Today I am beginning a tab called Tell Me About That One.
My desire with this is to invite you further into my thinking behind some of my short poems that I post on my Instagram account. I often entertain a muse or subject that prompts the idea. Many of these are real people and circumstances I am writing about. Sometimes the muse becomes an ideal for me to imagine.
I am a self-proclaimed idealist. This is where much of my hope is rooted. I believe in a better future. I imagine that through my writing. As a result of this idealism, I am allergic to cynicism and sarcasm. I don’t have room for these in my vocabulary. One, It’s like swearing. They are too easy to rely on when I am frustrated or disappointed. And two, they are easily misunderstood. Ever have a sarcastic friend who you are never quite sure if they are serious, then when you ask them about it, they fire back with, “What? Can’t you take a joke?” Sarcasm has its place, just not in my work.
I became a widower in November 2019, and my first impulse in this new identity was to travel. Traveling was not something I was free to do as a married man, and I thought, now that I am single, I decided to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and that is to get out and explore the world on my own. And so I did that. I took the first three months to visit friends and places without the pressure of a deadline or strict agenda. This culminated with a trip to Ireland. The last time I visited the Emerald Isle was in 2010. But that trip got cut short when we got news that my father in law had passed. We were four days into the trip and decided to return home.
This was my chance to get those days back and finish what I had started ten years prior. I was even to be in Dublin on March 17. It seems like the stars were aligning, until they weren’t. Yes, COVID exploded globally at the onset of that trip. But as I sat in Finn MacCool’s pub in Bushmills, Northern Ireland, President Trump announced on the BBC that Ireland was added to the US travel ban. My heart sank. My Irish host urged me to move quickly and fly back home, and I did. We packed up and made the three hour drive back down to Dublin, got a little sleep and he dropped me off at the airport at 6am the next morning.
Even though it was disrupted, the trip was not without importance. In preparing for the trip, a friend recommended a book of poetry by Irish poet John O’Donohue. I bought To Bless The Space Between Us and waited to open it until I was in country. Day four of my itinerary was a 4 hour train ride across the entire country out to the western coast. This seemed like the right time to begin reading. As the train pulled from the Dublin Heuston station I pulled the book from my backpack and settled in.
I could not get past the first five poems. And it’s hard to explain why.
There were several factors. Among them, my new life as a widower. Add to this my newfound freedom to travel to a place that feels like my ancestral home. Add in my sense of grief and longing I was experiencing. Include all this to the visual beauty of the author’s country that I am watching roll by out the window of a train. It was a beautiful breakdown.
When I returned home to the US four days early, the words of John O’Donohue were still ringing in my head, those first five poems. (By the way, I still haven’t finished the book nearly two years later. And I’m ok with that. If a book can have that kind of impact within the first 30 minutes of exposure, I think I got my money’s worth.)
Somewhere during the trip, I heard about a guy who likes to use his typewriter to write thank you notes and send them through the postal mail. He said it’s a simple way to get a message across through a lost form. And people pay attention.
I knew I had an old typewriter somewhere and discovered it in a basement closet. I pulled it out, dusted it off, rolled a sheet of paper in the carriage and tapped out a few characters. It still worked, but would eventually need a new ribbon. I grabbed the poetry book and typed a few lines of a poem. I took a picture of it and posted it on Instagram. Within a few minutes, I started feeling guilty. I didn’t plagiarize. I gave O’Donohue credit. The feeling came for a different reason. Within my heart, I knew what it was. This was too easy, nor was I using my words. I knew what I needed to do.
I had to start writing my own poetry.
And so I did. I started writing whatever was on my mind, taking a picture and posting it on Instagram. I recall the feeling of foolishness and inadequacy. But I’ve lived long enough to recognize that negative voice and move past it.
As with all my writing, I am my first audience. And so I viewed it as a writing exercise. I never envisioned it becoming a book. And that’s where you come in.
After about a year of writing these little short poems, I started getting the question, “Are you saving all those? Are you going to make a book out of them?” It was this feedback that got me thinking that maybe I was on to something.
Cindy, who was my editor for my first book, asked the same question. She wanted to see the hard copies and so I handed over all 575 pages. She held them for two weeks until we got back together to review what she had found.
She handed the work back to me in 13 bundles, each one with a title on a sticky note. On the top of the stack was a group titled Grief. It was there that she explained what I had been doing. I was grieving loss and this was the natural, intuitive way I was going about it.
And this is why I write.
Writing allows me to take my thoughts and organize them into a coherent message for me to process. There is much I have written to myself that will never be read by another human. I’ve burned most of those journals to ensure that. They were too raw and brutally honest. While I am a firm believer in openness in relationships, I still have a code that I won’t violate. I know my heart well enough to know when I have crossed that line.
But I don’t want to gloss over certain things that I have experienced in my life, especially the difficult ones. My desire as a communicator is to use my voice in such a way that you can hear yours. That’s what John O’Donohue did for me. It was his voice that enabled me to hear my own poetic expression. And that’s why I felt guilty using his words instead of mine.
As I use the death of my marriage as a muse, and if my voice sounds like yours, or my experience feels familiar to you, then we have a connection. And through that connection might flow a little hope back and forth.
Somewhere along the way, a friend commented that my writing had taken a different turn. I asked what she meant by that. She said, “You’re becoming more honest about your grief. And your voice sounds more powerful as a result.”
I took these words to heart. And as often happens in the morning, the next day this new thought formed in my mind.
To be a better writer
Be more honest
Than you were today
And use fewer words.©Kevin Shinn, 2021
These five lines have shaped my work dramatically. I’m much better now at self-editing and narrowing down my words to become more precise. And hopefully more understandable.
One hurdle I had to overcome in this process was my insecurity as a writer. I never thought of myself as a good writer. I was a poor student in English class. I don’t think I ever got higher than a C on any term paper. I’m not well read among the classic authors. I rely on the thesaurus extensively because my vocabulary isn’t broad. This was especially true as I compared my work to John O’Donohue’s writing. His poetry was majestic, romantic, colorful, playful, deep, and dark. I could go on with the adjectives, but I think you get the point of my insecurity. Who was I to think I could be as good as him?
But my fears were confronted simply by doing the work, and in the words of Seth Godin, packing it up and shipping it out. I could never wait until it was perfect or until I felt great about it. Long before the feedback started showing up, I often wondered where this was supposed to lead. And slowly I got my answer as I continued to use my words, not John O’Donohue’s, to express myself.
When I started posting a blog about 15 years ago, I’ve always sought to be clear and understandable. My first discipline was to take only 30 minutes and convey a thought. Once that time was up, I had to proofread it and hit send. I never came back to those original posts for editing or polishing up. And I think this helped me to become a consistent writer, even though I wasn’t very confident as one. My thought was, always produce, and allow that consistency to make me a better writer.
So this is the backstory on the poem that became the title of my second book, Use Fewer Words. If you are interested in a copy, you can purchase one from your favorite bookseller or through my website if you want a signed, personalized copy.
If any of my poems has prompted a question that you would like to know more about, contact me on my website, 55degrees.US. In the subject line, use Tell Me About That One and I’ll try to record another explanation.
Thanks for listening