What I Learned This Summer

It's been three months since my last blog post.  I didn't intentionally take the summer off, it just happened.  "It" being life.  This reminds me of my son, who got his learner's permit a few days ago even though he turned 15 in May.  He had decided he'd rather take the required teen driving course online instead of spending four intensive days in the classroom.  The problem was, he lacked the motivation to make himself do the online course.  Now that he has his permit and has been driving for a week, he can't wait to get his license, but he'll have to, until next August, several months after he turns 16, which brings me to the first thing I realized. 

1.  There's No Syllabus for Life

The problem with life is that there aren't any deadlines for your dreams.  There's no syllabus to follow, no automatic system of timelines and deadlines to keep us on track.  It's up to us.

So, I'm getting back to my writing schedule, and am still plugging away on my book.  I originally set May 1st as the deadline to complete a rough draft.  I've pushed that back several times and now my current goal is August 31st.  I might make it.  I'm going to keep trying.  I've found through this process that I need the deadlines and the writing schedule, but I'm also trying to be gentle with myself if I don't meet them.  The main thing is to keep working and I know I'll get there eventually.  

I did write a lot this summer even though I didn't have an official schedule.  I fit it in when I could.  One of my favorite times to write was during the kids' music lessons - it was a perfect time to sit and pick at the lines of my poems, tinker with the words, and play with line breaks.  

2.  Finish What You Start

One problem, or maybe it's a blessing, is that I keep writing new poems and they distract me from going back and working on the older ones.  The poems I'm currently writing and working on are always my favorites - they carry the heat, they're about what I'm interested in and what I'm experiencing right now.  

This summer, I was editing a poem I wrote ten years ago, but since it was so old, I couldn't remember all of the details of the situation I was writing about, and when I tried to add new lines, it felt like a different voice was speaking, which was jarring.  So, I'm more motivated now to try to finish my new poems sooner and then let them go, because I've also learned that if they don't quite become what I want them to, another one will come.  I don't have to hang on to every good line or every poem with promise.  If they're not working, I can let them go and move on to a new poem that might work better.  It's incredibly freeing. 

3.  Submit, Submit, Submit

I submitted poems to several journals and contests this summer.  So far I've only received rejections, but that's okay - I'm learning not to take it personally, and I remain optimistic.  The longer I write and teach poetry, the more I realize how subjective our tastes are.  My favorite poem probably isn't your favorite poem, and the poem I love today might be eclipsed by a different poem tomorrow depending on what's going on in my life and what the poem is about.  Sometimes we hear or read a poem at the perfect moment in our lives and it strikes a chord.  I think that's what has happened when I've been lucky enough to win a contest or have a poem picked for publication - it was simply in the right place at the right time, so I need to make sure I'm submitting my poetry often so my poems have a better chance of being in the right place at the right time.

4.  Keep Moving Forward

I've alphabetized the poems in my finished binder and am in the process of writing the following for each poem on an index card:  title, emotional tenor of the ending of the poem, and category/theme.  Right now there are 29 poems in my binder and there are many more on the edge of being finalized and added.  Once the index cards are completed, I'll play with the categories of the book and the order of the poems and figure out which ones belong together and which ones don't.  It will be like Sesame Street all over again! 

So, while I didn't write any blog posts this summer, I made progress in a summer-like way, free and floating, and now I'm ready to settle in like the leaves that will soon begin to fall.

The Frustrating Side of Writing

The bad part about working on a book, I'm discovering, is that you have to edit it.  I thought I liked editing, but this week I've been discouraged by it - why do I have to fix every single one of my poems?  I'm starting to feel like none of them are any good and that I have no idea what I'm doing.  So, since I can't bear to look at them today, I'm writing this blog post, in hopes that it will help.  

I've been reading The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, and something she wrote keeps going through my head: 

Giacometti's drawings and paintings show his bewilderment and persistence.  If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted.

Maybe, like Giacometti, I need to acknowledge my frustration about editing.  Maybe there is something I'm supposed to learn from this frustration and self doubt.  Maybe I'm supposed to learn persistence.  Maybe I need to write about writing the way I do all of the other mysteries and challenges in my life so that I can better understand it.

The poem that's giving me the most trouble right now is a poem about my daughter.  I originally wrote it in January, which is a rich time of writing for me - it's quiet after all the busyness of Christmas, there's time, and the new year stretches out before me, untouched, unmarred.  

I wrote a poem on the morning of New Year's Eve about the pine needles caught in the bush outside my window - how they were caught in limbo between the tree they had fallen from and the ground, and they were covered in snow, and I imagined they would just sit there undisturbed, waiting, as people come and go, carrying on with their lives.  

