Tag Archives: poem

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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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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What Finishing Means

Finishing tells people something about you. It tells you something about you. That you can see something through, that you can complete. And when I say finish, I mean finish, as in polish, complete, not just slap it together and call it done, which fools no one, not even you. Finishing means a number of things, whether the subject is a long poem or a university degree or a home-improvement project. Finishing opens up possibilities, at the same time that it closes a circle.

This week, I finished writing my long poem–2290 lines with 253 footnotes. From inception to completion took about ten years. I had to do more research than I thought I’d have to do, for one thing, and financial support is always a problem–thank you to the Woodcock Fund and the Canada Council. My Canada Council file is now closed because I filed my final report, a grant requirement, and because I have done that, I can apply for another grant. That doesn’t mean I’ll get one, but I had to finish in order to have the privilege.

I know now some things I did not know before I undertook to write “The Hungry Grass.” I know I can conceive and execute a very ambitious plan, and I know the logistics of doing that. I really know those things, and I couldn’t have learned them any other way. Yes, I completed a Master’s and a PhD, my training ground for this undertaking. They build on each other, in terms of formal structures. During the degrees, I had signposts and milestones along the way, and supervisors (heaven love Christopher Wiseman and Roberta Buchanan) to get me through the minefield of the thesis, the comprehensives, and the dissertation. This time, I was on my own, from start to finish, obstacles as well as accomplishments.

So that’s what finishing means. It’s about focus and commitment and tenacity and desire and growth. We don’t really know that we can until we do. Now, I don’t have to wonder. Now, I can start looking for my next big idea.

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Chanelling the Energy

I am not one of those people who can multi-task well. Perhaps the whole idea of multi-tasking ends up meaning that a person does a lot of things in a passable way, as opposed to doing them really well. I want to do things really well. As a result, I sometimes don’t get much done. I don’t start because I know (or think) I don’t have the time to finish.

For eight years, I have been working on a project about An Gorta Mór, the Irish Great Hunger. Books take a long time. From the start, I knew that I wanted to write a creative manuscript and not an academic one. That was partly because I had just finished a major academic project in Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. But it was also because I am more poet than scholar and because I knew that my specific focus couldn’t be written any other way. An academic undertaking has to end up with things that can be known, and I was going to write about specific people whose lives could not be known.

It takes just as much research to create what cannot be known. At least, it does if there’s to be any credibility. So, for years, I have read. My shelves have books about Irish plants, tools, history, myth. I’ve read about how to cut and dry turf, how to keep evil out of a cow’s milk, how to prepare for childbirth, when to plant potatoes and how to dig and fertilize the beds. I have visited the National Archives in Dublin, the Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park, the National Famine Museum in Strokestown–several times each. I have peered at microfilm in the National Library in Dublin, perused the 1749 Census of Elphin, the 1825 Tithe Applotment Books, Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837),  Weld’s Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon (1832), Shaw Mason’s Parochial Survey of Ireland ( 1814), The Destitution Survey (1847)  and pored over maps, field books, and aerial photographs. I have compiled lists of birds, fish, and mammals native to Roscommon, and included what they eat, how they sound, what season they’re found, what terrain they like.

Every year since 2004, I have spent weeks in Ireland, and since 2007, a lot of those weeks have been spent in Fuerty Parish. I have stood on the land my people worked, stood on the bog where they cut turf, stood in the church where they worshipped, stood in the graveyard where they’re buried. I have walked and walked the roads. And I have started to write. Almost from the start, I knew what the first line would be, and that is always a vital sign for me. When the first line comes, I feel confidence.

Here I am, after eight years, in sight of the finish. Never one to do things the easy way, and always one to let the work tell me where it wants to go, I am writing a book length poem, of seven syllable lines, lyric and narrative, salted with the Irish language, weaving history, myth, and culture. I know that I will polish once I get all the way from 1834 to 1849, but a full and nearly finished draft will be done by mid-February. I’m committed to that.  I’m channelling my energy, designating January as Hungry Grass month. I’ve set an average daily line quota. I need a talisman against distractions.

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A Writer Writes

I’ve been writing all my life–as a child, on walls and on sheet music. When I was twelve, I decided to write a novel about war but was devastated when I got to the end of page one and realized I knew nothing about war. A high school English teacher encouraged the class to enter a writing contest in the local newspaper, and I wrote a poem for the purpose. It won. I still have the cheque. Poetry is my first love, and it was my first book: Shattered Fanatics. The second and third books are both biographies: The Business of Marriage and Medals and Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. Now, I’m working on a third biography and a second poetry manuscript. My work is far more polished now than it was when I wrote that my sister “is a pig girl” on the bathroom door jamb, although that was as sincere as it gets.

But, even though I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of pages, and even though I’ve been writing most of my life, I still find it difficult to be disciplined about it. I’ve never been a write-every-day writer. Sometimes, when I have a writing assignment, I find myself paralyzed, unable to start. But, I have learned enough about my writing process to know when I’m stalling and when I have to wait. It’s important to be honest. Tomorrow, I’ll be at my desk, sorting a mass of research for the bio. Somewhere in all that material, there’s a shape all its own.

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