You May Fall Asleep: Longest. Post. Ever. NOW REVISED AND EDITED!

This may seem a bit extreme -- two posts in one day! -- but I'm going to post my sabbatical report here. One, it's my way of putting the sabbatical to rest and saying, finally, "I'm done." Also, I thought it might be of interest to anyone who is thinking of going on a sabbatical and/or anyone who struggles with the writing process . . . and in particular, with the process of writing poetry. WARNING: THERE'S LOTS OF SHOP-TALK HERE. YOU MAY FALL ASLEEP. THIS POST IS PROBABLY A GOOD SEDATIVE.

So . . . *deep breath* . . . here it is.
REPORT FOLLOWING SABBATICAL

Name: _Sarah Kain Gutowski_

Campus/Department_Ammerman/English__

Period of Sabbatical__Fall 2011__

Attach the Statement of Purpose as approved by the Sabbatical Review Committee.


A. Narrative on Activity and Findings

While my sabbatical started officially with the Fall 2011 semester, I began work on my sabbatical projects in July of last year. I took a graduate course titled “Meter and Form” at Stony Brook Southampton with the poet and Whiting Award winner Julie Sheehan, and it was one of the most valuable courses I’ve ever taken. Between Sheehan’s excellent methods of instruction and my desire to finally understand the ins and outs of poetic meter, something clicked. I’d been interested in writing formal verse for a long while, but struggled to understand the rules of scansion to the point where I could use metrical patterns in my work.

Once I understood poetic meter, I began to understand also the enormity of one of my sabbatical projects: the proposed verse drama. When the class at Stony Brook ended, I knew that in order to write a successful full-length verse play, I needed to spend time writing (practicing) different kinds of metrical verse in shorter individual poems.

My statement of purpose, as submitted to the sabbatical committee in the fall of 2010, outlined a semester focused on two projects: the completion of a manuscript of poems, and the completion of a first draft of a verse play. At that point, I had approximately 19 pages of free-verse poems completed, and I proposed that part of my sabbatical would be spent finishing this manuscript. After my class at Stony Brook, I decided that the rest of the manuscript should be written in metered verse – as a kind of test, or practice run, for the verse drama.

So in August, I began the practice of getting up every morning around 6 a.m. and writing for one- two solid hours before my children woke up. In terms of learning my craft, those two hours, 5-6 times a week, were amazingly productive. Also, my writing process began to change as I ventured to write something different than anything I’d written before. In the past, I would have used an hour or two to write a single, complete free-verse poem. Now, it was taking me an hour to write a single stanza, if I was lucky, of metered verse.

At this point I began a blog as well: a record of my writing life, experience in academia, and motherhood. I thought, after consulting with a colleague who’d done something similar during his own sabbatical, that it would be the best way to document my progress over the next few months. In my second post to the blog I wrote:

[This morning] I began with a poem that I'd drafted earlier in the year and set about trying to put it into meter. I was able to complete the first stanza -- an 8-line stanza in iambic hexameter with the last two lines being a rhyming couplet. So far . . . good. Not great, but it was something. It wasn't too difficult to wrestle the words I'd already written into the new form, which is a good sign, I think. And when I was finished with that first stanza, I wanted to work on the second stanza. That, too, is a good sign.


A few days later, I posted this:

This morning I revised the first stanza of the poem I've been working on all week. That's right folks, all week. And it took me an hour to "finish" with the revision, and I didn't even actually finish it (pushing aside all discussion of whether or not one is truly finished with a poem). I had to change the rhyme in the couplet at the end of the stanza, and even though I'm using slant rhyme, it totally stumped me . . . At this rate I should be finished with my manuscript in the year 2030.

