Tag Archives: poetry

Writers Are So Insecure

Or, maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so. It isn’t often that someone comes along and proclaims, “I am a great writer,” as Sylvia Plath did. Mostly, there’s a miserable struggle going on. We have a conviction that we are writers, but we torture ourselves with the suspicion (sometimes certainty) that we aren’t very good.

People might think it’s false modesty, but I’m not talking about those types, the ones who can set up a conversation so that all kinds of compliments flow, compliments they humbly believe to be deserved. I write things and sometimes, I think they’re really good. I’m all confidence. So, I send them out to a journal for publication, and when they are returned, as most submissions are, I look at them and think, “Of course this got rejected. It’s crap.”

Writers aren’t like contestants on American Idol, those who can’t sing to save their lives but have been told by family and friends that they are great singers and born to do this. No, writers hear the encouragement and praise, and we take pleasure in the sentiment, but we are pretty sure that the people we love are just being nice. We think they have to say those things. It’s their job.

Where we really get trapped is when someone we don’t know says something glowing about our work. We start looking for the excuse for it, thinking they’re just being nice, but then realizing they have no reason to be so. It’s scary territory to stand there with the idea that maybe this person really does approve or endorse or appreciate the work. We’re sure it can’t be true, but we can’t find the reason to suppose that, and so we’re left running a little tape in our heads that keeps coming to the spot where this person is just being nice, but hoping they’re not. It’s exhausting.

This week, I received some really lovely comments about my long poem. The specifics of those comments told me that I had succeeded in some of the things I had set out to do in that poem, and that’s extremely gratifying all by itself. When I try to expand that to allow for the general praise of the work, I get on the little hamster wheel that runs that tape.  I always tell people that the writer is the first and most important audience for the work. I don’t ever tell them that they’ll have a terrible time learning to believe that their satisfaction is justified. Good luck with that.

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Seamus Heaney Died Today

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.

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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 Reader Reads

I think I was born knowing how to read. I don’t remember learning. Our house was full of books–mysteries, encyclopedias, anthologies, novels. We were farm kids, and there was plenty of reading time. Where were we going to go? In books, we could go anywhere. I got Maud Montgomery’s Rainbow Valley from a friend for my tenth birthday, and I still have it. I read Gone with the Wind when I was young enough to play it in my imagination and old enough to fall in love with Ashley Wilkes. I have about three hundred hardcover detective novels that belonged to my mother. Reading is one of the great pleasures of life. Having to part with books, when the shelves get too crowded, is hard on my heart. The occasional cull is necessary because I can’t stop acquiring books.

What I’ve learned, over the departure of thousands of books to libraries and charity sales, is what matters most to me. Aside from the delicious compendium Critical Theory Since Plato, all of the academic discussions of literature and film are gone. Those critical ideas in Plato are beautifully fresh, creative things. Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, and the Bronte sisters are safe and secure, everything they wrote. I have a complete Chaucer and a complete Shakespeare. I have poems by Pasternak, Ginsberg, Neruda, Sexton, Akhmatova, Nowlan, Cohen, Szymborska. Sometimes, I think about my top ten list, and I hesitate to fill all the spots. The thought makes me nervous because I don’t want to confine myself. Books aren’t like that. I can say that A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Star Called HenryChatterton,  A Long, Long Way and Rainbow Valley would be on the list. That’s half way. I’ve read and re-read them. They can take it. That’s the secret. Keep books that can stand up to the scrutiny, that offer new things with each reading, that surprise all over with a beautiful phrase.

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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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