Then, on January 5, the first day of school in the new year, I wrote a poem about taking my daughter to school - it was snowing, and the roads hadn't been plowed, and the whole scene felt fragile and sacred and cozy all at once.  There were tracks in the snow of the unplowed road and they seemed very haphazard, and when I mentioned this, my daughter said that the snow falling down over the tracks is like the Buddha Board - it erases everything.  And my first thought was I don't want her to be erased, or this moment to be erased, and how fleeting moments like that are - when you're witnessing something beautiful - and part of the reason they're so beautiful and special is the very fact that they are fleeting.  

So, I tried to combine the two poems because the first poem sets the mood for the second poem, and the pine needles stuck in limbo remind me of my daughter, who is also in a sort of limbo between being a child and an adult.  But it felt disjointed, (my awesome writing group helped me see that), so then I tried numbering the different sections, so it wouldn't seem like they have to connect completely, but that didn't feel right either, so I took out the first poem and just started with the second, but it may have lost something, according to my writing teacher, Sandy.

Maybe I should call it "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Snow," and write short descriptions of the snow and/or my daughter like Wallace Stevens writes about blackbirds in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and then I don't have to connect the dots so much between the stanzas or even understand what I'm trying to say, because I feel like I'm trying to say so much in this poem - trying to contain all of the feelings I've ever had for her - love, concern, worry, pride, hope, and maybe even the frustrated and irritated feelings too.  My throat is getting tight and my eyes are beginning to water just writing this.  

This poem literally gave me a headache when I was working on it Saturday.  So much emotion, and I thought it was perfect, and then it wasn't.  Is it a metaphor for her?  That I thought she was perfect and then she wasn't?  I do have a few lines in it now about her perfectionism, which, ironically, is a flaw.  I suppose she gets that from me, although I'm only a perfectionist about certain things, but then again, so is she - yikes!  

Maybe I need to broaden the poem to cover more time and more places she and I have been in the snow together.  There's so much weight in the poem, it seems like no ending can do it justice, can balance it out, as no ending for her will feel right to me - I don't want her to end, I don't want myself to end, I don't want my parents to end, but I also, in truth, don't want to live forever.  Ah, life, you are so complex!  My working title for the poem is "What Remains."  Maybe my daughter isn't the only one in limbo like the pine needles.  Maybe we are all the pine needles.  Maybe I've just written myself through my frustration and it's time to get back to work.  

Please write to tell me how you've gotten through your frustrations with writing!


Making Room for Magic

Happy Friday!  This is a rich time of year - graduations, celebrations, birthdays, and I'm trying to enjoy it and not let myself get too discouraged if I'm thrown off my writing schedule a little bit, which I was this week.  But even though I didn't write every morning, (I only wrote for two), I spent three evenings doing things related to writing - Monday was the class I'm taking to help me finish my book, where I got feedback on three of my poems, Wednesday night was Poetry Night at the Mesa County Library, where I read and received feedback on one poem, and last night was a meeting of my writing group, Writers in and of the Sage.  I didn't have anything critiqued last night, but I always learn from my friends' writing and from listening to others critique writing in comparison to my own reaction to it.

Goal Tally:  I edited four poems (one twice), and wrote a quick draft of a new poem that came to me while I was baking cookies Tuesday morning for my son's 15th birthday.  I didn't send out any submissions, but I am writing this blog post, so I'd say I accomplished 75% of my goals for the week, which I can live with.

I think I'm okay with letting myself be a little flexible and I'm not going to be too hard on myself or get disappointed if I don't stick completely to the schedule.  The fact that I have a schedule and am working on a book has enough inertia to carry me through the full and happy weeks when I can't write as much as I'd like.  I'm still looking (consciously and subconsciously) for things to write about, still jotting down notes and ideas for poems, which I think are coming to me more often now because I've made room for them with my writing schedule.  It's a great cycle to find myself in.  

Yesterday morning I didn't write because I had a golf lesson with my mom, which I'm glad I didn't give up.  Writing needs balance.  I need things to write about, and if I'm bound too tightly to a schedule, I could miss opportunities.  A strict schedule doesn't match the mood of the poems I write.  The poems have room for magic to happen, and I want my life to also.  


"Everything I Don't Want to Say Out Loud" and Kids Writing Contest

Scenic Elementary's 2016 Writers in the Schools Anthology

Scenic Elementary's 2016 Writers in the Schools Anthology

Friday was the anthology celebration at Scenic Elementary, where I've been teaching a 10-week writing residency to 4th and 5th graders through Colorado Humanities' Writers in the Schools program.  My friend, Rebecca Mullen, taught third grade.  At the celebration, students received a copy of this year's anthology, which each 3rd-5th grade student has one piece of writing in.  I love hearing the kids read their poems and stories, and I love to see their faces when they see the book in which they are published!  Here's a poem I wrote about teaching, which is also in the book:

Teaching Poetry to Scenic Students

Today life is giving me a classroom full of students
     and folders full of poems.
It's giving me hands in the air,
     pencils with sharp tips,
and clean lined paper ready to receive.

It's giving me minds primed to latch onto whatever wisp
     of inspiration swirls towards them.
It's giving us an hour to romp with words, to enter
     the gossamer place where we can let ourselves drift
through ideas because there are
     no wrong answers in poetry.

Today is giving me words falling on the floor,
     hands writing hard despite casts,
brave kids writing about things that have cracked,
     dark marks burning down the page.

It's giving me kids thrusting brand new poems towards me
     as if they might disappear
if the words aren't read right now,
     that they'll languish in that dreamy place
until they've made the leap from their imagination to mine.

Today is giving me chocolate milk smiles and shy truth,
     it's giving me golden lines and hugs.
It's giving me a boy who says,
     "I didn't think I could write poetry,
but it turns out I can."

Their emerging voices grow louder and echo inside mine.
     Little do they know, they aren't the students, I am.

- Jill Burkey

Writing Contest for Kids

At the celebration, I mentioned a writing contest for kids - Rattle is calling for submissions for their annual Young Poets Anthology.  Writers must be age 15 or younger, deadline is June 15th. Here's the link:  www.rattle.com/children.  Happy Writing!




Slow and Steady Wins the Race

It's been a month since I started my new writing schedule, and I've stuck with it for the most part, except when I had a conflict I just couldn't change, and when that happened, I usually managed to squeeze in some writing time during other parts of the week.  I had a very productive week this week.  I wrote one new poem, edited five poems, submitted three poems to Driftwood Press literary journal, and submitted another three poems to the Flying South 2016 poetry contest.  The schedule is definitely working for me, so I plan to continue it with a few modifications.  

I'll still write from 7:00-9:00 a.m. or  7:30-9:30 a.m., but won't be so regimented on how I divide the time up.  I'm only going to give myself five minutes or so to free write when I sit down.  If there's something interesting happening, I'll write longer, but if not, I'll move on to other things, like editing poems for the book and writing about family history.  This week I edited two poems on Wednesday and wanted more distance from them before I looked at them again, so I didn't work on them Thursday and instead got a head start on my blog post, which I usually do on Friday.  I think I need that flexibility to know what I need to write about or work on. 

Revised Schedule:

Saturday - Thursday (I try to write on weekends when I can, but I don't worry if I can't):

  1. 7:00 or 7:30 - free write five minutes (or longer if going somewhere)
  2. 7:05 - 8:35 or 7:35 - 9:05 poetry
  3. 8:35 - 9:05 or 9:05 - 9:35 family history
  4. 9:05 - 9:35 - publication


  1. 7:00 or 7:30 - free write five minutes (or longer if going somewhere)
  2. 7:05 - 8:35 or 7:35 - 9:05 - blog
  3. 8:35 - 9:35 or 9:05 - 9:35 - publication

Goals for April 28 - June 1, 2016

  1. Write one new poem per week.
  2. Edit 5 poems per week (hopefully 3 of those will be final edits so I can move those poems to my "finished" binder.
  3. Spend 30 minutes per day on writing for family history project.
  4. Send 3 poems per week to a literary journal or contest per week.
  5. Write one blog post per week.
  6. Complete a draft of my poetry collection by June 1.

Last week, two Writer's Almanac podcasts talked about authors who got up early to write every morning.  One was Ted Kooser, a favorite poet of mine from Nebraska, who woke up at 4:30 a.m. and wrote poems until 7:00 a.m. before going to work at an insurance company in Lincoln.  Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 novels, woke up every morning at 4:00 a.m. and wrote for three hours.  He said, "A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules."  

A New Metaphor for Jury Duty

The writing schedule fell apart this week.  I don't think I've written anything since Saturday the 16th.  The only thing on my sticky note is that I edited one poem that day, which I ironically renamed, "What Remains."  :)  Sigh.

