The phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted,” has become a rallying cry for women worldwide who are, as always, trying to be taken seriously.
The expression originated with the U.S. Senate’s vote to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren’s objections to confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General.
Mitch McConnell, majority leader in the Senate, tried to stop Warren’s speech as she battled against Sessions’ confirmation. Sessions testified under oath that he had not had contact with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign, but news reports this month made clear that such meetings did occur.
McConnell’s attempt to silence Warren backfired when the phrase was adopted by the feminist movement to refer to the persistence and courage women need to cultivate whenever attempts are made to ignore or silence them.
Precisely the same kind of obstinate, quiet and continuing persistence is required to be a writer, and probably especially a female writer.
As the Vernal Equinox approaches (March 21-23), I turned to the relevant chapter in my book The Wheel of the Year, “Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence.”
In this essay, I consider the fact that good writing is mostly the result of steady work: persistence in the business of writing that involves correct grammar and spelling, as well as putting words on paper every single day.
I provide an example of my own persistence in a poem that I began in 1971 and finished in 2011. I invite you to see inspiration for your own perseverance in The Wheel of the Year, discovering what will make your writing as persistent as spring– as enduring as the work of women who have made history, and whom we honor this month and all year by our writing.
Here is the chapter from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (in a slightly different version than what was published). Each chapter in the book ends with writing suggestions and prompts, though I haven’t included them in this lengthy blog.
March 21-23: Vernal Equinox
Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone-cutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.
— Jacob A. Riis, journalist and social reformer (1849-1914)
If you have written even one poem, letter, blog or tweet, you may realize that writing well is hard work. Yet no matter how completely we understand that fact, even the most experienced writers sometimes hide it from ourselves and others by the way we speak about writing.
Most serious writers have probably experienced the electrical jolt of an idea popularly known as “inspiration,” when we find the image or metaphor that makes the paragraph or essay or poem sing and dance instead of mumbling and stumbling.
An inexperienced writer may call it “magic” and may even believe that it will happen every time she sits down to write. Serious writers may not speak of inspiration at all. Instead we speak solemnly of schedules, particular writing tools or special places. We may pontificate about the books we keep beside our desks and the reading we do to understand and support our writing.
What we should explain is that the glowing idea, the electric metaphor, the magic, is the result of the steady grind, the boring part of writing. Without the slow slog of checking spelling, correcting grammar and being sure the modifiers don’t dangle, “inspiration” and fancy metaphors won’t create memorable writing.
Despite zillions of people writing comments and blogs on the internet every hour, all of them convinced their words are memorable, I stand by my belief. Today on the internet as well as on the printed page, writing that has only the spark of an idea or just the clever metaphor is not memorable enough to become part of our cultural history.
Think of the poems or speeches or expressions that stick in your mind because they have meaning for you. This exercise may require some concentration. Try not to think first of the mindless advertising jingles or musical lyrics that haunt you because you hear them repeated often.
“Four score and seven years ago . . .” my mind recites and the words reverberate as if spoken in Lincoln’s marble tomb.
“Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name” echoes among the pillars of an ancient cathedral.
Like most people, I can recite scraps of several rhyming poems from memory because meter and rhyme make them stick in our minds. “My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,” I think, recalling how many poems I memorized by Badger Clark, the poet laureate of South Dakota.
Each writer wants to create memorable lines and scenes. Ask fifty poets how to do it and you’ll get fifty answers. But most of us will eventually mention an important requirement: persistence.
The writer who seeks perfection must, to use synonyms, endure, prevail, persevere, hang in, hang on, and hold on.
Or, as Winston Churchill once said, “Never give up. Never, never give up. Never never never give up.”
Here’s an example of how extremely I define “never give up” when referring to writing.
In 1971, I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri/Columbia, having finished my MA in American Literature and begun a Ph.D. program. I worked for an English professor, teaching some of his classes and grading all his papers, as well as teaching several sections of freshman English.
Some of my students were marching against the Vietnam War, escalating every day, and some were vehemently for it. I was a volunteer editor for the underground antiwar newspaper, The Issue as well as editor of the U’s student literary magazine, Midlands.
Having left my husband because he was having another affair, I lived in a second-floor apartment of an elderly woman’s home across the street from a packing plant. I was living so poorly because, although I had been paying the bills of our marriage for several years I had no financial credit. As we did in those days, I’d put all the utilities for our rented house in his name, so when I left him, he had plenty of credit and I had none. He was a graduate student studying for a Ph.D., but he also sang in various bars around town, which provided him with extra money and plenty of prey for his extramarital quests.
