Sketchy Advice for Writerly Types

This November, I participated in my own version of National Novel Writing Month.  Since I first started writing creatively, at age 14, I’ve been a poetry writer.  Writing fiction for me is like trying to pull a train car down a track with my teeth.  Poetry is like pushing a pick-up truck down a hill – I have to really put my shoulder into it, but once I get it going things proceed swimmingly.  I took a long, long break from writing creatively at all: 8 years.  Now I’m back, and learning how to do it all again has been pretty fun.  As with most things, though, I’m fairly pokey and have some trouble following through on things once I start them.  Working that way, I got about 6 decent poems out in 2 months of work.  Not bad, but not stellar.  Always a sucker for a deadline of any kind, I took November as a kind of mini National Poetry Writing Month (which is actually in April and actually requires you to write 30 poems within 30 days).  I shot for 15 poems, intending them to, at best, be something I could turn into a finished work and, at minimum, give me stuff to cannibalize to make other poems.  I learned a lot about how I work  now (at 26!) and what I’m interested in writing about. Especially, I learned – again – how to churn out stuff that I don’t necessarily like or even think I’ll use or just needs to be completely rewritten de novo.  So, I thought I’d pass on some of the imperfect advice I have for those might need it, or who just want someone to commiserate with.

1) Forgive Yourself

For not writing enough. For not writing more often. For not writing “well enough.” For not being a “real writer.” For not being able to think of the right word. For being too wordy. For taking frequent coffee breaks. For daydreaming. For not being done yet.

One of my rhetoric teachers in graduate school spoke to us once about writing as a process.  He told an anecdote about one of his favorite writers.  The writer, before he started writing, but after he sat down at his desk, used to ask for help.  Not specifically from god, from any deity, but from “whatever happened to be listening.”  Because he felt he needed it.  I found that my version of this little ritual was to immediately forgive myself for any of the classic writer transgressions, and some that are particular to me.  I will go on tumblr to look at pictures of attractive celebrities.  I will get up and pet the cats for 5 minutes every hour or so.  And it’s fine!  I still produce stuff.  It’s all part of my process.

2)  You’re a Human Being, Start Treating Yourself That Way

Repeat as many times as you need to: I am not a robot, I am not a machine, I am not a robot, I am not a machine.

This is good life advice as well.  You need sunlight. You need water.  You need food. You need sleep.  You need to shower.  Do you pick up your pen, scribble things for awhile, then start to feel like shit? Can’t concentrate? Well, ask yourself a few simple questions before casting yourself into a shame spiral or giving up and watching 15 more Law & Order episodes. Hungry? Thirsty? Need caffeine? Need a cookie? Is it after midnight? Feeling antsy?  Feeling tense? Eat a sandwich, get some water, have a cuppa, walk to the store, go to bed, get up and do some jumping jacks.  You already know the answer to all these problems, but it is stupidly easy to not do these things, to ignore your own instincts.  If you’ve done all these things and you’re still having trouble, well, the problem is probably more particular to your own brain than to your basic human necessities.  I have those types of days too!  They suck, but they will pass.

3) Just Because You Love Something Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Work

And don’t let anyone tell you differently.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something along the lines of “if you don’t love writing/can’t keep yourself away from the craft/aren’t always thinking about it, you shouldn’t be doing it/you’re not a writer/jump off a cliff.”  Here is the thing about passion: no one can define yours for you. I stopped writing creatively for 8 years. In that time, I got two academic degrees, a full-time job, was a radio DJ, played badminton, joined a Finnegan’s Wake reading group, taught college freshmen, and generally learned how to take care of myself post-living with parents.  Now, I still have the job, I read for a literary magazine, work out 4 times a week, and bake and cook for myself.  I make time for the writing when I can.  I started again because I liked it before and had always wanted to return to it as a hobby.  But I also won’t sacrifice the other parts of my life to be chained to my desk writing poems.  I believe that in order to have something to write about, I should also live my life and think thoughts that aren’t about writing.  The alternative just seems solipsistic.  Maybe you are obsessed and can never stop thinking about what you’ll write next and run back to your desk whenever you have a chance, and, let me be clear, that is fine.  That is awesome, in fact.  But that’s not the only way to be a writer.

