seek first to understand

28 September, 2009

It’s Monday night, and as of this week that means blogging night. But it’s also swing night; I went to my first class this evening, and we learnt the Charleston, so I hope you don’t mind if I practise my moves under the table…

We have our first workshop tomorrow. I’m rather relieved that I’m not up for dissection – sorry, discussion – first time round; I’ve got at least a couple of weeks to work up the four pieces I’m currently writing. And it’ll be good to get a feel for the way things work before it’s my turn. But I’m also keeping in mind our tutor’s direction last week: that in the workshop we seek first to understand what we’re looking at; only then do we evaluate it. That seems to me a deeply respectful and encouraging way of going about critiquing someone’s writing.

So, do you want to know my deep, dark, shameful secret?

It’s this: I find writing poetry really hard. That in itself isn’t such a bad thing (though it’s easy to feel inadequate, and to compare yourself with others who seem to find it so much easier), but I often find it so hard that I mostly – recently, anyway – don’t actually enjoy writing poetry; so hard that I can, and do, put it off for ages. In fact sometimes it feels like I’d rather do almost anything than sit down and write. And the really, really shameful secret: I haven’t written a poem since I found out I got a place on this course. Which is understandable in one sense, but mostly it makes me feel like a fraud. A writer who doesn’t write isn’t actually a writer.

I’ve been finding it quite a painful paradox, to be honest. On the one hand it’s not an exaggeration to say that a part of me is deeply convinced that poetry is the most important thing in the world. And so here I am, taking a whole year out (and spending thousands of pounds) to learn to write better poetry, to learn the craft. On the other hand: I just haven’t been writing. For the last couple of weeks, more than just the usual procrastination, it’s this rather shameful, confused feeling that’s had me rabbit-in-headlights-frozen, and meant I haven’t picked up my pen to write since I got here. Every day that I haven’t written the panic’s risen a little more, and I’ve felt a little more like I shouldn’t be doing this at all.

Thankfully a couple of good, honest conversations over the last week have helped to break the deadlock – that and a truly horrific anxiety dream on Sunday morning that had me reaching for pen and paper while still in bed, so I could at least say ‘I have now started’. And this morning I finally got some good writing time in – whether the writing was any good is another matter, and at this stage doesn’t actually matter I don’t think. So that’s a huge relief. Maybe I can do this after all.

Hopefully it’s not too uncommon to enjoy having written something rather than the actual process of writing. I’m sure I’ve heard writers say that before. Who was it that said the craft of writing is mostly about the application of the seat of one’s pants to one’s chair? They were right, I think. And Laura Riding (see my last post) writes this:

It is quite true that when someone sits down to write or read a poem the amount of inertia to be overcome is greater than with any other activity.

I agree, to be honest – and the fact that someone else experiences that too is hugely comforting. It’s so easy to assume that everyone else writes freely, joyously – that they just can’t help writing all the time, whenever, whatever. I’m sure that’s true for some people, and certainly reading Joe Klein’s biography of Woody Guthrie right now isn’t helping me in the insecurity stakes – but for lots of other people, writing is just hard work. I’ll never forget hearing Tom Paulin say that writing is like ‘digging ditches; it’s real Desperate Dan stuff; it’s like eating old bakelite plugs’. Preach it, brother!

Really, the main thing I need to do is forget all the myths that surround writing, and creativity in general, and simply write the way I write. Now I’ve definitely made things more stressful/panicked/rigid than they need to be, and one of the things I want to learn this year is how to write in a more relaxed, fluid manner (I’m talking process here rather than style). But at the same time, I do also need to learn to accept the fact that I’m not a midnight-oil type of livewire, and I likely never will be, bar the odd sudden visits from the muse (it has happened before, but only a couple of times). Mostly I need routine, I need solitude, I need time and space by myself, and mainly, I think, I need stability. And the last six months have been anything but stable, so I’m going to cut myself a huge swathe of slack and stop beating myself up for not having written any poetry during that time.

(Strangely I find the process of writing fiction much easier; since November last year I’ve been working on a very crappy first draft of a children’s story. I can and do write that quickly, and once I get going the sense of flow is almost addictive. It’s just a completely different kind of writing.)

Well I thought I was going to write about Poetics today, and in fact I photographed all the lovely books that I received from amazon this morning just so I could show you what I’m reading. But I guess I was in a confessional mood, and Poetics will just have to wait till Friday.

I’ll leave you with one of my own poems this time, as a reminder to myself that yes, I can write. And I’m going to learn to write better.

All the maps of Russia stop at Moscow

but home lies somewhere beyond, under
the blue bowl of sky, ceramic, unglazed.
I’ve heard of vast forests, immense fields,
black soil. But there are no maps, and
my only clue is a mustard seed wrapped
in cabbage-leaf complexities of skin
and heart. I must make my own way, collect
to myself the riches I hope to find:
a pinecone, a tug of sheep’s wool, a smooth
pebble, a paper seedcase, a sea shell.
I am a riffle in a stream, catching
particles of gold, of light. And if there is,
after all, a home to be found, I need
to see the shining thread, to feel its pull.

(I wrote this quite a long time ago, as a new year poem, and over the years it’s meant a lot to me; when I wrote it I was navigating a particularly turbulent time, and it really felt both that everything was up for grabs – all the old maps I’d relied on didn’t take me where I needed them to, after all – and also that there was still, somehow, a security somewhere – a home to be found. I hope you like it. It’s probably my favourite of my own pieces, and I’m delighted that it was highly commended in the Duino International Poetry Competition this year, and as such will be published in their anthology next month. So it’ll be my first published poem, which feels about right.)

This post brought to you with thanks to Anna and Louisa for the encouragement, Marky for the music, Richer Sounds for the new tuner, and a raised glass to the Workshop, my new favourite Norwich pub

2 Responses to “seek first to understand”

  1. maggi said

    secret of my own: I find it hard too. Never is the kitchen floor cleaner than when a deadline looms…

  2. KB said

    That’s a fabulous poem. Love it.

    You know, reading your post made me think of that Zizekian idea that it’s precisely in that moment of honest, confessional abandonment that the real poetry lies.

    When you dig a ditch, the nice flowers atop get trashed first; the grand surfaces we’ve prepared for public view go with the spade and the dirt comes… opened ground indeed.

    Glad the deadlock is broken. You’re going to do great work.

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