Sep 29

The Writer's Hangover

Writing 13 hours a day indoors during this oppressively hot summer and enjoying it, I knew it was technically unhealthy not to do anything else, so decided to drive 500 miles for a trip north to get out, take a break, cool off and see family. Started up through Illinois and for the first two hours could not stay awake. Stopped for coffee, stopped for lunch with coffee, stopped at a rest stop for 40 minutes and did jumping jacks and yoga, and stopped at another rest stop and splashed and slapped my face and lay down on a stone bench gazing up at fizzing summer trees, thinking, What's the matter? Illinois I-55 is not a challenging drive, it's a long straight line!

Then it occured to me that driving is a linear, objective task, a left-brain task, and for weeks I'd been waltzing in a right-brain ballroom of swirling words and limitless inner pictures and ideas. Even taking daily walks, very early or very late in the day, I didn't "do" straight lines; mostly I took gorgeous photos of gorgeous summer butterflies and wildflowers, and did only the barest minimum of anything else. Too swirly even to follow a DVD; Lost in Translation sat on the top of the player for three months and when I watched it, it made no sense. House was a wreck. I tried to construct and sew a simple skirt: disaster, thrown in trash. Presence in one place meant absence in another. Then I wondered if it was just the way things are for writers. Most of us have had a writing hangover. Binge on writing and you get a skull-buster of a writing hangover. It's not a joke; it can really impair you.

The problem was the transition from one type of task to another, and given one day and one night I got better at making the switch. I read an article that said it would have helped to do crosswords, Sudoku, or math problems. But I'd really like to live the high life in that right brain all the time.
Aug 05

The Sensitive Artist, Part 2

The first thing I believed about artists, and I don't know how I got this idea, is that artists are sensitive, especially poets, and if that was so I had to be sensitive, which I'm not good at except in relation to myself. But I didn't know that, so I dabbed on some Sensitive and wore black. At 24 and pale from hanging out in basements and libraries, I went to listen to poet Denise Levertov, who seemed an impatient and not-so-pleasant woman, and she declared to her audience, as if it were a retort, "Poets are not more sensitive than other people; just more articulate." And I thought, Denise is sooo wrong.

About five years later I meet and talk with famous poets and see them just about every day. They were the most insensitive, self-absorbed, preening, neurotic, swaggering, and  jealousy-ridden candyasses I had ever seen outside of high school. (Think not that I was unaware that it takes one to know one.) I met some other famous poets: brilliant, hard-as-bunions cynics, spouters of poisonous jokes and legendary put-downs, authors of some of the most gorgeous and sensitive poetry of their time. And I thought, Denise was right.

So there's the quotation (two entries down) by Pearl Buck, Nobel-winning novelist now dismissed as a pulp-fiction writer, and it seems to me that hers is a quite 19th-century view of creativity as a sort of rare, terrible and wonderful spiritual commodity, like being born with a caul, permitting the owners to exist in perpetual spiritual infancy. I still buy what she says, believing it's true of everyone, particularly in this highly self-aware day and age. Name somebody you know who sees everything from a balanced, reasonable point of view, whose injuries and transports are merely physical. Those are the rare ones now.
Jun 27

After Walter Bargen's Critique

Walter Bargen’s critique of a poem I brought to the St. Louis Poetry Center Workshop shifted my philosophy of revision. He said, You use too many words. Get it going with the first line. Make sure that in every line something happens. Shorten your sentences. Cut every word and phrase not absolutely needed. With these in mind I revised and think I improved the poem. Its first two stanzas will illustrate. See what you think:


Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries and coins
at each of the seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

each begetting another, life-sized, more sensual:
a stone tent for the slumbering plaster disciples;
for the satiny skins of the plaster Pietá
a stone canopy inlaid with bottle glass and scallop shells;


Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries, coins.
The seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

shelter strangely sensual scenes.
Plaster disciples slumber
beneath a canopy of masonry
chased with beach glass and scallop shells,

