Tag Archives: poet

Experiment with Something New

I’ve always said that I am not a novelist, that I don’t have a novel in me. I’m a poet. But, lately, I’ve been thinking about trying something new. When I was an undergraduate, I wrote stage plays and screenplays. My very first attempt at writing was a novel (I was twelve and wrote a page). Prose isn’t entirely alien to me: I’ve written loads of non-fiction, including three book-length biographies. And, I’ve written a book-length poem. Mash all of that together and I wonder what I’ve got.

Writing prose has always struck me as work for more patient people. I am not a patient person. All that plotting and characterization. I’ve always felt more of a single-speaker, single-moment kind of writer. The short lyric poem. I love economy of words, perfect word choices, tight construction. Sharp and incisive with a punch. When I took on The Hungry Grass and realized it wanted to be a long poem, and not a collection of lyrics, I headed into uncharted territory. I really didn’t know if I could do it, and maybe that’s the whole secret. I didn’t know if I could, but I set out anyway. I’ve done that a lot in my life. The BA. The MA. The PhD. I really didn’t know if I could do any of it.

For no reason that I know of, the idea of writing a novel has surfaced again. It has done this a few times, and I toy with it, and then I shelve it. I think, “The gods didn’t make me a novelist.” Perhaps I need to take the suggestion more seriously. Or, more lightly. Maybe I should stop thinking of it as such serious business and just start playing with ideas. Maybe I should give myself an assignment. When I first wrote a stage play, it was an assignment in my drama intro class. Thank you Dr. Tyson. When I first wrote a screenplay, it was an assignment in my creative writing intro class. Thank you Prof. Oordt. Those projects have never seen the light of day since I left university, but that’s not the point. The point is that those forms were unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me as a writer, and if they hadn’t been assigned, I might never have experimented with them.

Maybe I should experiment with something new. Maybe I should just set out.

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Filed under On Thinking, On Writing

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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Plotting Time

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.

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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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