It all started with being called for jury duty on the 18th, which ran into the 19th, and then on the 20th, the law firm where I work held it's big annual seminar, so I got up early to go to that.  Thursday I was going to write, but ended up downloading band songs and videos to my computer so I would have room to record my son's band performances in the Colorado West music festival going on yesterday and today, so this is the only morning I'm writing.

I did write a little during jury duty because as the lawyers were questioning potential jurors it occurred to me that some of the language they were using was interesting, so I started writing it down.  I had also watched a video of Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer that morning, which inspired me.  In her video, Rosemerry talked about creating a new metaphor for your life.  She said sometimes our metaphors aren't working for us, so we need to find new ones.  For instance, instead of "battling or fighting" a cold, cancer, or in her case, pain, she decided that instead she would think of herself as dancing with it.   My favorite part is when she reads her donkey poem - it brought tears to my eyes!

Her talk, which was part science, part psychology, and part literature, embodied what I love about writing.  As an English major, I always felt like I was sort of cheating because majoring in English was, in a way, like majoring in all the disciplines.  The English department is fittingly housed in the center of Nebraska Wesleyan's campus in Old Main, and like spokes on a wheel, the literary arts spread their shoots out to touch all the other disciplines and areas of life:  history, philosophy, religion, art, music, drama, science, psychology, business, education, sociology, and even math. 

Rosemary's talk also reminded me of something I wrote in my journal several years ago: "I want a new way to think."  I didn't know what to make of that statement when I wrote it, but Rosemerry provided perspective.  I think I was just searching for a new metaphor for my life and trying to be open enough to receive it.

I heard that Leslie Marmon Silko went to law school, but left the field of law because she felt she could bring about more justice by writing.  As I sat in that sterile courtroom with rules and regulations and listened to the attorneys ask the jury if they could separate their own feelings from what they were being asked by the law to do, it occurred to me that maybe Silko was right - that this place is not where justice happens.  It's too late.  True justice doesn't need courtrooms.  True justice arrives before it's needed, and maybe its seed is something so small it might not even be noticed; maybe it's a single poem that changed someone's life just enough to make the right choice possible when it mattered.  

So that is why we must keep writing, even when we think no one will read our work, even when we get thrown off our writing schedules, and even when the bailiff shuffles down our row during jury selection and taps our shoulder to ask if we're paying attention - of course we are, that's our job!  If only she knew how much.

Happy National Poetry Month! How Are You Celebrating?

I can't describe the joy I felt as I opened the blinds and sat down at my desk with my coffee to write this morning.  It's a quiet, rainy day and I'm wearing the beautiful wrap my sister-in-law brought me from her trip to Europe.  I'm listening to Amos Lee and the whole thing is "yummy," as my yoga teacher would say.  There are many things calling to me - the taxes I haven't finished, the 20 reminders on my phone, but I get to ignore them for a while.  

Here's last week's sticky note.  I had hoped to revise and submit more poems, but at least it's something.  It was a busy week and I had to cut my writing time short for work Wed., Thurs., and probably today.  On the other hand, I went to writing class on Monday night and poetry night at the library on Wednesday night.

Last Week's Progress

Last Week's Progress

The other day on the way home from the store, I heard a woman read a poem on NPR.  It was a really short, but good, poem about her grandmother and jeopardy.  The broadcaster explained that NPR was accepting poetry submissions via Twitter of 140 characters or less and playing poems on the radio to celebrate National Poetry Month.  Hmmm.  I didn't have a Twitter account, and wondered if it was worth it to me to get one or not.  Visions came to mind of the episode of The Middle when Axel helped Mike set up a Twitter account and it turned into a disaster.  

I googled the contest and found an adorable poem called Follow That Shiny Bald Spot, and I figured if an eight-year-old girl can submit her poem through Twitter, I could too, so less than an hour later, I had an account and had submitted a haiku and a tanka - the only poems I've written that are short enough for the contest.  Here's the Tanka, which I wrote after attending my husband's grandmother's funeral a few years ago.

The Jar Opens

When your parents soar

past the glass lip of the jar,

you flutter and bump

against the lid.  How do you

imagine love without them?

- Jill Burkey

Another neat thing going on for National Poetry Month is that Mesa County Library is displaying some of the poems from the poetry night group at the main branch of the library over the check-out kiosks.  I'm excited to be included in this group with my poem, called, "Listen to the Poem."  

Poems on Display for National Poetry Month

Poems on Display for National Poetry Month

Listen to the Poem

Listen to the Poem

Poems above the check-out kiosks at Mesa County Public Library

Poems above the check-out kiosks at Mesa County Public Library

Enjoy this month of poetry, no matter where the weather or the words take you.  Write to tell me how you celebrate poetry, in large or small ways.