May 08

Annie Dillard Helped

Annie Dillard (nee Meta Ann Doak) helped me today as I chose 6 unpublished poems to submit to an anthology that is no sure thing, that I suspect might never be finished or published. So I wanted to hold back a couple of poems just too good for it, thinking: I bet these could impress a bigger editor -- later. Then Dillard's words came to mind:
"One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better."
And I sent my 6 best poems and felt the rightness of it, the healthiness of having set them free, trusting that I will write even better ones. Thank you, Annie.
Jan 17

What Poetry Was Meant to Do

From Wikipedia. I got a genuine thrill reading this, and hope you do too:

When the book was first published, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and said he found it very offensive.Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire.Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote, "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote 'Leaves of Grass,' only that he did not burn it afterwards." Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion, calling it "a mass of stupid filth" and categorized its author as a filthy free lover. Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians", one of the earliest public accusations of Whitman's homosexuality. Griswold's intensely negative review almost caused the publication of the second edition to be suspended.Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.

On March 1, 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens wrote to Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that Leaves of Grass constituted "obscene literature". Urged by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice . . .Stevens demanded the removal of the poems "A Woman Waits for Me" and "To a Common Prostitute", as well as changes to "Song of Myself", "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Spontaneous Me", "Native Moments", "The Dalliance of the Eagles", "By Blue Ontario’s Shore", "Unfolded Out of the Folds", "The Sleepers", and "Faces"

P.S. Whitman's title Leaves of Grass was a veiled way of saying "this is trash written by a hack or unimportant person."
Jun 24

Do Real Writers Write Every Day?

It is said that "real writers write every day," but of course that is a myth.

I once was in conference with a famous writer. (It was E. L. Doctorow.) The first thing he asked me was, "Do you write every day?"

I said, "No. I have to work."

His manner changed. I understood that my answer had disqualified me in some fashion; that it proved I was not truly committed, and had no future in the big leagues. The rest of the conference was perfunctory.

I didn't think it was a rude question at the time. I had read, over and over, that some writers were "too lazy" or "not disciplined" if they did not get up two hours earlier in the morning or use their after-work time to write. I tried those things, for about three days each, and couldn't see straight, much less think straight.

"Do you write every day?" E. L. Doctorow is a fine writer. But that question proved he was not a teacher.

Maybe writers who do nothing else can and should write every day, but writers with responsibilities other than writing can get too burnt-out. Tired. Depleted. And if you feel that way -- you are exactly what you feel like!

The following coping idea came from a writer with a full-time job. She tried writing in the evenings, but at best put in a spotty half-hour. The results were not worth her efforts. Weekends had to be spent on housework and errands. So she told herself:

Okay, no writing Monday through Friday. Period. You are not to go near pen and paper on those days. Writing is permitted on the weekends only -- and then only if you feel like it.

The first week she rejoiced in her freedom from the mental burden of "writing every day."

By Friday night of the second week she could hardly wait to get to her computer. She did her housework and schlepping on weeknights, didn't short herself on sleep, and on Saturday and Sunday, rested, she got good chunks of time to sit down and write. She's a real writer.
Jun 21

The Green Light for Creative Writing

EXERCISE: 1. Close your eyes and picture a traffic light, any type you want. 2. Make the light turn green. 3. Hold the picture of the green traffic light in your mind. Try to hold the picture for at least 15 seconds. 4. Picture the green traffic light whenever you think or hear stuff like this:

"I can't get an agent" "Writers never make money" "Nobody wants the kind of stuff I write" "Artists are doomed to be outsiders" "I wish I'd been born with another talent"

Gently, shine the green light on these thoughts. You have a green light to write -- whatever you want -- and be great.

Having trouble picturing a green light? Draw a traffic light. Draw rays coming out of the green lamp.

Every time you see a green light, no matter where you are, tell yourself, "That's the green light for my writing."
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