Putting in the work

This air we breathe was breathed before,
by parts of life now dead.
It flows from lung to lung, to more
and future lives ahead.

We breathe what must someday have been
some creature’s dying breath.
To feel this breath right now can mean
to feel the touch of death.

I have begun reading the first part of the fourth Sermon to people, and found it doesn’t quite work. I always knew this is a possibility with every Sermon – I’m so close to them I have an inside view that makes me a poor judge of what is effective for others. So I take care to seek feedback from readers and listeners, and incorporate it as diligently as I can. But that doesn’t feel right when I’m in the very beginning of a Sermon, where the pieces don’t even hold together yet. So I’ve gone without feedback for a long time, and now that I get some, I find I’ve deviated from the hypothetical optimum more than usual. So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reworking and improving things that I thought I had pretty much finished.

This process has been surprisingly enjoyable. This might be because it is largely incremental work on existing stanzas (including removing some of them). This part of the work has become much easier than coming up with new sections and themes. As I proceed through the Sermons, they become thematically more difficult; the stories become more complex. I need to take more care to keep the density of information at the low level that is right for guided meditation.

  • The first one was a really simple story, much of it basically paraphrasing Carl Sagan.
  • The second is largely about the rise of complexity, a story that has been told many times. Only the “games” theme is new.
  • The third is a fairly original story, but I had developed it before I even started writing the Seven Secular Sermons.
  • For the fourth, I can draw on a lot of sources but there are a lot of ways to pull them together into a story.
  • For the fifth the sources to draw on are less clear (although Richard Dawkins is again reliable) and the story could again be told in many different ways. This will probably involve much picking the best solution among a lot of acceptable ones.
  • The sixth will probably be the hardest story to write.
  • The seventh is the point and the conclusion – this story is probably the one that involves the largest amount of work, although much of that work is already done.

I intend to decouple the story-writing from stanza-writing a bit, so I can go through iterations of the stories faster. This is hard to do in writing – I always tend to immediately get stuck in stanza writing. But verbally describing the story to friends helps. The story gets a bit clearer every time I tell it.

While the difficulty of story drafting is going up, the difficulty of stanza work is going down. The training is paying off. I’m not at the point where I can take an arbitrary sentence and turn it into a Common metre stanza (and I probably never will be, because the format is just too restrictive). But a stanza that would have taken me an hour back in 2013 is now often a mere ten minutes. So in order to find out if a small idea works, I can often just write it out over a few stanzas and see whether it comes together into something worth keeping. Of course it usually doesn’t, but the process is fun.

The best news in a while is that I might have finally found a way to do poetry work despite the kids. I now get up half an hour before everyone else and get a little bit of work done before my attention gets clogged with anything else. That has made an enormous difference to my productivity. I normally start out by reading out loud what I have so far, smoothing out rough bits and digging into the first major problem I find. Even after the kids are up and I’m back in the world of diapers and bottles, stanzas keep bouncing through my mind, semi-consciously preparing bits for the next morning.

As often as you can, go see
the huge phenomenon
of how serene and radiantly
the sun comes up at dawn.