The place where inner writing demons come out to play most in my mind is when I attempt to revise. A good friend/poet, Bob Stallworthy calls it “re-vision.” Many of my poems have sat ignored in drawers after the first or second draft from hearing the constant drone of “I am not good at this.” Despite how Bob offered me a way of re-naming the act of editing, I still sit down and dread moving on to the next draft. However, I am getting better.
When I was tutoring a high school student last week, I asked her to write me a creative piece about the love between two inanimate objects in the room. She could barely touch her pen to paper and she had a sheepish grin on her face. “Where are you stuck?” I asked her. She replied that she didn’t know if what she was about to write would be good enough. I told her to tell me what she was thinking and she said she was thinking that the love between the bookshelf and the table was like a Taylor Swift song. She continued on to tell me that the love between these inanimate objects was sad because although they were always close to each other, they could never actually tough. Furthermore, she said they had to bear the pain of watching people express their love all day through affection. I thought this was brilliantly creative! So what had stopped her before she even allowed her pen to touch the page?
I have often wondered if having our writing is evaluated in school is where it all begins. Seeing red scratches on the page and grade levels is stressful and sends the message that how our thoughts are conveyed is prone to criticism. People talk about writers in polarized terms of “good” and “bad.” My student is clearly a victim of this. The fact that she saw me as someone who was better than her at writing, caused her to freeze up for fear that I would see it. The fear that I may have judged her. I’ve been there many times. In fact, it took me three years to work up enough courage to take an English class in University. From what I had experienced in high school, I had received the message that I couldn’t write essays. I carried this message with me to University and it wasn’t until a professor who taught me upgrading showed me a different way to write them. Even then, I believed that I was not good enough to be at the level the University expected me to be for essay writing. It wasn’t until my interest outweighed my fear that I took an English class. After that, I was hooked and I switched my major.
How many writers never make it past the high school mentality of being evaluated? Everything counts for something, including first drafts. In the real world though, there is more freedom with first drafts. First drafts can become eighteen drafts. I believe it was Yeats, who wasn’t satisfied with one of his poems and it took him ten years and countless drafts before it reached the masses. I have made a commitment to myself to not let my first drafts sit idly in my poetry folder. I have made a commitment to set aside some time once a week for “re-visioning.” I create space to let the poem speak to me in a different way. To tell me whether this line is needed or give me clarity on the central image. Some days are harder than others. I remind myself that I am my own creative authority and there is no judges peering over my shoulder. I wish the same for you. First drafts are just that, first drafts. Honour your thoughts, your self and your birthright by being gentle with yourself and your creative side. Writing is a process, try to clear your mind of the final destination.
My favorite places on earth are bookstores. However, it didn’t always start this way. When I was a child, I had a mother and a grandmother who spent hours in bookstores leaving me to my own devices in the kid’s section. I remember the excruciating boredom and I was always perplexed at how they could want to pile on as many books at the cash register as they could manage. Finally, as an adult, I get it. I can’t stay away. I always ask myself why I do or feel the things that I do. I think I may have figured it out. Once I got past the playful childhood stage, my passion became words. It was always there in whispers and I can even hear it in the recording of my three-year-old self reading nursery rhymes. Still, why do I have an obsession to the point where my walls and shelves cannot contain the volumes I have? Yes, books open up your world, but my addiction goes beyond this.
Walking through the familiar aisles in search of more titles to tantalize me, it hit me: I read to write. I am an avid reader, but I am first and foremost a writer. I would probably crumble if I did not keep writing. I have always reached for books that are written well. I am thoroughly disappointed in books that do not utilize poetic writing. An author could have the most fascinating plot and characters, but they do not interest me unless the language is juicy. One of my favorite books is God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Besides my mild obsession with India, I devoured this book because she managed to take the most exciting words in the English language and put them in never-before-seen combinations. The way she wrote made me look at things differently. In fact, I will never look at orange pop the same again and will probably never drink it…ever. The reason is not because she told me about the abuse one of her main characters suffered in the name of an orange drink. It was because of what she showed me through the senses. She wrote it so well that I now have an association with that event and that drink as if it happened to someone I know. This is the power of good writing. The old writerly advice, “show, don’t tell” isn’t just there to drive writers crazy. It is there because it will affect the writer to the core, if you are able to master it.
Kim Addonizio, in her book, Ordinary Genius, puts it bluntly when she says, “if you don’t read, your writing is going to suck.” Books are your best teachers if you want to be a writer. No mentor on the planet can help you write well if you do not read. I am applying this to myself when it comes to poetry. I consider myself a poet, but I am a major slacker when it comes to reading it. I do struggle with re-visioning a poem, so I am taking Kim’s advice and reading every poem I can get my hands on. Many times, I hear myself chanting that I wish I could write like them. Eventually, I will. Eventually my poetic voice will override what I have read. However, I will have carried pieces of their mastered voices into my own craft.
I met with one of my poetry mentors yesterday. He brought up the plight of an artist or more specifically a writer. His advice was to always check in with yourself and ask yourself why it is you are writing. For him, and he said this in a half-joking tone, if he knew what else to do he would head for the hills as far away from his writer-self he could get. He was not the first person to say this to me. One of my favorite poets, Carmine Starnino, said that he would run away from poetry if it didn’t keep pulling him back in. Writing is a choice and then it isn’t. For me, abandoning my writer-self is not an option despite the fact that there is very little external reward for the majority of writers. However, writing is in my blood and I feel it encapsulated by my cells. Writing is my first love and it keeps pulling me back in. Why? I think it is because of the inner reward I feel. It is hard work and I am always battling the nasty demons of self-doubt. However, when I produce a poem or have something I feel like saying in a blog…there it is. I can see and feel myself extended on the page. I love that the page acts as a mirror and I can relive my experiences and my thoughts in a way that hadn’t gained perspective before. Writing is a meditation of sorts and I can express thoughts that were hiding around the crevices of my brain where I did not even know thoughts existed.
Last night, a good friend/fellow writer texted me and asked me to free-write with her and then we were to email each other our inner excavations. The writing prompt was to write something smutty and if you couldn’t write something smutty, why it was that you were unable to. Smut is not my forte for the record. I wasn’t sure what was going to come through my pen, but I was excited to find out. In the meantime, it has been on my mind to try fiction writing but nothing had come out. No characters. No story-line. So here I was, the timer had started, and all of a sudden characters were there and a voice I hadn’t heard before. I kept writing, allowing myself to be free with a voice that wasn’t totally my own. Parts of the story were based on truth, but a lot of it I was just making up. I followed the visions that appeared in my head and wrote them as I saw them. After the timer beeped, I re-wrote it and more images came through and I was surprised at the places my character had seen that I hadn’t been able to previously. I felt alive. This is why I write. To discover things in myself I didn’t know existed. I have always wanted to travel yet my feet have never left this continent. Writing is my way of flying.