Gut Instinct


For my birthday last year, my husband gave me Jane Hirshfield’s Come, Thief. I remember picking it up, devotedly caressing its pages, being slightly disappointed by the cover that was not the one I wanted, then chastising myself for being picky.

I remember opening to the first poem, “French Horn”. I remember reading it. I remember not getting it. Not a damn word. My brain stayed closed like a flower with night still pressing upon it. I put Come, Thief away.

It’s been in the back of my mind for weeks now, because I realized I have not written a poem in months, maybe even closer to a year. I haven’t felt the inspiration for one. But lately, I’ve been catching others’ poems here and there, like light glinting off a reflective surface from its meridian. You look, but you can’t stare for more than a second because it hurts your eyes. I want that feeling of a poem rushing out of me. I’m ready for it. But I know I need to reacquaint myself with its language. So today, I picked up Come, Thief. I read “French Horn” again. This time, the locked language of the poem moved the machinery of my brain, allowing me to unlock the phrases, piece by piece, to embrace the whole.

Returning to the work of this favorite poet was like slipping into a pool of water the exact temperature of my body, then sinking deeper to be surprised by the colder recesses. But I was ready for it. And it was a pleasant shock to be immersed back in that language when I would be most receptive to it.

“Intuitions are not to be ignored, John. They represent data processed too fast for the conscious mind to comprehend.” –Sherlock

I finally sat down to the fourth season of the BBC’s Sherlock, and this quote from the first episode enamored me. It went so well with this idea that has been crackling in my brain about gut instinct. The same instinct that lead me back to Hirshfield at the right time.

Before my first poem was accepted, I had submitted it to maybe three or four places, along with some other elementary attempts. One day, going through these rough poems, “The Insolubility of Nightmares” jumped out at me as the one with the most potential. I revised it. When I stood back and looked at the completed picture, I had that gut instinct that told me this is done.  Now it’s ready for publication, I thought, and the right place will take it. Not that it is an exemplary poem in the Realm of All Poetry That Ever Was, but the concept of it had been teased into completion and polished to its highest form. Do I have stronger poems than that, published and unpublished? I think so. But my gut told me that specific poem was done. After that revision, I sent “The Insolubility of Nightmares” to Hello Horror, a newer lit mag at the time, and I received that coveted first acceptance.

At some point along this uphill trek to build my writing credits, I realized I don’t want sub-par work out there. With my story “The Wake“, I liked it about as much as I like some of my short stories I’ve stopped submitting because I know they’re not the best they can be. So when I looked at “The Wake” again with a more critical eye, I knew I needed a more explosive ending. Now, the note on which it ends is more faithful to my narrator’s personality and the choices she makes with her “scientific mind”. This alteration of her thoughts in the end made me get that same tugging in my gut: this is done. After this overhaul, the first place to which I sent it accepted. ☺ Coincidence? No.

For writers, I’m starting to understand that instinct is just as important as the other nuts and bolts in one’s writer toolbox. Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t feel that gut instinct crying out to you:

You’re not ready for that yet. 


This poem is not complete. 


It’s time to move on. 


It’s time to leap.

Just like everything takes practice to get better, so too does listening to one’s intuition, I’ve discovered. You get to know yourself, the fears that you must eschew, your lavish ambitions, your limitations, and your potential. I’m learning to let my gut instinct help sift through these aspects of myself, to better hear its call through the fog, whether prudent restraint or quiet encouragement.

10 thoughts on “Gut Instinct”

  1. Ooo, that is a great quote from Sherlock. And I totally agree about the gut instinct. It’s almost its own skill to learn to listen to that, much less trust it. I find it especially tricky when my gut tells me something isn’t right but my brain can’t figure out what/how to fix it. My brain is just like, “But what am I supposed to do?” Haha.

    1. I’m glad you appreciated the quote. Yes! Trusting this crucial instinct is a whole other demon to battle. And that problem you mentioned with the brain not knowing how to address, yes. Just yes.

  2. Love this line: “Returning to the work of this favorite poet was like slipping into a pool of water the exact temperature of my body, then sinking deeper to be surprised by the colder recesses.” And yes, instinct is so important, both in writing and in life. All too often, I ignore it in writing, sending out work that I know deep down isn’t ready yet, either out of impatience or boredom or blind hope. But I’m getting better at waiting until my gut says go.

    1. That is a hard truth to acknowledge about yourself. And as I read it, I had to begrudgingly admit those are all reasons I’ve sent premature work out. Yes, waiting is a big part of this gut instinct thing. Thank you, Carie. 💜

  3. Victory is so much sweeter when an instinct leads to success. There is a lot to be said for planning and hope, but I appreciate those moments of simple knowing beyond reason or doubt that some thing is right. Or, when you make a decision that seems irregular at the time only to realize later it fits in perfectly with what you were trying to do. Davis, you know I love that Sherlock quote. Fantastic!

  4. Beautiful Ash. It’s all about the gut. Often when we revisit our work we see things through new eyes with new revelations. 🙂

    1. Thank you, D.G.! Funny you say that about new eyes. I just pulled out an old poem for submission, and saw it totally differently than I had before. I revised it and *felt* like I got it right this time. 🙂


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