I was beginning to realize that writing in meter was going to take me a lot longer than I’d anticipated when I proposed my sabbatical. There was no way for me to know this, either, until I began my sabbatical projects in earnest. In previous years, during the month of August I was either teaching an orientation class or prepping for my fall courses. Once the semester began, I had to drop my writing projects in the interest of teaching, grading, and committee work. Finally freed from those obligations in the Fall of 2011, I was able to fully explore my writing projects to the point where I saw clearly, for the first time, the scope of my ambitions. I knew that if I was going to write a strong, publishable collection of poems, and a versa drama worth reading (let alone producing), I was going to have to do a lot more work than I’d planned on doing, and that it might not be complete in a single semester.

For instance, I knew already that my poetry manuscript would consist of three sections: a group of short lyric poems that worked together as a fable; a single long narrative poem that would tell a fairy tale; and a series of longer lyric poems that would revisit ancient Greek and Norse myths.

Originally, I’d conceived the fairy tale as a free-verse narrative poem, possibly 15 pages long – but after my class at Stony Brook, and after a conversation with a trusted friend and “best reader” of my work, I decided that the fairy tale poem should be written more formally, as befitting the genre (for, as I was learning through my reading of The Classic Fairy Tales, an anthology of text and criticism, fairy tales are actually quite formal in their structure).

When, by this point, I’d written barely 15 lines of metered verse, the thought of writing 15 pages was intensely intimidating. So I reasoned with myself and took baby steps. I began writing my “myth” poems, or the last section of my manuscript, first. I started “small,” so to speak. (Or, at the very least, “smaller.”)

That summer, I was reading D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths with my daughter at night, and their wonderful illustrations and prose inspired me. I chose to write my “myth” poems in several different meters – trimeter, pentameter, and even a heptameter – in order to test the possibilities and limits inherent in each one. In some cases a particular meter was chosen because it supported meaning in the poem. For instance, it seemed best to write “A Woman, Split” – one of the poems in the last section of my manuscript – in trimeter, three beats (or stresses) per line, because the poem took its inspiration from the Norse legend of The Norns, or three fates, who sit at the base of the world weaving the fortunes of mankind.

Through August and September I wrote most of the “myth” poems, knowing they would go into my manuscript, and knowing also that I’d planned to write the middle section of my manuscript in verse. By mid-September I knew I needed to begin the fairy tale – and so I did, rewriting the parts I’d written originally in free verse and reimagining the narrative arc of the poem.

This worked swimmingly until October, when doubt began to creep in:

I reread my fairytale poem, the three or four pages of metered verse that I've eked out in two months (I'm so pathetically slow!), and I'm majorly dissatisfied. It feels too much like prose, not enough like poetry. So I went back to my original drafts and looked at them -- the lyric sequence -- and while there are things I like, I can see glaring problems. For instance, I like the way that I feel like I can breathe when I read the first drafts. There's a good amount of white space on the page in my lyric poems, because I'm writing in two-line stanzas -- whereas the Spenserian stanzas in the new draft make me feel claustrophobic. I suspect that if they sounded more like poetry, and less like prose, I would feel less hemmed in by the form I've chosen.

I've been writing the "myth" poems in meter, too, and for some reason I feel much less restricted when I work on those. They're coming so much more easily.


I believed that I’d chosen the wrong form – the same one used by Edmund Spenser in “The Faerie Queene” – simply because I’d been writing “myth” poems in meter and those weren’t giving me trouble. It turned out, by the time November rolled around, that the problem was actually in the content of the piece, in the new narrative I’d conceived, and not the poem’s formal structure:

So, I followed through on my decision to return to my original plot for the fairytale poem. This is what the process of writing the fairytale has been like so far: (Yay, recap!)

1. Original idea sparked in Fall 2010. First poem written; narrative in nature.

I wondered if maybe that was it -- the end. Then another poem followed about the character, and then another. Soon I had about ten lyric poems written sequentially, or at the very least, begun. Then teaching and festival planning and committee nonsense happened. Writing stopped.

