Lost in the Woods

Gretchen Tessmer


Fiction is a product of the mind, all gears and levers; poetry is an expression of the soul, all thunderstorms and rustle of feathers.  At least in execution.  And at least to this writer.  I see my own imagination as a forest—dense and much tangled with briers, blackberry bushes, and thickets, home to many small, furry creatures and pretty songbirds.  It can lead anywhere, much like the woods in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, where Polly and Digory tumbled into both decaying and newborn worlds by a simple jump into still pools of water.

Sometimes I lose myself in those woods.  The possibilities are too endless, the mire of carefully plotted details too consuming.  In long works especially, the writing process can be burdensome and weighs me down in word counts, timelines and side stories.  While wandering that mossy woodland, it’s easy enough to miss the forest for the trees.

Whenever this happens, I take a break from the fiction—curl up in the window seat of my studio with a cup of something hot and steamy in my hands, let my eyes wander and watch the scarlet red and pumpkin-orange leaves break free from their branches and flutter away in the breeze—and then I write some poetry.  A poem can center the longer piece and remind me exactly what the story was about in the first place.

I begin with the strongest line I can think of (“she poured the bottle dry”, “he was all flashy grins and gold teeth”, “the sky opened up and the sea sloshed out”) and then I write the heart of the piece, free from the tethers of plot points, character development and chapter outlines.  It’s liberating and, if I'm lucky, just the spark needed to put the fire back in the narrative.

Admittedly, sometimes the spark gets out of hand and burns a large section of the whole imagination-forest down, but that’s the risk any writer takes by following one sentence with another.  It's best to strike the match, consequences be damned.  Often enough, some sort of phoenix will rise from the ashes.

Gretchen Tessmer is a writer based in Northern New York. Her work is featured in issue 297.4 of North American Review.