My Persian cat, coming home from his nightly wanderings covered with lice and fleas, crawled into bed with me so that we both woke up scratching madly. The medical personnel to whom I applied for advice in ridding my yowling cat and me of the critters could not contain their mirth. My apartment had mice, a new experience for me, so I had put out poison. One night as I sat at the kitchen table sipping soup, a mouse staggered out of the cupboards, perched on the sink and stood on his hind legs, clutching his stomach. He staggered a few steps each direction, whining, then dropped to the countertop and writhed in pain, moaning and whimpering, before he finally stiffened and died. One Christmas, of the dozen couples at a department Christmas party, nine of us announced to our spouses our intention to divorce before the party ended.
Those incidents aren’t everything that happened that year, just a representative sample provided to demonstrate that, though I was writing, my mind was not entirely on sculpting the perfect poem.
Still, I was writing furiously and publishing poetry in various journals under a pen name since I did not want to identify my writing with my husband’s name. I was convinced that my poetry was no good because it was not like the poetry of Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell, whose work I was studying as a graduate student. The professor who taught my graduate seminar in the work of Henry James had told me that I should quit school and go home and have babies because I wasn’t smart enough to understand Henry James.
One day in that year, 1971, Walter Mathis came to the door of the house where I was living; as soon as he was gone, I wrote about his visit. I knew that what I wrote was only a draft because I was sure that poems that did not resemble those of the classical American literature I was studying could not be any good.
In 1997, because I never throw away a draft, I reviewed what I had written in 1971, and made notes in the margin. Every few years I fiddled with the poem, unsatisfied with the ending.
Each time I looked at the poem, I shifted a few lines or altered a comma. Eventually I moved it from a bent file folder and copied it, along with others I thought had possibilities, into the Poems file on my computer. Later I printed it and placed it in a binder divided into drafts and finished poems. I keep the binder on my desk so I can make changes to a poem whenever I am “inspired” to do so. I’ve made significant progress in revision while waiting for a file to load or the computer to respond to some command.
The next time I looked at the poem was probably 2009, after Twyla Hansen had suggested that we publish a collection of poems together. By that time the draft was thirty-eight years old.
During that thirty-eight years, my first husband and I had moved back to the ranch in 1972 to “repair our marriage,” then divorced. I’d spent years crawling through the jungle of consequences from that marriage. I’d also married again and my beloved second husband had been dead twenty-one years. My parents, my grandmother and several close friends had died.
And I’d finally realized that one does not need to enjoy the work of Henry James in order to be an intelligent being and good writer. In fact, I now suspect enjoying the work of Henry James may actually hinder a poet’s development.
My idea of what constitutes good poetry had expanded from the tightly constructed couplets studied in graduate school. Several times I read and re-read the poem draft, astonished at how the face of Walter Matthis rose before me, listening to his voice in my ear. I deleted some lines, moved phrases, worked on punctuation.
Mostly, though, I thought about what Walter had been saying to me that day. At last, because I was finally old enough and had suffered enough painful losses in my life, I found the poem’s true ending. The finished poem was published in 2011 by The Backwaters Press in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla Hansen, Nebraska State Poet.
Because so much had changed in time and place since I began the poem, I had to explain Walter’s language usage to the proofreader, who wanted to eliminate slang and spell “poke salat” differently than they do in Missouri.
1971: Establishing Perpetual Care at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery
A knock at the front door
echoes in the landlady’s empty hall
tinkles past the crystal in the cabinet,
drums across her kitchen floor to mine.
She’s not home. Whoever it is will come
to my door next. I stretch,
drop the pen and fill the kettle.
Light the stove with a wooden match.
A stooped man in a black suit
rounds the corner, dust rising
behind his cane with every step.
Ancient sweat stains streak
the band of his straw hat
like layers in old sandstone.
He shuts the gate behind him.
Thumps the door four times
with a rugged fist.
Straightens his shoulders.
I snap the bolt open,
but stay behind the locked screen door.
“Good afternoon,” I say.
He pinches his hat with
two gnarled fingers, lifts, and says,
“Good day, Ma’am. I’m Walter Mathis
from up at Locust Grove.”
He hangs the cane on one arm,
mops his forehead with a red kerchief,
tucks it in a shirt pocket. “Does Mrs.
Notye Murray still live here?”
He’s afraid she’s dead.
“Yes,” I say. Adding the “Sir”
is automatic, involuntary even.
“That’s her door you knocked on.”
“She’s not home, then,” he says,
nodding. Just what he thought.
He squints, leaning toward the screen.
“You her granddaughter?”
“No sir, just a tenant– I rent
this back apartment,” I say.
Because it’s cheap, I think; because
I’ve left my husband
and have no money and no credit.
“When she goes out in the afternoon,
she’s always back by dark,” I say.
“Unless it’s her whist night. But that’s Thursday.”
He leans back on his heels,
rapping the cane against the concrete step.
Eyes the packing plant fence
like he’s tempted to get the hammer
and a fistful of nails out of the tool box
I know is behind the pickup seat,
fix the blasted thing so it’ll stand up straight.
