One Line at a Time
I vividly remember the moment my writing style changed forever. It was late afternoon, and the sun was shining through painted-shut windows into a basement classroom in the old wing of Fitzhugh Hall (before it was condemned). A lawnmower roared outside. Dr. Randy Smith sat with ten or so of us Creative Writing students around a large table and said, “Other things may be about the whole, but poetry is about the line.”
That was my lightbulb moment.
Although I had been writing poetry for years, I often felt that I would “be inspired” for a good stanza or a few lines, and then have to force myself to “finish” a poem by adding in enough to complete the form or finish the story I was telling in verse. This usually resulted in a six or ten stanza plus poem where only one or two of the stanzas were arguably any good.
Focusing on each line, one at a time, frees me of the urge to try to plan out the whole thing in my head before I begin writing. It simultaneously gives me permission to be messy and perfectionistic at the same time.
I learned that it’s okay to free write as many good lines that come to me or work on a traditional form one line at a time, and then go back and edit line by line to shape them into something cohesive. It’s okay if I write ten stanzas and then cut it down to two that work.
Even outside of poetry, I find great hope in focusing on one line at a time. As writers, we often get caught up in the bigger picture: Will my work be publishable and how? I have to finish this outline before I can write. If I receive negative feedback, should I stop writing this? This isn’t finished because I need more stanzas or pages or words....
However, if we set aside the big picture for a moment and just write one line at a time, we can actually write. Not think about writing. Not plan to write. Actually write.
Be encouraged. No matter how stuck or overwhelmed you may feel in your writing, you only need to write one line. It doesn’t have to be a great line, the next line in order, or a line that fits with whatever you’ve been working on, just get one line out of your brain and written down.
Then write one more line.
Now write one more.
The more lines you write, the more you have to work with when editing and the greater chance you have of a finished piece with lots of really good lines in it.
All the books in the world are made up of one line at a time.
What’s your one line in this moment?
Joy Perozo uses her right brain as an editor and indexer, and her left brain as a poet who dabbles in short fiction and nonfiction. Her editing services home is at www.sheavesliterary.com, or follow her poetry on Instagram @JoyAutumnWrites.