By VALERIE PERALTA
On my journey to exercise consistently and eat what I should more often than not, I often focus more energy on exercise than nutrition. Yes, it’s easier for me to run five miles than it is for me to resist a double chocolate brownie smothered in hot fudge sauce and topped with whipped cream. Yet, there is another piece of the fitness puzzle I regularly skimp on.
Almost every article I’ve read about weight management claims seven to eight hours of nightly sleep is necessary. Somehow, I don’t think the five hours I get between nightfall and sunrise plus the two-hour nap I sneak in during the afternoon counts. (Don’t judge me!)
Just like it’s important to adhere to the many factors that affect fitness—regular exercise, healthy diet, sufficient sleep, minimal stress—there is more to the writing life than, well, writing.
Noted poet Baron Wormser told me more than once as he deftly guided me in the writing of my MFA poetry thesis: “Poetry is not just a form of expression. We respond to what we read.”
While reading is an important and integral part of a writer’s life, I admit that I spend more time stressing over the writing I don’t do than I spend time reading. Yet, reading exposes writers to a plethora of craft and inspiration and might even remind us why we write.
When we identify the moves a writer makes as we read, we discover techniques to incorporate in our own writing. Some consider this type of learning imitation. In A Poetry Handbook, Marie Oliver advocates for this practice: “if imitation were encouraged much would be learned well that is now learned partially and haphazardly. Before we can be poets, we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing” (Harcourt Brace & Company 1994). But it is more than just beginning writers who read so they can adopt the techniques of other writers. Who hasn’t attended a workshop where the presenter color coded an excerpt of writing to point out showing vs. telling, lyrical language, rhythm and musicality, metaphor, or a number of other literary elements with the goal of teaching attendees to adopt these in their own work? (If you haven’t, you should.)
This summer, for the first time ever, I participated in the Sealey Challenge, which is to read one book of poetry every day during the month of August. Not only did I whittle down my to-be-read stack and relieve my stress of owning a bazillion poetry books that I’ve never read, I also ended each day with immense joy for having filled it with poetry. My brain and soul ingested beautiful and thought-provoking lines such as “where Juniper needs pruning” from “An Ingenue Texts Sexton Before the Honey Moon” by Airea D. Matthews (Simulacra, Yale University Press 2017). What’s more, the poems “Ode to the Kiwi” by Stephanie, Coconut Grove Elementary, 4th grade (2019), and “Ode to the Kiwi after Stephanie” by Hanif Abdurraqib from O, Miami’s Jai-Alai Magazine #1 inspired my own fruit-themed poem.
Just like I shouldn’t skimp on the seemingly lesser parts of fitness, as writers we shouldn’t skip the important practice of reading. Reading may be the missing component to our writing success—whatever that means for each of us.
Here I overtly break the fourth wall because I genuinely want to know: What are you reading to improve your writing? Please comment so I can read it too!
I am writing this the morning after yet another shooting. This time in Tampa. Two lives were taken and 16 people were injured. With so much violence and pain in the world and no peace in sight, it seems silly—insensitive even—to blather on about exercising regularly, eating vegetables instead of brownies, and getting the recommended amount of daily sleep. Well, maybe not sleep. Sleep deprived people do some weird shit sometimes. More critically, I fear sensible gun laws will never exist in this country, and not because of the 2nd Amendment or because, as it often seems, freedom to own a gun is more important than freedom to not be killed with a gun. No, the real reason this nation’s gun laws remain wildly and irresponsibly permissive is because without guns this country would not exist—at least not as it is today. Might captures and clenches on to power with its ability to obliterate anyone who might attempt to get in its way.
And while it’s true that fitness, nutrition, and sleep won’t fix the world’s problems, I’m willing to bet reading and writing can ease some of the pain, and maybe even some of the violence.
For consideration, I offer these lines from Darius Daughtry’s What Can a Poem Do? (Poetry Magazine June 2021):
what if there were more writers on my block
on your block
in every barrio and borough
conclave and commonwealth
courtroom and capitol hill
what if they all spilled ink
allowed the innerworkings of their hearts
to scribble a poem or two
I wonder where we’d be if the masses knew
just what a poem could do.
Don’t believe us?
Valerie Peralta is an intermittent practitioner of just about everything she does striving to be more tortoise and less hare. After copy editing for two decades, she’s finally trusting her own words on the page. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Fairfield University; her work has been published by The Blended Future Project and is forthcoming in Heart Balm. She lives in South Florida within running distance of the Everglades.