I often quote Lilian Sandburg to encourage student writing. I remember exactly where I was standing in Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock when I read Lilian’s words on a postcard to her discouraged husband. The National Park Service captures the exchange in these words:
“Once, during the early years of their marriage, when he was off on a business trip and wrote to her, worried over their lack of funds, she told him, The poems are great, Carl. It would be all wrong to give them up. We must give the Poet every chance! If we can only assure ourselves enuff leisure for this—you will arrive. You’ve got it in you. The only question is can we get enuff time to get it out of you! You are great and great and great! Greater poems than some of yours have absolutely never been written! It’s only a question of time till we come to our own. . . It’s all coming, dear—coming sure!”
Later, Lilian laments that she “shall never write for print. . .” He replies to her, What. . . do I care whether you go in for literary work or not? Don’t we each give the other free loose for anything & everything? . . . All I know is you are a great woman, a splendid girl. In some way you will express yourself. You decide on the way . . . Great you are—great, beautiful, inclusive, daring, quick, orginial. . . I would rather be a poem like you than write poems. I would rather embody the big things as you do than carve or paint or write them. You inspire art–& that’s living.
I love looking at a student and saying with absolute certainty, “You’ve got it in you. The only question is can we get enough time to get it out of you.” And when they decide they simply do not want to write–because it’s not joyful for them; it’s not their calling,–I want to tell them to go ahead and express themselves in another way. “You decide the way. Just be the poem. Embody the big things. Inspire art, then.”
I also love tucking these letters away as a reminder of great marriages. We can be Sandburg and Lilian to one another when we feel discouraged.
Text from “Carl Sandburg Home,” National Park Service, Public Domain