2. Having put to rest the Sow Poems, I turned again to the fairytale at the end of July 2011.

Based on a conversation I'd had with A.P. in the spring, I'd decided to restructure the poem to fit a more traditional narrative form. I tried lots of different stanzas used in ballads, but realized finally I wasn't writing a ballad. I was writing a fairy tale, right? They're different animals. Anyway, the Spenserian stanza is the one I settled on, but I also made the decision to bastardize the hell out of it. No rhyme scheme, except for a slant/near rhyme in the 8th & 9th to end the stanza.

3. I spent two months writing 14 Spenserian stanzas, or 1279 words of metered verse, more or less from scratch, just loosely based on the poems I'd written in 2010.

It was like throwing out all of the work I'd done in 2010. And it felt wrong.

4. Thanks to my November, and by now, recurring-and-well-anticipated- at-the-beginning-of-a-new-month Sabbatical Freakout, I decided to throw out about 10 of the Spenserian stanzas, and really give the first four a major overhaul.


I feel like this is a little dangerous, and perhaps tempting fate. I mean -- I'm halfway through the Sabbatical and I throw out two months of work? Yes, I might be crazy. And stupid. But what's done is done -- for now.

I went back to my first poems, and I redrafted some of them into the Spenserian stanzas. Other poems will remain free verse poems and be interspersed between sections of the primary fairytale. Those other poems will take the shape of a child asking her mother (who is reading the fairy tale aloud, of course) questions.

This new plan, using parts of old poems and in some cases the old poems themselves, makes so much more sense to me -- intuitively. I couldn't shake the feeling, when I was writing in September and October and drifting further and further away from the original storyline I'd conceived, that I was making a grave mistake. The tale seemed to become more complex and less interesting the more I wrote -- it was losing its vitality (or what I'd self-appraised as the poem's vitality!).

So at this moment, I'm well into "Chapter Four" of the fairy tale - and I can boast 17 Spenserian stanzas, or 1595 words of metered verse - and that's in more or less two weeks. Two weeks. NOT two months.
It's amazing how much easier the writing comes when you finally hit upon the right idea. Also -- it helps to have old drafts of poems you can bully into different shapes.

Of course, my hope now is that the final version or shape of this poem will sound like the best version, and the only version that should exist. I'm gonna hate myself if this thing ends up sounding artificial and forced to other people ('cause I'm probably not gonna have enough objectivity to notice for a long, long while.)


Now, nearly four months later, I stand by my decision to ditch that early work and begin redrafting. It was a risk, a big risk, particularly because every page of poetry I wrote and then rejected equaled a page or more of my verse play that wasn’t going to be completed by the sabbatical report deadline.

And yet, in the end, I believe it paid off – maybe not in something that’s easily measurable, but in something a little more subjective: the quality of my verse, and the success of my poem, which is now complete at 23 pages – not counting the poems I’ve interspersed throughout the narrative. All in all, the fairy tale section of my manuscript is now 30 pages long – twice as long as I’d originally envisioned it.

I learned something, too, about writing long poems . . . and in particular, writing long poems that are almost the length of a book. You need focus and concentration to write such a work, but you need also to take breaks. Luckily, I had my myth poems to fall back on. I’d already identified several myths I wished to explore, and so whenever I felt like I needed to take a breather from the protagonist of my fairy tale (“The Woman with the Frog Tongue”), I managed to find a renewed sense of accomplishment and a fresh source of adrenaline in the completion of each myth poem. It worked nicely, and each new poem or section of the fairy tale confirmed for me that I was on the right track. And now, at this point, I can hand you a finished manuscript totaling 73 pages.

I came to realize, too, that the verse play wasn’t being ignored. Rather, I was completing an apprenticeship, a private program of study that will be beneficial – no, essential -- to the play’s composition and its later (fingers crossed) success. I was redefining myself as a writer of poetry, and as a reader of poetry, and as a teacher of poetry. I believe that because of my sabbatical I am better prepared and better suited to teach than I ever was before.

