08/31/2010 05:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Making of a Novel: What I Wish for My Daughter

I dropped my oldest girl at college yesterday, 3,000 miles away from home. I turned my back, walked out of her room, and walked away. I managed not to start sobbing until I got outside, but barely. The president of the college addressed the parents in a very old and beautiful chapel, and I sat in the very back row because I was feeling so fragile. I thought I might need to escape.

The speech was powerful and expertly delivered, and I had begun to feel as if I might be able to breathe again, when the president said that he wanted to conclude his remarks with a poem that he felt was particularly suitable for the occasion. It was a poem written by Richard Wilbur. Good, I thought. Poems are good.

The president read the title -- The Writer.

My brain seized up. This is one of my favorite poems. I keep it in rotation on the bulletin board above my desk, and I use it in my writing classes. It is one of the best descriptions of the writing process I know. But it's a poem about writing. And most of the parents in the chapel weren't writers. So what was up with that?

He read the first stanza, and I almost burst out laughing, because it hit me like a lightning bolt that it's not actually a poem about writing at all. It's a poem about living, and about struggling. It's a poem about sending your child out into the world to make their way. How could I have have skewed the meaning all these years? In a flash, that poem changed for me. And I sat there, letting the words wash over me in a brand new way, and as the president neared the end, and I knew what was coming -- that last line! -- the tears began to flow again. How amazing and wonderful it was, the way that life can change the meaning of writing, and the way that writing can change how we think of life.

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.