4) Alcohol Can Be Helpful

AKA “Hemingway’s Law.”

As the man once said, “Write drunk, edit sober.”  My poison is red wine.  It loosens me up, helps me break down some of the self-imposed walls when I write all those first drafts.  Again, though, this won’t and shouldn’t apply to everyone.  I felt like a little bit of a cliche sitting down with my glass or two of red to write, but it did make the process feel more special, cozier.  This effect can likely also be achieved with tea, cookies, whiskey, scotch, a nice blanket, some comfortable pants, a glass of seltzer with a squeeze of lime, or any combination of these.  Give yourself a happy accessory when you write, to put you in a nice place starting off.  Unless you prefer to write while uncomfortable?  To each their own state of mind.

5) Never Listen to Music with Words

Movie scores are good, also classical music!

Maybe this is just a superstitious personal rule, maybe it’s just because I’m suggestible, but.  I can’t read poetry or listen to anything with lyrics when I’m writing.  I just start copying the style, if I do!  But, I also find things like This Will Destroy You and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack soothing.  Sometimes I can watch an episode of something while I write, but that can lead to a dark place (aforementioned 15 Law & Order episodes). I need background noise, man. But it can’t be too like what I’m writing, or I start to feel uninspired.  Right at the end of the month I got a Dean Young book, Fall Higher, out of the library and tried to read it.  I love Dean Young, he’s my absolute favorite poet.  But touching that book, reading the words, felt like kryptonite.  I wanted to cast it from my hands, cross myself, hiss, turn around 3 times and spit.  It was an awful feeling, but it confirmed what I already know: no reading more than a stray poem here and there, and especially no reading it when I’m sitting down to work on my own stuff.

 

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All the Things You Are

November 24, 1955
To Allen on his Second Birthday

You’re a quaint, little elf
Dancing on your pink toes,
A gay, smiling rascal
As everyone knows.

You’re a tiny magician
With tricks up your sleeve,
An imp and an angel,
Such spells as you weave!

You’re a funny, old farmer
Who swaggers and sways,
A shrewd, little diplomat
Planning angles and ways.

Like Comet and Cupid
You’re quick as a flash.
Little Punkin, the kitten
You’re there in a dash.

You’re a dear, little boy
Full of laughter and fun
So to-day – Happy Birthday!
Just one year plus one.

With love, “Gramma”

The eighth, and last, in a series of my great-grandma’s poems. This one was written for my uncle (name changed above).

Winter Evening

A clipper ship far out at sea,
A bowl of turquoise blue,
An old, brass jug from London Town,
Gay portieres quite new,
A singing hearth, a welcome lamp,
Books beckoning in a row
Make me stay home and laugh to hear
A wild Nor’easter blow.

The seventh in a series of my great-grandma’s poems.

Night Wind

Astride black stallions of the night
Fierce cowboy raiders
Sweep through the glen,
Whirling their mighty lariats around
The proudest branches of the elm.
Howling their glee they watch
This matriarch of forests
Until spent with her struggle
She bows, ashamed, defeated
Before her ancient foe.

Across the field fragile grass blades,
Trembling like silken steel
Cling to her who gave them birth,
Begging to escape the fury
Of a bandit’s lash.
Above, an old moan, jaded with too late hours
Yawns, sighs and feebly slips
Behind a laggard cloud,
Weary with watching these bullies
Who proudly stage their boisterous rodeo.

Sixth in a series of my great-grandma’s poems.

World Traveler

Our postman swings along the street
In rain and wind, in cold or heat.
Often he makes a short detour
Across some lot to a house demure.
Then off to a grand estate far back
He hurries again from his usual track.

When he grows weary of carrying mail,
(Just in his mind) he hoists a sail
Or boards a plane for realms afar
And travels to where his postmarks are.
New York – Chicago – What’s that? – Mexico!
An airmail letter! Of course he’ll go!

The fifth in a series of my great-grandma’s poems.

In the Gallery

I come each day to gaze upon your face
It is so fair, so gentle, so full of grace.
Your smile, your gesture cannot be denied.
The artist’s touch has made you come alive.
As if to speak those quiet lips are curved
And fantasy for me supplies the word.