Most importantly, my writing is stronger than it was before. I feel like I’ve come out of a fog – that my writing life before the sabbatical was the fog, and the sabbatical was the warm air and sun burning the fog away.

(Too much?)

*

It may be best to outline here in a completely pedestrian-and-uninteresting-but-sort-of-necessary way my typical writing day. So Monday through Friday, my days looked something like this:

6 a.m. Rise and shine! (Coffee!) 6:15 a.m. Begin writing

7:30/8:00 a.m. Stop writing; wrangle small school-age children through routine of breakfast, teeth-brushing, dressing and prep-for-school.

8:30 a.m. One child on bus; one child to daycare. My daycare is located close to the Ammerman campus, so usually I continued my “drafting” of lines in my head while driving back to my home 20 miles away. I wrote down what I’d composed once I arrived home – or, once in a while, I jotted down the lines in a small notebook while I waited at a light or stop sign.

9:30/10 a.m. Writing or reading or preparing manuscripts for submission to literary journals. Either I would pick up my writing where I left off in the morning, or I would read one of the books outlined in my proposal, or I would do some research on the myths I was employing, or I would prepare submissions. I kept myself occupied until my daughter was off the bus.

3:15 p.m. Daughter arrived home; writing/reading/manuscript prep continued for as long as she had homework to complete. Once homework was done, so was I . . . and we had to go pick the boy up from daycare!

8-11 p.m. Depending on how much work I’d managed during the day, I’d fit one to two hours of additional reading or writing in at night, somewhere in this time period.

If I was particularly tired at night during the week, or if my schedule was interrupted by illness (mine or my children’s), or necessary errands, some of these hours were made up over the weekend. Because I took the charge of the sabbatical committee quite seriously, I averaged 35-40 hours of writing and reading each week. (And it was awesome. So, so, awesome.)


B. Professional Benefit to Applicant

I believe I detailed in the narrative the ways this sabbatical made me a better scholar and writer, but I’ll add here that I began a writing routine that I’ve adapted for the semesters I spend teaching, so that I’ll maintain the progress I began in the Fall of 2011. (Basically, I’m getting up at 5 a.m. now so that I will have a solid two hours to write before I have to prepare for work.)

I really excited to report that the sabbatical had further professional benefits. Usually, in a typical semester I’m so wrapped up in the business of teaching and attending to department and college service that I don’t spend a lot of time investigating and reading literary journals. This sabbatical allowed me not only the time to become better informed about my field, but it allowed me the time to prepare submissions to journals – and some of those submissions were accepted for publication.

As a result of my sabbatical, I have had three poems accepted by The Southern Review (a journal published out of Louisiana State University) that will be published later this spring (2012). Also, I’ve had the first 19 poems of my poetry manuscript accepted for future publication as a chapbook by Hyacinth Girl Press, a feminist micro-press.

(I found out in August that The Gettysburg Review wished to publish two of the poems from my manuscript, but those were submitted to them in January 2011, and so I can’t really attribute them to the work of the sabbatical. But that acceptance certainly made the sabbatical more joyous!)

C. Benefit to the College

What I learned about writing in meter and the art of scansion during my sabbatical will be applied directly to the courses I teach, from Advanced Poetry Writing to courses like Introduction to Literature and The Art of Poetry. I believe, too, that my extensive forays into revision over the sabbatical – from its risks (discarding more than a month’s worth of work) to its payoffs (writing a 23 page long poem in verse) – will be useful as a teaching tool. I have a greater understanding of what it means to revise one’s writing, as well as one’s thinking, as part of the writing process. And I have an anecdote that might scare and shock my students (“How can you throw out all that work?” one student has asked me already), but it will help them also to understand what’s at stake when one revises.

