Writing with Grandpa Wendell

My dear friend Lisa and I were talking about books the other day, and when I said how much I loved Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, she lit up — “Oh, Grandpa Wendell!!” Now I can’t think of him any other way. :) One of his poems, “How To Be A Poet (to remind myself)” is SO GOOD, and anytime I use it in class, students quietly and instinctively lean in. There’s a feeling that we’re hearing wise and instructive words. Afterward, I invite them to write a poem of their own based on Grandpa Wendell’s example. So here’s his poem, followed by the prompt . . .

How To Be A Poet

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.   

Sit down. Be quiet.   

You must depend upon   

affection, reading, knowledge,   

skill—more of each   

than you have—inspiration,   

work, growing older, patience,   

for patience joins time   

to eternity. Any readers   

who like your poems,   

doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath   

the unconditioned air.   

Shun electric wire.   

Communicate slowly. Live   

a three-dimensioned life;   

stay away from screens.   

Stay away from anything   

that obscures the place it is in.   

There are no unsacred places;   

there are only sacred places   

and desecrated places.   


Accept what comes from silence.   

Make the best you can of it.   

Of the little words that come   

out of the silence, like prayers   

prayed back to the one who prays,   

make a poem that does not disturb   

the silence from which it came.

(Wendell Berry)

Okay. Now for the prompt: write a poem that reminds you of how to be who you are. It could be, “How To Be A Student (to remind myself)” or “How To Be A Mom (to remind myself)”. It could be how to be a reader, a citizen, a seeker, a friend, a neighbor. You can fill in the blank any way you want. Berry’s poem has inspired a bunch of versions for me over the years, and the way I respond changes based on the day. I’m never “done” with this prompt—or rather, it’s never done with me. It’s a flashlight that illuminates stuff I didn’t know I knew about how to be a particular person in the world.

Here’s an example from my journal last week, when I was feeling particularly disconnected from myself:

How To Be Jenna

(to remind myself)

Go outside. Be quiet.

Find a steady, uncluttered stride.

Don’t rush and don’t linger.

Let the steadiness of walking,

of feeling your feet against the ground,

bring you back into your body.

Smell the moss and pine

and dampness of the yards

after it rains.

Stop next to the tree with white bark

rest your hand on the trunk

and look up. Remember who you love.

Include yourself in the remembering.

Trust the words that come.

Don’t struggle against them.

Rest in their existence and their desire

To be born into the world.

Wear soft clothes,

fabrics that bring comfort.

Don’t worry about style,

or if things match, or what anyone would say.

Trust the response of your body.

If the shoes pinch, give them away.

If the shirt itches, give it away.

If you only have it because it looks like something

you “should” like, give it away . . .

(July 2019)

I hope this invites and inspires you to write something today. If you want to share, then I’d love to read it!

Jenna ThompsonComment