Brain Breaks: A Winter Cool Down
I have been writing since I was eight years old. I have been reading from the age of three. I like to think I do both well, but, if not, it is not for a lack of practice.
Recently, I received the good news that a poem of mine is to be published. It is the first bit of my writing accepted for publication. Ever. There was dancing and a fair bit of silliness really not appropriate to one of my advanced years. I knew it was ridiculous, but I danced anyway. The publication of one poem is not going to make me rich. It is not going to make me famous. It is not going to make my name known among the lions of literature. Hell, it won't even afford me the compensation of immortality apart from the obscure masses that belongs to many writers of the past. Still, I celebrated and my family took me out to a Brazilian joint for a carnivore fiesta. It was a good day.
What was I celebrating? Until that moment, my writing was shared with a small group of friends and family. They told me it was good. Some of them are even qualified to have the sort of highbrow opinion on such matters that I might respect if they were talking about someone else's writing, but they were my friends and family and so I could not completely trust them. Mixed up in their editorial comments was the fact that they loved me, I loved them, and neither party wanted to hurt the other. Their feelings for me could not be taken out of their reading, even when they intended to offer an objective analysis of my work. I accepted their praise, and that praise was strengthening, but when it came to placing artistic value on the work I did, their praise did not come into it. That judgment, on whether my writing could ever have a value outside this inner circle, had to come from outside. It came; I celebrated.
Now, I have written for decades without affirmation, some of it good, most of it bad. When not writing, I am reading. I do not understand the current of anti-reading that exists among some writers, especially university undergraduates who claim they cannot read for fear of influence. This is laziness and contempt for the craft, and for their audience. For if a writer does not read, how can they ask to be read? If we as writers devalue the communication process of reading, how can we then promote its importance to those we would have read us? And what is so bad about influence anyway? Apprentice artists look to the masters, but this does not confine them merely to what was done before them. Apprentice writers should look to their masters, and know that this does not confine them merely to what has been said before.
But I digress. This is the reason I am not a prose writer. I don't have the discipline in prose form that I have worked to gain in poetic form. The point is, I celebrated and then sat down to write....what? I didn't have anything to say. The computer screen stayed blank with that damn cursor blinking at me. I turned to longform, but my journal with its tiny graph paper pages did the same. I think I doodled an insanely skewed tree with rather pathetic leaves in the corner of one page and the date, but nothing else came to mind. My son brought me Pinnochio, so I sat and read with him instead.
I did not despair. I am old enough in the craft and in my own habits to know what must be done. The first thing to do was not write. Over time I have collected quite a stack of paper, poems, scraps of poems, doodles, quotations, notes that I intended to do something with. My time would be best spent returning to this stack and culling it. Most of it is longhand, a collection of writing I am half-heartedly transcribing to OneNote. In this stack I have really bad poems I wrote in high school. The pain of going through this stack is indescribable. I pick up pages of paper, or napkins with blue ink sunk into the pores of the paper, and shudder--What? I thought this was worth saving? By the time I am done with it, very little will remain.
I get my stack of paper. I make three piles: trash, edit, and complete. Trash goes to the good fellas at the city recycling center. Edit gets entered into OneNote for further work. Complete gets entered into OneNote with a large notice at the top to remind myself not to tinker with it anymore. You can revise yourself right out of a good poem. I sit down with my laptop and get to work.
This work is writing, too, only not the glamorous, mythic work of the inspired artist enslaved to the whims of a muse. This is the real work of writing, especially of writing poetry. Worrying over single words--is this the exact word? What does this word evoke that alternatives do not? Does it evoke what I intend? Worrying over rhythms, listening for flaws, for breaks that destroy sense or create it. Comparing drafts upon which I had scribbled different changes, looking at all the versions side by side, weighing their value, evaluating the worth of changes made, examining where to stitch them together and where to tear them apart. No wonder poets cultivate the myth of the muse with such energy, this part of the process is difficult, tedious, and without glamour. It is so much better with just a muse, a hit or miss style of writing in which failure belongs either to the audience (they aren't up to the artist) or the muse (she fled when she should have stayed).
I am still in the middle of this rather messy project. My wife is rather tired of it. First, it is a mess and takes a lot of time that, with a son in the house, two cats, and two dogs, we just don't have that much of. Second, I am forever telling her either to leave me alone so that I can work, or just listen to this and tell me what you think. She can't win. She has two choices: laugh at me (which is her solution at this time) or find something rather heavy and clunk me over the head. The clunking could start any day. Have I mentioned that I have not yet put up our Christmas tree? Guess who's getting coal in their stocking.
I am also reading, and not my typical reading. Nope, I am self-medicating with C.P. Cavafy. He has a great poem for writers in my position: "The First Step" (.http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?id=145&cat=1):
"To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done already is a glorious thing."
Cavafy speaks to me as a poet and a student of history. His great love was Alexandria, a city fallen from greatness, home to a decayed culture. He re-created its past in his poems, the men and the women of history in a pageant of personalities, each unaware of the future they failed to reach, but to which they sometimes contributed in the short-sighted pleasures and chicaneries of their present. Really wonderful stuff. I had done some work in that line myself before I ever read Cavafy, and I am really enjoying the reading. In some pieces, he does this traveling much better than I.
This is my answer to what I do when I am not writing. I revise, and I read. I gather information for future efforts. Sometimes the seeds of what I will later realize are long in germination. Sometimes, I am holding a piece of a puzzle that will only be joined by its completing, complementing piece sometime later, often when I am no longer looking for it.