at that stage of development.

That conversation has had a ripple effect on me. I wondered what I could do with Don's questions. What are the similarities? What are the differences? I studied with him and have most of his books, which are major explorations in the writing process. His work will be my scaffold. He was passionate about writing, a master of the personal essay ("Some people think it's navel gazing," he once told me.) and a constant doodler and sketcher. His art book collection rivaled mine. Obviously, he knew a lot about writing and art from practicing both, although he would deny he was an accomplished artist.

In this month's journal I will list possible ways to look at art and writing processes. By using these questions, I am erecting the scaffold. The real work will come in future journals. Before I began this entry, I reread my 31 Judy's Journals, and it seems apparent that I have already begun construction. However, Donald Murray's death has made me rewrite the contract with myself to see what I can do now. I would call it a legacy from Don.

As I write each month, there will be no order in exploring answers to the following questions. One of Don's guiding principles was to be ready for the surprises, to be in a state of "expecting the unexpected." My goal is to learn something new about what I do and why I do it.

  • What is similar and what is different between what I do when I make a piece of art or write a poem? Do the processes change from piece to piece?
  • What made me a writer? What made me an artist?
  • How do I "look" and "listen" as a writer? As an artist?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • What are my tools?
  • How do I discover a subject when I am writing? When I am painting?
  • Do I sense an audience? What does that make me do when I am working?
  • How do I gather resources to use in my writing and painting?
  • What gives me the right to call myself a writer and visual artist? Is it because I put in the time?
  • As I write or paint, how do I use my "critical eye"? What voices swim around me, telling me to do more of one thing or to go in a completely different direction?
  • How and why do I revise a piece of writing? A painting?
  • What keeps me flexible and fresh?
  • What are my obsessions?
  • How do I collect what I might need in a future poem or painting?
  • How do I use my senses?
  • How do I use my memories?
  • What do I read as a writer? What do I read as an artist?
  • What dictates my form and style in a poem or a painting?
  • Is there anything I cannot write about? Paint a picture of?
  • What are my appetites as a reader? As a viewer?
  • How do I plan before I write? Before I paint?
  • What are my painting rituals? My writing rituals?
  • What are my long term goals as a writer? As an artist?
  • What brings me down, gets me frustrated, makes me want to give up?
  • How do I know when a poem is finished? A painting? When is the honeymoon over as I look at a piece that I believe is successful?
  • What does it mean when a poem is published? When a painting is sold or gains some recognition?
  • Why write? Why paint?
  • Why keep taking classes?
  • How do I know what I will write or paint today?
  • What am I aware of as I write? As I paint?

These questions should get me started. It is possible that I will tread on ground that I have covered in past journals, but I may be surprised by a new thing that emerges. If you have questions, suggestions or ideas about the interrelationships between making art and writing, contact me: