Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Practice and Product: Reflecting on NaPoWriMo

Back in the days before digital photography, people sometimes asked why I write poetry (or anything else for that matter). My answer was usually something along the lines of “Because film is too expensive.” That was partially true, I suppose, and also a flippant way of not having to admit to being, you know, a poet. But nowadays pixels are cheap and still, I write.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few weeks of doing the NaPoWriMo poem-a-day-for-thirty-days thing, and that’s got me thinking about practice and product. Thinking about practices that require craft and some degree of clarity reminds me of the way Robert Pirsig describes working on his bike in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wherein he writes that the cycle you’re working on is you.

One of the many joys of writing is the way it facilitates discovery, leading somewhere unexpected, to some insight I didn’t even realize I was looking for. In this way, writing poetry is as much and maybe more of a practice than it is a chase for a completed product. It is a way to see the world under the light of a different sun and then perhaps to understand this thing called life in new and unexpected ways.

Practice isn’t everything, though, because I’m not writing just for me. I like the connection between myself and those who read what I write, and I enjoy the creation of the thing. My about page says “I’m driven to create,” which is true, though I prefer Dale’s way of expressing it as a need to make and share beautiful things because that’s a truer way of putting it, and it encompasses the way time spent in the kitchen can satisfy that need too.

What I like about making poems—about writing, really—is that process of discovery and feeling of channeling things from somewhere else that I then share with others. When I go back and read something I’ve written that’s actually good and brings me or someone else enjoyment, my initial response is always “Wow, who wrote that?” Maybe I should ask “Where did that come from?” but either way, the answer is I don’t know, and that mystery is a reminder to remain open, which is where I fell out with NaPoWriMo: it upends the balance and turns poetry into a mad quest for product.

I have cranked out 46 poems (25 micro-poems posted at a gnarled oak and 21 longer poems posted here at Coyote Mercury) this April and I haven’t had time to process more than a few of them. I like to write, think and revise, but NaPoWriMo dispenses with the last two in its demand for numbers. So I’m glad it’s over.

For me to write anything worthwhile, I need to remain open to the world and to experience. The time spent not writing is just as important as the writing, I suppose. Still, I completed the challenge (because I’m obsessive) and now, I’m looking forward to going back to my nice slow poem-or-two-a-week pace, getting back to my balance between practice and product, and also just walking around, seeing, and trying to pay attention to the world around me, which is where it all begins.


  1. ‘The time spent not writing is just as important as the writing’…so true James.

    • Yes, that observation resonated strongly with me, as well.

      • Irene & Dave, the more I think about this that’s what made this month so hard… I never got the chance to refill as it were. Probably a factor of the limited amount of time I have for writing anyway.

  2. James,
    I really appreciate your comments on my blog. I have enjoyed your poems whether on RWP or napowrimo. I concede there were times on napowrimo where I felt I had to reach soooo deep and wasn’t sure I could. But for me I think it was a good exercise. Maybe just in self-discipline. I throughly enjoyed my time. Hope to see you again.

  3. Pamela, I did have fun with it most of the time and as a learning experience it was wonderful. I especially liked knowing I was in it with a bunch of other people, though I admit there was one week I was never going to write another poem 🙂

    I appreciate your coming around here and I’ve enjoyed reading your work too. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around the poetrysphere.

  4. I really can relate to that whole thing about “where did this come from?” I feel that way about a lot of what I write. and the main thing for me is the practice, too. I really, really need a prompt, even if it is just one word. something to just knock my brain into gear, especially when I’m just dragging myself to the computer after a tough day at school.

    that is the good thing for me about napo — I felt like I HAD to write something. because if I stop, I stop. so now that this is over, I’m hunting up prompt places to keep myself going.

    James, I sincerely appreciate the time you take to read my stuff and drop a comment; it makes it easier to keep on writing. it really does.

    (man — as soon as I typed that a crow just landed on the tree outside and started cawing through the window. just a little bit freaky…)


    • Angie, right back at you on the reading during napowrimo; I really appreciate it. I like prompts too, but was surprised by how many of my napowrimo poems were done without prompts (too many–I don’t qualify for the rwp anthology, oh, well). Cool about the crow. Around here it would be a grackle. Not that I mind 🙂

  5. So much resonated with me, as well, especially the time to process & observe and observe & process.

    Thanks for the thoughtful clarity, as usual, and for the sustaining visits during April. They were greatly appreciated!

  6. making my way back and found yr article…glad i did…this year was a great rwp napowrimo.. the caliber of writers phenomenal and spurred me on when i didn’t want to write…when i occasionally go back and read some of my past poems i often wonder who wrote that and where did that come from so i wholeheartedly agree with you in that regard taking the exception that it was an enjoyable process and learned quite a lot…never taking writing seriously a small pastime when thoughts were crowding my head and needed relieve it is now all so different…

    • Thank, one more believer. I also found a lot of really good writing through the rwp prompts, though I didn’t write to as many of them as I thought I would.

