When in the course of writerly events it becomes necessary for Emma Bolden to have her picture taken, an existential crisis impels her to freak the everloving everything out.
This isn’t really anything new, as I’ve always hated having my picture taken. Just the mere mention of annual school photos is enough to send shivers up my spine and hives over my body. Every year, Picture Day loomed like a dread, dark pall over my daily existence. It was a day that would lead to an image imbued with more meaning than I could ever really handle. I went to a Catholic School for seven years, and Picture Day was one of the few days when we didn’t have to wear a uniform. It was the one day we all looked different — which meant it was the day that we were judged, and judged harshly, for coolness. Obviously, I never even made an appearance on the Cool-o-meter, otherwise I wouldn’t be a writer today. But still, I tried, and I tried hard, planning and re-planning outfits from the time the first bell rang on our first day of a new year at Our Lady of Sorrows, and every time I thought about Picture Day, I thought I truly understood the “Sorrows” part of our school’s name.
The fact that photographs are full of meaning, that they’re the way the world knows who you are and if you’re cool or not, never quite left me, and so now, even in my thirties, I tend to panic when I realize I’m in a situation that will lead to me being photographed, no matter how awesome that situation is. My latest experience with the lens was indeed attached to a highly awesome situation: I’ll be reading in this year’s Write Place event here in Statesboro, which is a tremendous honor and something about which I am tremendously excited. However, it meant the return of Picture Day Panic.
Here’s the thing I didn’t realize way back in the days of my youth: as you get older, Picture Day doesn’t become less important and less meaningful. It becomes more important, more meaningful, as the photographs are more meaningful. They’re a representation of who you are and what you do, and, in my case, what you’ve devoted your entire life to — which is, in my case, is writing, and, in particular, writing poetry.
When I realized I had to dress like A Poet for a photograph, an existential crisis began. I pawed frantically through my closets, trying to find the perfect outfit, the clothes that made me feel most like A Poet, the clothes that defined what I do, what I’m devoted to. I realized that I only really have one item of clothing that makes me feel like A Poet, that completely and accurately defines my work and my devotion to it. And that item of clothing? It’s this.
That’s right. The piece of clothing that makes me feel most like a poet? An owl-print muumuu-like (definitely not to be confused with Miu Miu-like) house-dress that my mom bought for me to wear when I was recovering from a surgical accident a few years back.
Oh my dear God, Emma, you’re probably thinking, what is wrong with you? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that.
That’s exactly the point.
This is the kind of thing one wears when there is absolutely no way one is leaving the house. It’s the kind of thing that says, hey, I’m staying in today, and I’m staying in alone. In other words, it’s the kind of thing one wears when one is intent on getting some work done.
The truth is, I don’t think of myself as a poet. I don’t typically call myself a poet, and when I do, I always kind of mumble the word. Instead, I call myself a writer, or I say that I write poetry. This has nothing to do with the fact that I work in multiple genres. Instead, it’s just that I like “writer” better. It feels like a better fit because there’s a verb there, because it implies what it really is: action, motion, and more than anything, work.
“Poet” has always seemed to me a very loaded word with a lot of very loaded connotations. It implies wisdom and otherworldly talent. It implies someone who lives in an elevated, eloquent way, who moves around in an elevated, eloquent world. It implies insight and vision and some kind of connection with the divine within and without. And me? Well, I’m without those qualities. What I do is more like carpentry: trying to find the right raw materials and working through trial and error, working with what I’ve learned from those with whom I was lucky to study, to build something that can stand and hold weight. I’m a tinkerer, a builder, a putter-together of things. I’m the worker bee, the drone who’d never even think of being the queen.
When I think about what I do, I think about work. I think about pencils and erasers. I think about scratching out, tearing apart, crumpling pieces of paper and starting over on new pieces of paper and then crumpling those. I think about hours of thinking. I think about pushing myself to push through and to find the right words. I think about realizing the right words aren’t the right words after all, and I think about crossing them out and forcing myself to push through again. I think about risking everything on the page, forcing myself to write it all out, and then I think about going back with a ruthless eye towards revision, cutting and writing and re-writing and re-cutting. I think about forcing myself to stay in the chair, no matter what it takes — even if it means wearing an owl-print muumuu. It may not be the kind of thing I’d wear for Picture Day, but it sure as hell gets me to get the job done.