I wonder if your artist knew
That you and I would have this rendezvous.

The fourth in a series of my great-grandma’s poems.

Garden Moods

Our garden is a tapestry
Of fragile, fay pastels
Woven on a giant loom
Where the rainbow fairy dwells.

Our garden is a bright, hooked rug
Spread out beneath the sky
Where lovely blossoms nod their heads
To let the breeze sail by.

Our garden is a patchwork quilt
Of lavender and blue
With appliqued forget-me-nots
That make a dream come true.

The third in a series of the great-grandma’s poems.

Sanctuary

Such beauty as an old cathedral wears,
Offering to clouds its gracious dignity,
Fashioned of brown and blood and women’s prayers,
Built to endure through an eternity.
At vesper time around these altars dim
Wayfaring pilgrims kneel in glad release.
Tapers are lighted while some ancient hymn
Throbs out its age-old ministry of peace.

So may a life its own cathedral mold,
Out of the past some sanctuary find,
Erect some altar where its prayers are told,
Guide other travelers to a faith enshrined.
Kneeling in twilight’s benediction ray,
Courage is found for yet another day.

The second in a series of my great-grandmother’s poems. 

Comparisons

Conan Doyle once wrote that “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” In my case, the only art I’ve ever been halfway good at – writing – has a direct lineage, one which skipped over my grandfather (the soldier, the state trooper, the detective), my father (the athlete, the manager of all things), and his brothers (the policeman, the entrepreneur, and the traveler), and went directly to me and, thus far, only to me.  There’s a glimmer of it in my younger cousin, but she’s a far better visual artist than a writer, so it’s found a slightly different expression in her.  I never met my grandfather’s mother, but when I was younger (and just beginning to write) my grandmother, who liked to keep such things, gave me a sheaf of her poems.  I was going to school in Maine.  They’re housed in an off-white envelope, faded to softness; the delivery address, my home town’s community library, and the return address? Boston, Massachusetts, the area in which I’ve lived and worked for over 4 years now.  Another clue, another coincidence between my great-grandmother’s life and my own.  The only forms her poems take are twenty-some sheets of old paper on which her words have been carefully typewritten.  Some have been drawn over in pencil, the words changed here and there.  So, she worked in some of the same ways I do even now, I who insist, stubbornly, on hand-writing many of my early drafts. I want these to be around for a long time, so I’m putting them here and in a text file on my zip drive/the Google Drive cloud.  The only date I can find on them is coming up in a different poem, but let me say for now that they’re 50+ years old! And the author’s name was Mildred Wilson Smith, a licensed schoolteacher, who primarily taught English and in her retirement wrote poetry, presumably because she enjoyed it a great deal.

Finally, before I get to the poem, Mildred left me with a quote by Hilaire Belloc (a Catholic novelist. Oh, and by the way, I used to work at the archival library which holds the majority of his manuscripts – that’s in Boston as well): “From… first beginning,/Out to the undiscovered ends/Here’s nothing worth the wear of winning/But laughter and the love of friends.” – Verses (1910) “Dedicatory Ode”

***

Comparisons

Today the sky hands low
A great inverted mixing bowl.
The clouds, giant spoonsful of beaten eggwhite
Play tag with each other.
The wind, scolding and fault-finding at the window
Is an old woman who life dangles about on a worn ribbon
But will not let go.

Beside the fire sits memory, a sorry ghost
With all his data too carefully compiled.
While doubts are greedy moth-worms
Burrowing into the delicate fabric
Of my contentment.

I’d Like to Draw Your Attention…

… to a new Tumblr I’ve set up: Heartifacts.  Pardon the portmanteau, I couldn’t resist.  It’s on the “Elsewhere” list now.

I’ll be putting together some weekly anthologies of things I like (mostly as a kind of Tumblr-based multimedia inspiration board), posting poetry, writing down snippets of thoughts too long for Twitter and too short for this blog, and reblogging pictures of hot dudes.  Well, it can’t all be serious work, right?

Also, I’m working on my third Sherlock post today.  The next subject: Moriarty, of course.