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Show up and wait

by Leslie Ullman ’69

   Poet, and winter ski instructor, Leslie Ullman '69
On an ideal morning, I sit down with scanty longhand notes from a writing exercise I’ve given myself a day or two before, turn on the computer, and type bits of the notes onto the screen. Most of my time is consumed by sitting and staring. Only intermittently do I type, delete, type something that wasn’t in the notes, type something from the notes, and so on. Whatever I do on the keyboard happens after what must look like a lot of no activity at all—just me staring at the screen by way of staring into myself and waiting for something unexpected to arise. I find myself oddly content to just sit there, as though held in suspension by a blankness that is at once immaterial and immensely comforting.

Whether I’m working on a poem or exploring some idea in a journal, I rarely feel inspired, in the conventional sense, to make something particular out of the materials at hand. I really don’t know what I’m aiming for, or if I even feel like writing. But I do love the materials—the resonance of certain combinations of words as they coalesce into images or arresting moments, and then into associations and reveries. And I have come to trust the fact that if I just show up, something will happen—I’ll see a new theme emerging from my notes, I’ll find myself writing an image or two that surprises me and opens up a new direction for exploration, or I’ll stumble on an insight about a situation I’ve been struggling with. It amazes me that every time I show up and then permit myself to be still, I end up moving forward in ways I hadn’t foreseen.

Looking back on my 40 years as a “creative” person, I think I spent the first half of them feeling like an imposter—not unable to make poems and essays, but questioning how I got to them, or through them, and suspecting that the most recent piece was a fluke and might never happen again. I, like most of my generation, was raised by pragmatic, focused, can-do people, in a culture that understood (and still understands) process as a means to the thing of real value, product. I had no reason to question this. The postwar, civic-minded generation that produced my parents and teachers offered us mentors whose energy, ingenuity, and record of success still cannot be questioned.

Now that I am on the threshold of being an elder, I realize I’ve spent all of my adult life immersed in that mysterious, supposedly temporary realm of pro­cess. Process is the heart inside my work, not only as a writer and as a mentor of writers, but also as a willing student of many other things. Most recently I have experienced this while learning to teach skiers, encountering yet again how hard it can be on one’s sense of oneself as an accomplished pro­fessional to submit to one’s imperfections as a beginner and to see oneself as a blank slate. But it is also a great opportunity to submit to the pro­cess of discovery without immediate expectations of a particular performance or outcome. What always inspires me is the sensation of having a dialogue with the materials at hand—words, line breaks, images, people, body movements, skis in the snow. There’s always that moment when I’m not sure what my side of the dialogue will be, and then suddenly it’s there because I’m there, receiving signals and sending incremental signals back. I will never be able to describe this properly, and I will never get over being astonished each time it happens.