Third Sticky Note - Goals

Hello!  This is the end of the second week of my new writing schedule, and I've discovered that it's really hard to block out that time!  Having the accountability of the blog helps a lot.  Taking Sandy Dorr's class, Facing the Page, which is designed to help the participants finish their books, has also helped a lot.  On the very first day of class, Sandy asked us to take class time to figure out a writing schedule and then we were supposed to post it everywhere around our house and follow it!  At every class since then she's had us all check in with her about our schedule and how it's going.  At that point I had decided to make my schedule up week by week, depending on what was going on with my family's schedule, but I found it too inconsistent and vague.  I like me new schedule better, but I'm also finding that it isn't enough time.  It takes a lot of time to write and revise poetry!  Currently I spend 1 1/2 hours per day on my writing schedule.  I could easily double it.  I have to tear myself away from it to go to work.  But, I think the shorter schedule isn't all that bad, because it keeps me focused.  I can ignore email and my nagging to-do list during writing time a little easier knowing that I only have a short time to write.

I did take Daisy for a walk on Monday, but by the time we got ready, etc. it took 20 minutes instead of 10 to go around our circle, and I decided to cut that out of my schedule and try to walk her in the afternoons instead.  I think I put that in my schedule because I thought I'd need a brain break, but I don't.  This is a good example of how most things take longer than you think they do, including writing.

My goal was to move three poems into my finished binder per week, and to have them all there by May 1.  I don't know if that's realistic or not, so I may need to either increase my writing time or push my goal out a little farther.  This week I wrote two new poems, edited two poems for the finished binder, and started one poem which I'm still working on.  It's about an ancestor, so I've been working on that during both my poetry writing and family history writing time.  It's taking me a long time, because I'm researching a little as well, but I think it will be worth it.  I also submitted three poems to the Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize contest with Solstice, so I made my goal of submitting three poems to one journal or contest per week!  Like everything, submitting takes a lot more time than I thought, so I try to work on it outside my writing time too.  I'm going to add a third sticky note to my desk where I can keep track of how I'm doing on my goals.  I'll try to attach a picture.  Have a great week!

Welcome / New Writing Schedule

Hello!  Welcome to my blog.  Each Friday I will post a new entry here. Today is April Fool's Day - I hope that's not a bad omen.  I picked today to start because obviously the first of the month is a new month, and it's spring - a time for new beginnings.

I started subscribing to Writer's Digest this year and read the March/April 2016 issue on our way to Phoenix for spring break a few weeks ago.  I was impressed!  Many pages are now dog-eared, including one with a link to a blog about sticking to your writing schedule:  bit.ly/writingscheduleWD.  After I read it, I created a schedule for myself and wrote it on two sticky notes that live on my desk next to my computer.  I've promised myself to stick to this schedule for one month (even weekends) and then I'll make adjustments.  Two hours feels excessive for getting ready, but I wanted to be realistic or I'll never stick to it.  Plus, I'm usually ready by 6:45 a.m. or earlier so that just gives me even more time to write.

5:00 a.m. – wake up, make breakfast, pack lunches, shower, dress, get ready for day

7:00 – 7:20 a.m. – free write/blog

7:20 – 7:50 a.m. – write/edit poetry

7:50 – 8:20 a.m. – write/edit family history

8:20 – 8:30 a.m. – walk Daisy around neighborhood circle

8:30 – 9:00 a.m. – work on publication

wiggle room

9:30 a.m. – leave for work


On the days I take my daughter’s carpool to school, I’ll adjust it slightly:

5:00 a.m. – wake up, make breakfast, pack lunches, shower, dress, get ready for day

7:00 a.m. – Drive girls to school

7:30 – 7:50 a.m. – free write/blog

7:50 – 8:20 a.m. – write/edit poetry

8:20 – 8:50 a.m. – write/edit family history

8:50 – 9:00 a.m. – walk Daisy around neighborhood circle

9:00 – 9:30 a.m. – work on publication

9:30 a.m. – leave for work

So far I love the schedule.  I haven't followed through on the walking the dog part yet, and yesterday I spent 30 minutes on personal finances instead of writing, so I need to get more disciplined, but for the most part it's working very well!  I've also snuck some writing time in when I didn't expect it, like Monday during my son's tuba lesson, Wednesday for 20 minutes before yoga, and last night I read all of the contest ads in Poets & Writers because it's been hard tearing myself away from the writing to do it.  Next week the kids are back in school, so that will be a good test.  I'll let you know how it goes!  If you have any writing schedule tips, please share!