  7. I agree with a lot of what you said – many days in April, I forced something out just to complete the task for the day, and I hated that feeling. But I also found myself pushing into territories I wouldn’t normally visit- writing American Sentences, letting random things I was doing (even watching bad TV) inspire something new. Even if the products are not all good or surprising yet, they are jumping-off points for discoveries. And, in a life where I sometiimes struggle to make time to write, completing NaPoWriMo shows me that I can no longer use “no time” as an excuse – demanding full-time job or not, I can make time to write, even every day.

  8. DJ, I know what you mean. I tried a lot of things I’d never done: haibun, tanka, ghazal and am glad I did. I reminded me to stretch more. You’re right too about having poems as jumping off points. I fully expect to go back at review these after they’ve had a chance to cool.

    I’m glad you were able to find you can write. I had a similar epiphany when I did nanowrimo last November and learned I don’t have to wait until summer vacation to write novels.

  9. James, I can relate to what you said. NaPoWriMo took a lot out of me this year. I too, won’t be in the anthology because 1) I started too late, 2) I didn’t write poems everyday, and 3) I didn’t follow a good percentage of the prompts until the tail end.

    Instead, I let myself be more flexible this year. Sometimes, it mean no poems one day and four the next. And I used a lot of my poems this month to work on a few outstanding chapbook projects I have that need more poems…consequently, a good percentage of them are password protected on my blog since they aren’t really ready to be published.

    I enjoy the 1-2 poem a week pace. It gives me time to think and develop things.


    • Yeah, I tended to write away from the prompts too. I usually started with them, but couldn’t get anything. I did a little chapbook work as well.

  10. What I enjoy most about NaPoWriMo is the amount of poetic “fodder” it encourages me to create, to return to later for editing and re-editing — which in turn also gives birth to brand new poems and/or flash fiction.

    I never consider anything I write to ever really be a finished work. They are constantly evolving, so I find no distress in nudging myself to create increased output in April — I find it stimulating…


  11. You just hit on one of the reasons I couldn’t do NaPoWriMo…I couldn’t take my time…the panic of that notion only reinforced my Writer’s Block….what once flowed only trickles now. That forging ahead would have crippled me, I’m sure.

    • After doing napowrimo and nanowrimo, I like the latter better since the schedule was up to me. Doing a poem a day is much harder, I think, than writing 30 poems in 30 days. I hope that block is breaking down. I usually find I have to write through it, producing stuff I don’t like until it just stops (the block I mean). Long walks and bike rides help too. Good luck and I look forward to what emerges on the other side.

  12. Your article, and the subsequent comments were really interesting. I experienced the reverse of what Mark says: I came to Napowrimo after two months of illness following nearly three years of writing courses. Result: almost total block. Then, bingo, on the opening day a friend asked if I was doing it and I plunged in. The month passed in a flash, and I looked forward every morning to each new prompt. Every poem I wrote was “on prompt” – the trigger needed to drag me out of the lethargy I’d been suffering from. Of course, the poems were in need of a comprehensive edit, some of which I managed to do on my blog. Now Bigtent and Writers Island seem really laid back in giving us days to write a poem. The consequence, I’m in danger of overtweaking!

    Thankyou James for making me assess what Napo has done for me.

    • That overtweaking can really get me. Sometimes I have to just remember to as Miles allegedly told Trane and just take the horn out of my mouth 🙂

      I like the laid back prompt schedule too, but I’m glad I did the intensity, though I might try something else next year. Who knows. Thanks for your comment.

  13. Somehow that last reply had an incorrect URL for my blog, now corrected!

  14. A lovely reflection back on the month of April, James. What a whirlwind napowrimo was, and even though I wasn’t crazy about a lot of the things that I wrote, it was still a good practice. The pace was a bit too much, though. I, too, am glad it’s over. I want to try writing more poetry over on the writing blog, but I’ve got too much on my plate right now.
    One thing that you said really resonated with me:
    “Practice isnt everything, though, because Im not writing just for me. I like the connection between myself and those who read what I write, and I enjoy the creation of the thing.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Funny thing is, I felt that very little of what I wrote for napowrimo fit that “connection” bill – that stuff really was more for me. The stuff on my nature blog, however – that’s the stuff I write to share and connect with others. And it’s funny, b/c a lot of bloggers recommend “write for yourself” but it’s the knowing that someone out there is reading it and getting something out of it that really makes it worthwhile, at least for me. I really enjoyed getting to know your writing better during napowrimo, and I hope to visit more frequently again soon. Take care!

    • I agree with you. I think the notion of having an audience, even a small one, can elevate a person’s writing. That’s how it works for me, anyway.

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