With special thanks to Ian Blake Newhem, Cliff Garner, Dan Masterson, Nancy Hazelton, Travis Smith, Kristen Brownell, Annie McDermott, and "Her."
A poet should tell the world how he feels, not tell the world how to feel. – John Lennon
Recently, a friend of mine – a wonderful writer on the verge of publishing her first novel – revealed that she was, “sitting outside her writing instructor’s office, eavesdropping on a conference he’s having with a grad student. The grad student insists that she doesn’t care if readers understand her book or not – she’s going to do it her way no matter what.”
My friend’s tone made it clear that she disagreed with the unfortunate grad student’s approach, and several of her other friends proceeded to agree with her judgment. One commented that, “great books depend on a finely calibrated balance between commercial appeal and literary merit. If you’re trying for one extreme, better off choosing the former over the latter.”
Although I have, from time to time, been known to disagree with a professor’s evaluation of work, in this case – 3,000 miles away, having not read the manuscript in question, and without the benefit of hearing the entire conversation – my first instinct is to agree with the instructor who probably has much more education and experience than the grad student.
In the days preceding this exchange, however, I had been considering my writing; specifically why, what, and how I write. I’d recently watched a video presentation concerning nurturing creativity given by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love (ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html). In the video, Gilbert gives – among other things – examples of how and why she and several other writers create, and it started the wheels in my head turning.
My friend’s comment – and the responses from her other friends – served to crystallize some beliefs in my mind. As I said, my first instinct is to agree with the instructor over the grad student. But, as I thought more about it – and placed myself in the position of the grad student…or tried to – I knew that, if I believed in my work that profoundly, I would fight for it too.
This is, of course, a very slippery slope. Without knowing the quality of the grad student’s work, and with – I’m sure – a far too lofty opinion of my own, any argument is certainly flawed. In addition, in such a defense, one must be prepared to accept judgment, either in the form of a low grade from a professor, or in the form of rejection of one’s work by the public.
Although I am no longer in school, and therefore don’t have to worry about a low grade, I am a writer…and a human being. It is only natural to crave recognition for one’s literary endevours. So, I – or any writer – must balance “doing it my way” against how much acceptance I seek/rejection I can bear.
Over the last five years, I’ve had to decide how much of my soul (”literary merit”) I’m willing to trade for economic success (”commercial appeal”). To date, I’ve turned down four opportunities to write for daily or weekly newspapers, including one Gannett paper. Please understand, I didn’t turn them down because I think my literary talent is too great to be wasted writing 100-word, back-page human interest pieces about Peggy Petunia’s prize-winning purple pumpkin, but because writing articles like that would hollow out my soul and make writing a job instead of a passion.
The larger problem is that many writers suffer from the same diseases: vanity and doubt. Both can be deadly for a writer, and it’s difficult to find a safe balancing point in between the two. I don’t mean vanity to the point that we think that every piece we create is a work of pure genius destined to supplant William Shakespeare at the top of the canon of Western literature. I mean taking great pride in our work and hoping that others, especially our peers, will like it.
If they don’t like it – hey, it’s mostly subjective – it can be merely painful. If they criticize it, however, it can seem as if they’re attacking your child. You could, of course, attempt to cater to the literary whims of others, but you’d be better off selling your soul to the devil rather than trying to write to please critics.
Doubt is, I think, more dangerous for many writers. It was for me. Doubt kills many poems, songs, essays, novels…and even writers. So, a writer needs either a thick skin or an abundance of perseverance…or both.
“How does a writer avoid being overwhelmed by vanity and doubt,” you ask? Well, I certainly can’t answer for every writer, but I’ve discovered what works for me. Truthfully, vanity about my writing is rarely a problem for me. While I believe I’ve written a few really good pieces – maybe even one or two great pieces – out of the hundreds of pieces I’ve created, I’ve always been my own harshest critic. And, I know that I have a few friends who are much better writers than I’ll ever be.
