Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



July 2015

“Three years of tryings before [Melville] felt capable of beginning Billy Budd (the kernel waiting half a century); three years more, the slow, painful never satisfied writing and rewriting of it.”

“Ways of Being Silent” by Tillie Olsen, Harper’s Magazine, October 1965, available online at



A Kernel Waiting: The Creative Process

Dear Reader,

My husband, John Gaumond, has a wonderful habit of clipping articles from magazines and newspapers for me. He knows my interests and receives about two dozen magazine subscriptions, so his resources seem unending. Lucky me. When I have a chance to sit down, I go to the pile and enjoy a few minutes of reading.

The article cited above is one that stayed with me, which is usually a signal I need to write about it. Tillie Olsen wrote about writers’ long silences, a subject near and dear to most writers, except Joyce Carol Oates. Olsen sites examples of sustained silences – 30, 40, 50 years – before books were finally published. Circumstances often work against writers – heavy responsibilities, minimal time to devote to the act of sitting down and pounding it out, a lack of money and/or connections. It is a wonder books get written at all, given the discouraging aspects of being a writer.

But what happens during the time between the urge to commit to a project and the surge to complete it? Melville turned to writing poetry “to nurse through night the ethereal spark” – his was “a thirty-year night” without prose writing. He was nearly seventy years of age when he quit his Customs House job to write full time. What a challenge it must have been to sit down and grapple with the “kernel waiting half a century” – his efforts yielded Billy Budd.

At a recent book launch, poet Alan Feldman mentioned that his Immortality represented about a decade’s work. That sounds about right. My new book, The little O, the earth: Travel Journals, Art & Poems, spans eight years, with three more spent in revising and adding artwork. My decision to earn a living by becoming a teacher meant that it would be about 35 years before I would return to squeezing paints onto a palette.

What happened in the meantime? Actually, quite a bit. The creative process is supported by an immense system of scaffolding called collecting. Even when I was not at my desk at my easel, I was actively engaged in the creative process. I allowed my senses to be driven by a need to collect images, experiences, even snatches of conversation, which eventually found places in prose pieces, poems and paintings.

Poet Stanley Kunitz advised poets against taking a job teaching poetry in a university setting. He said, “Do something else, develop any other skill, turn to any other branch of knowledge. Learn how to use your hands. Try woodworking, bird-watching, gardening, sailing, weaving, pottery, archeology, oceanography, spelunking, animal husbandry – take your pick. Whatever activity you engage in, as trade or hobby or field study, will tone up your body and clear your head. At the very least, it will help you with your metaphors” (Interview and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz, page 52).

Writers and artists keep notebooks to collect the precious stones that fall at their feet, where they remain until it is time to do the work of transforming them into gems.

If you are a writer and/or artist who feels a bit down about either your productivity or the time it is taking you to complete a project, I recommend Tillie Olsen’s “Ways of Being Silent.” It will fill you with awe and self-respect.