What I’ve learned is that we don’t revise – shouldn’t revise – out of a desire to “make the work better,” because the word “better” implies a false standard, something that’s subjective and debatable. Instead, we should revise our writing because the writing fails to do what it needs to accomplish. For instance, while I worried initially about the soundness of the meter in my fairy tale poem, there were some moments in the verse – whole stanzas – that I really loved because of the images they evoked and the music they made. They were, however, wrong in terms of the narrative arc and the character development of the poem’s protagonist. They simply didn’t belong in the poem because they clashed with my thematic aims. So, they were cut.

That epiphany, that sudden realization, was a frightening one, and a powerful one, and I’ll share it with my students in the hopes that they’ll take the same kinds of risks. Teaching my students in ENG 101 (Standard Freshman Composition) and ENG 010 (Developmental Writing) about the importance of revision, and guiding them through the process, has always been a challenge. Real revision requires an emotional and intellectual investment in one’s work, and sometimes I don’t think my 101 or 010 students realize that they can – in a college class – be emotionally and intellectually invested in one’s writing. And if they are emotionally or intellectually invested in their own writing, it’s difficult for them to see that they owe it to themselves (and to the work) to revise, and to take risks with that revision.

My hope is that my experience with revision during the sabbatical will help them realize not just why but how they should be considering revision a part of their writing process. It will certainly shape the writing activities I present to them in the classroom, so whether or not they actually hear the whole story from my mouth, what they learn will be a result of what I learned during this sabbatical.

I believe that the college will benefit from my sabbatical also because it’s inspired me to plan a special topics course titled “Revisited: Fables, Fairytales, and Myths” that I’ll submit as a proposal to my department next fall. This course will use at least one of the texts I read this fall, and will examine the structure and social/cultural/intellectual uses of fables, fairy tales, and myths throughout literature.

Additionally, as outlined in my sabbatical proposal, I am still interested in creating an Advanced Playwriting course for our students at SCCC. So that – while not yet conceived fully – is something that I know I’ll propose. If it’s accepted and it runs, I know our creative writing students will benefit from having this option.


D. Describe the Current Status of the Project

My poetry manuscript, now titled Fabulous Beast: Poems, is complete at 73 pages and I shall begin submitting it to book publishers in the fall of 2012.

As I explained (at length!) above, because my poetry manuscript required much greater time and energy than anticipated, my verse drama is still in its very early stages. As part of my revision process, I’ve set aside the early drafts I gave to you as part of my Statement of Purpose. My new draft is only a few pages long as of yet, but eventually I will rewrite the old draft so that it fits neatly with my new draft, even though I’m not entirely sure at this point which meter I’ll be using (iambic pentameter or hexameter?). Basically, I have some experimenting to do; but if all goes well, and I don’t have any massive epiphanies with this project as I did with the fairy tale poem, I anticipate the completion of this manuscript by the end of 2012, with the bulk of the play written during the summer months when I am free from the obligations of teaching.

E. Supporting Documents

There are four supporting documents with this report. The first is the Statement of Purpose approved by the Sabbatical Review Committee. The second, and most important, is a PDF file of my poetry manuscript, Fabulous Beast: Poems.

The third is a PDF file of my verse drama in its current state. The fourth is the blog I created and maintained during the sabbatical, and can be accessed through the following link:
www.mimsyandoutgrabe.blogspot.com. The months July 2011 through January 2012 are particularly relevant to the sabbatical. These speak to my process as a writer and also document both setbacks and benchmarks in my progress with my sabbatical project(s).


And . . . scene.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Wow - now I know the secret to writing (I am so slow and so other tasks get in the way) but I have such a hard time getting out of bed at 5 am!! good point about revise, get rid of it if it doesn't do it's job...
Congratulations on your accomplishments! can't wait to get the chapbook.
kmaul said…
it's me:
sarah gutowski said…
Hey K.Maul! Thanks for your comments! And I'll say that it's much easier to get out of bed at 5 a.m. when your husband/partner is preparing to leave for work at that time.

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