Monthly Archives: July 2013

Casting the Net

Robert Frost wrote about trees as those who talk of going but never get away. I think of those lines often, not only as a lovely poetic moment, but also as a caution. I’ve been talking for several months, maybe even a year, about the urge I feel for my next major writing project. Some of that time has been spent trying to ignore the idea, to resist the idea, hoping it would go away, or at least back off, but it won’t. I’m not going to lie: it’s a daunting prospect.

The writing phase is a long way off, and I know it will be creatively and emotionally difficult. But first, I have to do the research phase. The very idea makes me go pale. But I don’t want to be like Frost’s trees, talking talking talking. I’ve got to pull up one firmly planted foot and step out into the work of it. I did that yesterday, and it was scary and exciting. I cast my bread on the waters: what if it doesn’t come back? What if the waters throw it back with force?

I sent an e-mail to a person I do not know, asking for help making the contacts I’ll need if I’m going to have a chance of accomplishing my vision. That e-mail was a commitment. What comes next, I don’t know, but over the next few months, I’ll be setting up plans for a month of research next June. I’m putting together a grant application and searching for accommodation. The logistics, all of the not-creative work, are vital. No funding means no research time. Here’s hoping.

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Go Ahead and Ask

I’m always telling students that one serious difficulty facing the writer is that nobody cares if you don’t write. It’s a solitary business, and nobody else is affected when we don’t produce. That only happens when we do. But it’s tricky when someone does ask how the work is going. We often make the mistake of thinking that it’s a serious question, that someone really cares.

Only after we expound passionately for two or three minutes do we notice the look in your eyes and think crap–you were just being polite. So, we mumble our way into silence. Sometimes, it’s really stressful to be asked because the writing isn’t going anywhere at all, and we want to scream at you to stop asking because nothing’s happening and it makes us feel like useless failures. When that happens to me, I respond with some ultra vague generalities. I might say it’s coming or that I’m thinking about something.

The other night, around a table with friends, someone asked what my next project would be, and I started talking, forcing myself to believe that those friends really cared about the answer. They asked some questions. I believed they cared. And I have to say it’s nice to be asked. If you know a writer, ask how the work is going. Risk being shouted at in frustration. Risk a wail of despair. Risk a passionate two minutes. Try to care. Try to make us think you care. It only takes a few minutes, and it means a lot. It’s the cheapest fuel there is.

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No Limits to Perfectionism

I wish I had understood very early in my life that I am a perfectionist. So many incidents and frustrations might have been avoided, if I had known that fact and how to use it. Some people think that it’s a thing from which we should seek to recover, like alcoholism or Catholicism. Not me. I embrace my perfectionism.

Simply knowing that’s what it is that’s driving some reactions and impulses does, in fact, help me to control it to some extent. I understand that not everyone is a perfectionist, that little details don’t matter as much to everyone. And, miraculously, when it is someone else’s work or world or home or clothes, I can let it go. A bit. I can understand that this someone else knows but does not care, and because I know it is my perfectionism at work, I am able not to care so much.

Still, I am stuck with it when it’s my work or world or home or clothes. I had a friend once who said that my apartment always seemed as though I had just vacuumed. I didn’t say it, but it seemed that way because I had. But, my place is always dusty. I hate dusting, and so I rarely do it, because I can’t just dust one room or one thing. Perfectionism is very complex.

This topic has come up because I have written a long poem in seven syllable lines. My reader commented on there being some lines that weren’t, but that they didn’t disrupt the rhythm. I couldn’t leave well enough alone. After all, this is my work. I re-read every line, tapping out the syllables (tapping out the syllables has seven, by the way). Not only does that much tapping make the wrist start to ache, but I found about thirty lines of 2290 that needed an additional tap. I fixed them. I blame their existence on my inability with numbers.

At dinner on Wednesday, I mentioned these thirty lapses to my companion, who gave me a look, and I explained that it isn’t easy being a perfectionist. I said I hoped I would be able to keep myself from doing another count before the poem goes to press. But I won’t. I know me. And I want it to be perfect.

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Filed under On Thinking, On Writing

Keeping Things in Circulation

Along with staying in both new and familiar places, my plan for my recent travels was to listen. It wasn’t easy just to take time to be somewhere and not be working madly on something, and I had to keep reminding myself that my task was listening. Everywhere I went was worthy of that kind of attention, and it was really helpful to grant permission to notice and appreciate and nothing else. I can’t really say nothing else, because I did think about work in terms of new ideas, but that didn’t interfere with the listening. It was all quite restorative.

While I was away, my book-length poem, The Hungry Grass, was accepted for publication, which will happen next year, and the fact that the meeting was held while I was in the very place in which the poem is set came as a sign of validation. It reinforced for me that my writing is a worthwhile undertaking, that I’m right to do it. I know it can be important to write even if no one else will ever read a word, but for me, there are career and professional considerations as well. I won’t go into the personal need to be read. That acceptance letter had more than one effect.

I had been thinking about what to write next, and the acceptance made that decision seem more pressing. Until the manuscript was placed for publication it was still in progress, in a way. So, I thought about the next big project, and I managed to do that with greater calm than I have before. There are two, maybe three projects, that I’ll be working on over the next year or two. One is something that I had allowed to languish, and its back with some enthusiasm. I’m really looking forward to getting back at it. That’s one effect.

Another effect of the news is that I came home with a renewed energy for submitting poems to poetry journals. I used to be exceedingly businesslike about keeping things in circulation, but I’d gotten lazy about it. As I write, all of my remaining unpublished poems are once again out in the world seeking placement. I feel happy about that. It’s so full of possibility.

Of course, it’s full of danger, too–the risk of submitting work is that the work might be rejected. That always makes me sad, but the more I appear in print, the less power those rejection slips have over me. That alone is an excellent reason to keep sending things to editors. My mother used to say that water draws water. Publication draws publication.

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