Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, and as a young Catholic man, he embraced the rise of the Provisional IRA, but before long, he realized that the two paramilitary sides would never solve anything. He was under pressure to use his gifts to benefit the cause. So, he left and went to live in the Republic. He wrote what was in him to write, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for it.
The Irish president also is a published poet, and he spoke today of Heaney’s scope and of his care for poetry from all over the world, especially the poetry of the oppressed. He had such humility that he was shocked when he won the Nobel Prize. And, he had the simplest philosophy of writing. He said that he “always believed that whatever had to be written would somehow get itself written.”
I love that. For one thing, it takes a lot of pressure off. It puts the importance on the writing more than on the writer. Rilke had the same notion. Before he wrote the Duino Elegies, he could feel them coming, and then he could hear them coming, and he was so moved that they chose him. In a way, all of this points to Erato, the muse of poetry. There’s something to be said for inspiration.
Heaney and Rilke are not similar as poets, but they both knew what mattered. Getting the work written. They knew what poetry can do. And there’s a real comfort for me as a poet to know that the poetry itself plays a part. It will get itself written. I have felt it demanding to be written, if I’m honest. The next time I feel panicky and incompetent about my work, I’m going to try to remember Heaney. It will somehow get itself written. Remember that.
Maybe if I were a novelist, I would be better at plotting and pacing. I also would make more money. But no. At their distribution meeting, the very whimsical muses handed me poetry, and I am very grateful. I love my present. It’s just a little bit of a problem when it comes to the practicalities of life. How to set aside time for writing when I need to pay more than a little attention to making a living. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week. What provoked me was an article about a pianist whose ambitions had been foiled repeatedly, so she and her husband pulled together $250,000 and hired the London Philharmonic Orchestra to make a recording.
If I had $250,000, I could get a thing or two done. At least I don’t need an orchestra. But I do think I have to take a bit of a gamble because, really, all I have ever wanted to do is write and teach. I have found it very hard to make enough of a living so that I could set aside time and space to write. Time passes. The problem isn’t going away, and apparently, it isn’t going to resolve itself. I am plotting the next six months. And there are some risks, but I’m just going to take them. The first stage is to get two major projects finished, and I have realized that I need to get away to focus solely on one of those. Two years ago, I went to the Banff Centre and made real progress on a project, so I’m going to do that again, if they’ll have me. Application sent: box ticked.
Then, I’ll have a clearer path to getting the other project finished. Having two big tasks concurrently has paralyzed me. The time away for one of them will snap that stalled cycle. No matter what, they both have to be finished, one by the end of March, and the other by the end of April. May will be occupied by my annual field school in Ireland. Teaching and making a living at the same time. And then, for the first time with no clear project in mind, I am setting aside some time to write, and I have no idea what will happen. I have set aside three weeks in June, secluded weeks, away. With no obligation attached. My very own time.
I do know that it’s time to apply for some grants and residencies and to send work out for publication, and I’ll do that when I get back. Who knows if any of it will be successful. But I think I’ve arrived at a shift of some kind. I have booked accommodation for those three weeks, so I really mean it. And my mind spontaneously started casting around for a topic, wondering what the next poems will be about.
Writing is a solitary undertaking, almost never done communally, and that’s the way writers like it. The problem is that this solitariness means no one knows when we aren’t writing. And even worse, no one cares. So, it’s difficult to find the discipline to produce on any kind of regular basis. But what Burroughs said of Kerouac is true: a writer writes. If we aren’t writing, and we walk around calling ourselves writers, we’re lying. Plato would say, “I told you so,” but I digress.
We all have to find our way to be accountable to our work by being accountable to some outside force, although force is not a good word when it comes to writing. Force doesn’t result in good writing. Discipline does. There are a few things that have worked for me over the years. At one time, I rather fully believed in the muse, Erato, and now my faith is tempered by reason and experience. There’s still some magic and madness involved, no doubt, but crafting and work are requisite ingredients. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, my supervisor required that I send her a report once a month. I dreaded it. But, I discovered that it was thoroughly affirming because as I started to prepare my report, I realized that I really did have plenty of activity to list. Research accomplished, proposals sent, publication submissions, pages written, and so on. At least once a month, I could feel good about myself.
Another thing that has worked for me is to get together with another writer (some people join writing groups) on a regular, committed basis, and talk about what’s getting written, getting submitted, getting thought. We’d set each other writing tasks for the next session, as prompts. It kept us thinking of our work and doing our work more regularly. Deadlines only work if someone’s going to mention them. Right now, I have my client expecting a draft by a certain date and the Canada Council expecting a report by a certain date. Two major projects for which I am accountable, but even given that, I have to feel the muse start to push from within, and then the writing happens. The writer is just as accountable to the muse as to the client, the publisher, the granting agency. The writer has to listen to them all.