biographical essay

A Steady Stream

from Sharon Cumberland: Greatest Hits 1985-2000 
Pudding House Publications

I have never subscribed to the idea that the gift of poetry is rare and that those who have the gift were born under some special star. I believe that writing poetry is a way of living a self-examined life, and that the urge to write or tell stories is innate in human beings. Though some have greater gifts than others, or better luck, or more encouragement, we all have poetry in our veins and can learn to write our best and to read with joy and insight. How we learn depends on other people, and so a biography of the writing life must be an account of all those good souls who have encouraged and taught us over the years and who have offered us resources. I like to think of myself as a composite of other people–their enthusiasm, kindness, ideas, critiques, and sharing. The decision to be a writer is individual: like Milton, we must wrap our singing robes around ourselves and place the laurels on our own heads. But developing as a writer depends on a steady stream of teachers, colleagues, and friends.

I always wanted to be a writer, and can remember writing poems and songs from early childhood. Very soon, however, I developed an irrational fear of being successful, and would freeze up the minute anyone demonstrated approval of what I was doing. My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Nardine, was very interested in my poems, and was the first one to show me how to use a,b,c to analyze end rhyme patterns. One poem I recall was “Our Flag” which I read to my approving classmates. But I was terrified by enthusiasm, and failed in my efforts to write anything further in that class, though Mr. Nardine tried to persuade me. This anxiety persisted through college and graduate school, where I could write essays and literary studies of other people’s work, but was unable to write my own. Years later, when I was living in New York City, I underwent psychoanalysis with the great existential analyst, Herbert Holt. My anxiety had worsened to the point where I had difficulty getting through a day, much less writing a poem. As Dr. Holt helped me liberate myself, I began to believe that I could be a writer after all.

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