If, however, you find yourself getting a little too big for your literary britches, my suggestion is this: go back and read some of the stuff you wrote five years ago, or 10. Or, page through that Shakespeare research paper you handed in during your college years; you know, the one that you were sure would garner a Nobel Prize for Literature. Few things will humble you more than reading your old work. Just try to avoid burning down the house when you destroy the evidence!
For me, overcoming doubt took time and experience. I needed to realize that I don’t really write because I want to, I write because I have to. Words bang around in my head all day; they swirl around, clang together and bounce off the inside of my skull; eventually they begin to form a rhythm – usually it’s iambic pentameter – and until I put them down on paper I won’t have a moment of peace.
I once told a young writer enduring an attack of doubt, “We’re writers. The stuff that most people keep buried deep down inside for their entire lives…we throw it out there for everyone to see and criticize. And, very often – probably more often than we’d like to admit – we live and die by their reaction.” The thing is, if someone criticizing your work – telling you what you did wrong, or how they would have done this or that differently – is going to crush your soul, then you may want to look for another way to spend your time.
Long ago, I realized that the vast majority of writers were not “the cool kids;” the kids who had “it” all figured out in high school. They’re the ones that see a different path and are compelled to follow it. I quote Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Lester Bangs in the movie Almost Famous): “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” Maybe, just maybe, it is their uncoolness – their willingness to not follow the crowd – that makes writers cool.
Unfortunately, I never know when or how inspiration will strike. Far too often, my Muse pokes me in the middle of the night. I’m asleep and I don’t want to wake up, but she persists. She shakes my shoulder until I murmur and roll over. She asks, “Are you awake?” And I say, “I am now.”
Awake or asleep, I’ve found that inspiration is a funny thing. There’s no telling what’s going to knock something loose – it’s not always the depth of “Her” eyes, the slope of “Her” nose, or the soft curve of “Her” lips that inspires a sonnet. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a dandelion. Often, an idea falls out of a book, a magazine, a song, another poem, a photograph, or even something someone says. Other times, a single word – even entire lines – have appeared out of thin air.
You know that moment right after someone wearing the same perfume as the girl that broke your heart walks by, and you close your eyes, breathe in the scent, and she’s standing right next to you again? She seems so close, so very real, that you could just reach out and take her hand. But then someone bumps into you, or a bus drives by, or a taxi driver blows his horn to get you out of the middle of the crosswalk…and she’s gone. That, that powerful evanescent memory is what I try to capture with mere words. It doesn’t always work. But, sometimes, once in a blue moon, during a leap year, on the last Tuesday of a month – if it falls on an even numbered day – something incredible might happen, and I’m left with a little piece of that memory scratched out on a piece of paper. The only word I can use to describe it is magic!
Perhaps it is the mark of an immature or naïve writer, but I write what I want to write, what I believe, and what I have to say. I write what I write, the way I write it. If you don’t like it, read someone else, or pick up a pen and tell your own story. My work isn’t driven by “commercial appeal,” rather by my heart and my imagination.
Now, I don’t mean to sound like a petulant kid who thinks he knows everything and can accomplish anything by himself. I most certainly do not know everything, and – to paraphrase a true linguistic master – “I know what I don’t know.” I believe that the best way to become a better writer is to read other writers, and talk to teachers – old and new – to learn more about the craft. “You have to learn the rules before you can break them,” as a friend and professor once told me after a particularly ugly split infinitive incident. The simple truth is, like anything else, you have to work to become a better writer.
Again, being human, I desire acceptance and praise for my work. I’ve never tried cocaine or heroin, but I can’t imagine a higher high than the times that someone has complimented my work; telling me they enjoyed my article, or they love my sonnet, or that my essay really touched them. But, I don’t live for that anymore; I can’t. As terrific as that feeling is – and as much as I appreciate it – striving for that would only drive me crazy…OK, crazier.
So, for myself, I choose “literary merit” over “commercial appeal.” If that means that my work isn’t “popular,” and I don’t become famous, I’m OK with that. At the end of the day, it’s my work, my poem, my story. It is, in a very real sense, my life bled out on the page in black ink. And, even if no one reads it…I’m going to write it anyway.