Jim Daniels, “Keeping Track: The 3x5s”
Some writers talk about “inspiration” and tend to downplay the practical, more organized side of things, but I do believe in being methodical, having a system, for both writing and getting published, particularly when it comes to poetry, the most romanticized of the writing genres.
“The Muse” is not going to tap you on the shoulder and toss some of the magic poetry dust up in the air. Too many writers have been waylaid by other “magic” powers and elixirs, mistaking them for inspiration.
In addition, publishers are not going to come knocking on your door, saying, “Hey, I’ve heard you’ve got some great poems. I want to publish them! All of them! Right now!”
No taps. No knocks. We have to do what we can ourselves. We have to go after inspiration. We have to kick the Muse’s ass into submission. And make our own submissions once we’re satisfied with the results.
For me, it all comes together in 3x5 notecards. I load up on them and use them for all aspects of writing, from beginning to end.
I have never kept a journal except on the five long-distance bicycle trips I’ve taken across the span of almost forty years. Some of the greatest adventures of my life, duly recorded—or, dully recorded—in journals. How many miles we rode, what the weather was like, what we ate. I’ve never been able to write anything worthwhile about those momentous trips, despite the detailed journals. Too aware. Too conscious. Too controlled.
My writer’s “journal” consists of a series of 3x5 notecards.
I keep them in my pockets always. I have two in my pockets this very moment. On them, I have written: “kids museum discovery room” and “view master far away places.” While I am tempted to explain those notes to you, I don’t want to dissipate their potential for poems. I use the cards to jot down flashes of something that strikes me. There’s no editorial judgment made. I just automatically write down whatever thought or image or memory that has lodged in my mind, and let it go. Rarely, very rarely, do I have the immediate time to try and develop that image or phrase. Actually, sitting on them for awhile is part of my process.
Not only do I carry the cards around throughout my day, but I also keep them on my nightstand. There’s this great device called, I believe, “Nite Note”—despite the spelling, it’s an ingenious thing: a holder for 3x5 cards, and a zero gravity pen attached. When you pull out the pen, a little light comes on that shines on the cards. You can write something down, then roll over and go back to sleep. The slide show of the mind as it drops towards sleep is wonderfully arbitrary—or, it seems so at the time. I trust myself that what I’m writing might make more sense in the light of day. Sometimes it does.
Some of this might seem counter-intuitive in the computer/tablet/smart phone age, but for me it’s the least intrusive way to collect the material for possible poems.
Once I’ve accumulated a number of cards in my pocket, I sit down and go to the technology, the next step in the process, transcribing the notecards into a computer file labeled “To Write.” While transcribing the notes, I invariably add some additional information or imagery, and sometimes it just takes off into a first draft at that point. When I have time to write, I just open the “To Write” folder and browse to see what grabs me again, calling out for further development. At that point, I am done with those notecards.
That asterisk is the process of going through multiple drafts and revisions until I’m ready for the new notecards—my submission notecards. Again, this might seem retro with submission managers and trackers like Duotrope and Submittable, which certainly are useful, but for me, the physicality of the notecards helps me keep track of what poems I have sent where and what I need to send out again.
I put the title of each poem I will be sending out on a separate notecard. I spread out all the cards on my dining room table in alphabetical order—typically, I do two big submissions per year, in the fall and in January. Then, I put the poems in groups of 5 based on style, subject matter, theme, etc. It’s like putting a very small book manuscript together—trying to create a group in which the poems play off of each other, resonate, perhaps even tell a larger picture. Then, I try and find a journal that might be open to the vision of this little group of poems. An inexact process, I know…
On each card, I write down the name of the journal, and the month and the year, then I paperclip these cards together to indicate one submission. Once I’ve done this with all the available poems, I put the paper-clipped groups in alphabetical order by the name of the magazine. On a separate card, I list all the journals I have work out at, plus the month and year.
If some or all of the poems get rejected, I then take those cards, cross out the journal name, and add the next journal when (and if) I choose to send it out again. I could go on in greater detail, but I think you get the idea: methodical. It is easier for me to mix and match poems when I have their physical titles in my hand, and, in many cases, a list of places that have rejected that poem before. Sometimes, I’ll have a journal in mind when I pull the cards together—a journal I haven’t tried in a while, a journal whose new issue I liked a lot, etc.—and that can influence the make-up of a submission.
I place the cards of the poems that get accepted together in another stack, so that when it’s time to put a book manuscript together, I can shuffle through the cards of the published poems and look for other patterns that might eventually form sections in a book. It also helps when it comes to putting acknowledgments together.
For me, this system saves time. It gives a physicality to both the process of engaging the world as a writer, taking it in, and then sending my work back out into the world in search of an audience.
I should mention one more use of the cards. Forced precision. Word processors are of course very useful, but often the sense of length is lost, at least for me. I like to have a little box to put my words in, and I will often, as a writing exercise, try to squeeze a poem onto a 3x5 card—essentially, a postcard poem, but with no glossy image on the other side to dazzle. The words themselves have to, in a very short space, convince the reader that I am indeed having a wonderful—or horrible—time and wished they were there.
It helps rein me in. Once, in a post office in Italy, the man behind the counter tried to charge me extra to mail my postcard because I had written too much on it. So, yes, I do cheat and write smaller—but cheating is part of it. See, in a Word file, there’s no cheating, no bargaining—you can go on and on without ever running out of room. The burden of compression has always been a part of my process, and the notecards are a physical reminder to try and intensify my language.
I’ve had my students at Carnegie Mellon University typeset their poems with old metal type to slow them down and get them to compress. The poems are always shorter, never longer, when they have to form each word physically letter by letter. When I am writing on my 3x5s, I feel some of that same physicality. The body and mind, both working together and fighting it out.
My 3x5 notecards are not magic cards, and I cannot do tricks with them. Just the hard work of being a writer.
Bio: Jim Daniels’ fourteenth book of poems, Birth Marks, was published by BOA Editions in 2013 and was selected as a Michigan Notable Book, won of the Milton Kessler Poetry Book Award, and received the Gold Medal in Poetry in the Independent Publishers Book Awards. His fifth book of short fiction, Eight Mile High, was published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. A native of Detroit, Daniels is the Thomas Stockham University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.