Most creative people have files, cabinets and closets full of unfinished projects. No surprise there. Not everything we try to do comes up to expectations. Sifting through my files, separating out possibility from false starts and flat ideas reminds me of incidental walks I take in the woods. With an eye on the path ahead, I’ll often notice fallen branches and other debris. These bruised materials lie quietly, mostly unnoticed. Still, they transfer energy, dropping seeds, providing nutrition and cover for animals, doing so slowly and mysteriously.

In some version of that walk in the woods, periodically, I read through stories, essays, poems that never completed the cycle of published life. What’s the point, I sometimes ask?  Yet each time I browse, it’s with a different eye, as the slow transformation of my practice brings me insight and greater skill. In effect, I become a new audience for old projects.

I can use elements of previously failed words and ideas. The effort may not realize the full artful life I intended for this material. However, like the detritus of nature’s materials, immature or abandoned work may rise to new forms or purposes. Despite the motive to neaten up a workspace, artistic instinct cautions: “Don’t throw that stuff away.” It may resonate under new circumstances.

I’m using journal notes and an overworked long prose poem to refresh a creative nonfiction essay titled “Road Trip.” The notes, now faded ink pen on ripped out notebook sheets, chronicle a week’s trip to the Rockies that a friend and I took during graduate school.

“What do you want for your birthday?”, my friend said as we sat in the university cafeteria one summer morning.

“Oh, you know.” I’d been talking about taking a trip west of Wisconsin once our semester was over. She made it happen. In her dinged, bondo-etched purple Chevrolet, we set out from Milwaukee, stopping first to pick up gear from a wilderness school in McGregor, MN, the heart of the North Woods. We drove north to International Falls and west toward Regina and the Rockies.

In writing the essay, my notes serve me yet: We head north toward Beaver Bay and the Boundary Waters, staying with friends along the Temperance River. After supper at an open fire on the pebble beach, we climb down a slope and over rock ledges into a cove of volcanic rock. The dim enclosure gleams with still light where water rests in the holes. Grass, harebells grow; gray and white gulls float above us.

I ended that trip by reading sections of the long prose poem and part of my journals on Station KAXE in Minneapolis. A long time ago; a different voice. Yet the notes and drafts serve me well today in reimagining scenes, people, conversations and the impressions of an urban dweller meeting glorious open spaces.

I’ve changed, emotionally and imaginatively, with new goals and different perceptions. Still, the natural filtering down of experience, the process of making meaning from life events, continues. The failed prose poem leads me forward.




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