“Well,” he mutters. “Let me think.”
He yanks the hat brim down.
I unlock the screen door, step outside
to say, “She might be home earlier.
I’m not real sure where she was going
but if she went for poke salat
and lamb’s quarters,
she might be home pretty soon.”
“Cooks ‘em up with bacon, I bet,”
he says, grinning. “Bet you never had
vittles like that, beings you are a northern lady.”
He nods. Another thing he knew
without even thinking.
I nod right back at him. The cane
pounds once more on the step.
His mind’s made up. “Well.
I gotta be gettin back to Locust Grove
so you tell Notye– you tell Miz Murray for me.
We gotta get goin on this perpetual care
for the cemetery up there. Us old-timers,
we figure maybe the next generation
won’t be as interested in the folks there.
But her and me, we got close folks–
she’s got her ma and pa and husband up there
and all my folks are together in that one spot.”
I nod again. Now I remember who I am,
even if I don’t know where.
I can see the cemetery in my home town,
where once I could imagine
my husband’s tombstone with mine beside it,
infinitely announcing our devotion.
He shoves the hat to wipe
his forehead on his sleeve,
yanks the brim back down. Nods again.
“Well, I live right by the cemetery, don’t ya know.
Me an’ Howard Breedlove and Walt Kinsolving–
that’s my son-in-law– we all got together
cause folks been wanting to give me money
so there’d be some kind of continual care.
And I figgered if I just took money
even if I put it in a bank,
pretty soon some bank examiners’d
want to know what I’m doin,
and pretty soon after that
the income tax people
would come a’sniffin around.
So we formed an association. I’m president.
Yep. Howard Breedlove’s treasurer.
I come down here today to get papers
drawed up and signed. And I wanted to tell her
if she wants to send a check
to make it out right, to make it out to
The Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.
I always mow the lawn, mowed it
seven times last year, charged forty dollars
an they paid me OK, but the year before
I mowed it ten times an there wasn’t
enough money in the treasury to pay me
so I just give ’em the last one.
I lived there all my life and all my folks
are buried there. I usually got
some grandchildren to help me.
About your size.”
Walter Mathis waves his cane,
redeems me as his grandchild.
I’m ready to follow him home
to Locust Grove, learn to cook
poke salat just the way he likes it.
“Here now, you tell Miz. Murray
I come by and to make the check out
Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.”
He tips his hat again. “Good day to you, ma’am.”
The kettle’s boiling.
While Walter’s 1953 Ford pickup
lumbers down the street, I pour my tea,
take the cup upstairs and lean to look
out the bedroom window, to watch
until Walter Mathis turns left
on the gravel road out of town,
headed back to Locust Grove.
I sip my tea and know it’s time
I headed home
where people recognize me,
where the cemetery dust
is folks I knew.
Before the book was published, I considered changing the names of the people mentioned in the poem, but decided against it, reasoning that they are doubtless dead by now. And I hoped that any descendants who might, by some far-fetched chance, read the poem, would see that my depiction of them was not only respectful but downright loving.
Today, writing this message, I was able use technology that wasn’t available in 1971 to search for the names Walter R. Mathis and Notye Murray. They died in 1984 and 1982, respectively. Walter is buried in Locust Grove but Mrs. Murray apparently is not. May they rest in peace.
And I realized something important: When he came to my door on that day in 1971, Walter R. Mathis was seventy years old. I was able to finish the poem because I’m finally old enough to understand Walter’s concern for that burial ground. I am sixty-eight and a volunteer member of the board that governs the Highland Park Cemetery in my home town of Hermosa. Walter would chuckle to know that.
Finally, though I have written a considerable amount about this poem’s origin, I do not wish to suggest that the reader needs to know such background information to understand a poem, nor should such knowledge influence a reader’s appreciation of the poem. The poem must stand or fall on its own merits.
So my message for this Vernal Equinox is this: in your writing, be as persistent as the coming of spring. Return to your drafts as the birds return to their preferred habitat in spring, as grass revives and sends its shoots deeper.
Put a few words down on paper every day, just as if you were scattering seeds in the fertile earth. Appreciate the darkness that covers our world half the time at this season– but rejoice in balance of light and dark and savor the renewal of the light that will bring summer. Blessed be.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom
# # #
The chapter “March 21-23: Vernal Equinox; Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence” appears (in a slightly different form) on pages 169-181 in the book–
The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook
Nonfiction, published 2015, Red Dashboard Press
Distributed by Windbreak House
300 pages, size: 6 X 9
$22.95 – paperback
The poem “1971: Establishing Perpetual Care at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery” appears on pages 104-107 in the book–
Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet
by Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom
(50 poems by each poet)
Poetry, published 2011, The Backwaters Press
147 pages; size: 6 X 9
$16.00 – paperback