I’ve heard that writing well is less a function of how many words you know and more about how you use them. I’d like to add that, for me, it also has to do with the words I find. I’ve spent many years looking for the right words, poking around in books and attics, old Moon hot-rod catalogues or over the measuring table at the Jo Ann Fabric store. These explorations are based on the assumption I might discover words to help me fashion a text, as Annie Dillard says, for whatever fragmentary images or anecdotes or memories that surface for their own mysterious reasons. Besides, I’ve always liked to wander, ever since I was kid exploring the woods of Hamlin Park or the interior of a car engine or wondering about my family’s history, even more curious after my grandmother admonished me for being nosy. “It’s not for you to know,” she said, a rebuke and invitation at the same time. The words are out there.

Each memoir or poem, for me, starts off as indecipherable, messy, maybe even amorphous but still as a place to wander. I’m thinking of Richard Hugo’s essay “Writing Off the Subject,” in which he explains how the triggering subject “causes” the poem to be written and the generated subject is discovered in the writing process. In the discovered words? I wonder. I’m thinking of a day in early spring a long time ago, when my friend Bob and I took his twin daughters and my daughter to an abandoned limestone quarry at Cedar Bluff, IA. The sun was out though the wind was brisk as we climbed down into the quarry pit, the ice still thick enough to hold us, the limestone walls sheer. Once below the edge, we walked out onto the ice, and the air lay still. There in the quiet emptiness of the quarry ice, I found a maple leaf that had taken up the sun’s radiant energy and sunk a half a foot into the ice, leaving behind an icy emptiness in the shape of a maple leaf.

And for that emptiness within the limestone emptiness around us, I imagined that I would leave an emptiness one day in my daughter’s life. Ah, I thought, here’s a subject. I tried to find language to address the leaf, the maple leaf silhouette in ice, the girls who had gathered weeds and wild mint and sat on limestone blocks, in a quarry beside the Cedar River, where a ruined bridge had fallen around its limestone abutments, their blocks cut from this very ground. But that useless bridge was as far as I got. I didn’t know what else to say. Richard Hugo might have suggested that I move from my triggering subject to using words for the sake of their sound. Often when my writing process skids to a stop, which it often does, then it’s time, as Auden says, “to hang around words and listen to what they say.”  Read then write, a poet friend says, and after my asking what might be discovered about quarries, the library gave me “wedge and feather” for the method of breaking off blocks, feathers the two steel sleeves dropped into holes drilled along one edge of the limestone block, a steel wedge centered between each set.  Then five men with sledgehammers strike the wedges at once to fracture the block free. Such a delicate metaphor for violent action—fascinating but not quite right, I thought. I had stood in the middle of a quarry taking a picture of three little girls sitting on a one-ton block of limestone, little girls who kicked their legs and held wild mint in their hands, the mint square-stemmed my friend Bob reminded me. The rectangular quarry had “faces” a book said. The limestone itself was “good dimension stone.” The block these girls were sitting on was cut from “the parent ledge.” Right then I knew where I might turn and follow. The words suggested I wasn’t going to leave an emptiness in my daughter’s life; no, she would leave an emptiness in mine. A grown woman inevitably; a little girl in memory and imagination. Then a warm summer day came to mind as fathers watched from the edge of a quarry, waiting for their young girls to break the surface and shake their hair free from those clean lines, their perfect, unmarked faces.

This is what the words I found said to me.

James McKean

James McKean earned a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has published three books of poems – “Headlong,” “Tree of Heaven,” and “We Are the Bus” – and two books of essays, “Home Stand: Growing Up in Sports” and “Bound.”

McKean’s poems have appeared in journals such as PoetryThe Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia ReviewThe Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest, among others, and have been featured in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. His nonfiction has appeared in Crab Orchard ReviewGray’s Sporting JournalThe Gettysburg Review, and The Iowa Review, and his essays have been reprinted in The Best American Sports Writing 2003 and the 2006 Pushcart Prize anthology.

McKean teaches poetry and creative nonfiction in our low-residency master of fine arts in creative writing program.

Contributions by James McKean