I’ve been thinking this week about my “writing practice,” as the phrase goes. Had a conversation recently with a friend in which I’m pretty sure, thinking about it afterwards, we meant different things, mentally and logistically, when we said ‘writing.’ And I also attended a panel on creativity the other night featuring a garden designer, a woodworker, and a poet, which got me thinking about things like failure.
Here are the three things I believe about a writing practice: (1) It has to be daily. Discipline determines your fate; inspiration’s merely opportunity. (2) If you honor a space with hard work and lots of time, it will soon start to take care of you. (3) First drafts always suck.
I write poetry in the mornings (6:00 a.m.-8:00 a.m. weekdays, before I have to get to my day job, a tad later and for longer on weekends). I also write sometimes at night, though more often the evening work, in addition to typing up the morning’s poems, is reading, or just thinking about a poem. (I write longhand, then type it up and write all over the next morning. The proof is in the pudding, which in this case is the Times New Roman 12pt font.)
In the mornings I write, always, at a Stumptown coffee shop which, though chock full of noisy folks later, in the early mornings has just a few regulars at the back tables. And the baristas and whatever great music they’ve put on.
I write somewhere other than my house in the mornings because the internet, sleep, wandering vaguely from room to room, giving the dog a bath or, frankly, even housework are attractive alternatives to the difficulties of writing. And you can’t do those things in a coffee shop (that is if you don’t bring any internet-enabled devices with you, which I don’t). I can still daydream, and I can talk with friends or read the New York Times, but aside from that, the pages and poems in front of me are all there is. It took me a lot of years of trying to write to discover how to set myself up to succeed at that desire to be writing, and that overheard coffee shop conversation-type distractions are less distracting for me than easy opportunities to be doing something else.
Going out of the house to write, incidentally, also makes it feel like a job, an obligation that someone is expecting you to fulfill. Which is important, because of course, when you’re a barely-published poet, absolutely no one cares if you do anything or not. “Treat doing your art like a job” they say, and they are right.
I also like Stumptown because I tend to get totally bogged down choosing what music I’m in the mood to listen to while I write (I dislike unmitigated appliance-hum-and-rattle and arrhythmic-traffic-noises and why-are-those-neighbors-always-doing-something-with-the-glass-recycling and clucking-chickens-in-someone’s-backyard ‘silence’ you get in a SE Portland house). And the Stumptown baristas play great music. (Well, 97% great music. There was that week a couple years ago when every single shift put on the same Hall & Oates LP, both sides, and I nearly quit the place. And every once in a while Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel gets a little too much play. But other than that, great, and greatly varied, music).
I used to have to warm up for thirty minutes or more after I’d sat down with my cup of coffee, before I really felt like I was writing. But now, after over five years of going there, I walk in and I’m ready to be there, to be writing. I fully believe that if you honor a space (here I mean a physical space, but it could just be a notebook too) with hard creative work, it will start to take care of you. Rooms have memory. Tables have memory. (You might say that’s bullshit romanticism, but I don’t.)
Here’s the part I think I didn’t properly explain to my friend: I’m not moving my Zebra F-301 retractable ballpoint pen for every minute of those morning hours. They are not filled with writing if you mean physically writing down words. I’m a sort of ruminatory biped who chews on the pencil more than writes with it. (Actually when I chew it’s on my thumbnail, which probably looks really dumb, but anyway).
I stare into space a lot (a downside of writing in public: accidental awkward eye contact with strangers), getting ideas and thinking about how to get them into words, or trying out a line out loud inside my head, or trying to picture a scene (remembered or made-up) strongly enough to put it into words just right. Sometimes I write down notes, rather than lines. Sometimes I think about the poem architecturally, what move should it make next. Sometimes, if I’m profoundly stuck on every poem ever, I’ll just make a list of all the things I can think of that are red, or everything that rhymes with ‘artichoke,’ or the like until I can get back into the swing. Quite, quite frequently I say to myself, if I’ve got an idea, “OK. How am I going to do that?” Quite frequently I say to myself, when I haven’t got an idea, “More coffee will help.”
I also read. Sometimes I read from collections I’ve brought along specifically to read for help figuring out a particular poem. Sometimes it’s a poet I haven’t read before, to read because I want to read them but also maybe the unexpected will help me out. Sometimes I read when I can tell I’m mired, until not thinking about my poem gives me a solution for my poem.
And a far greater percentage of my writing time is spent revising than generating new, though, especially since I started writing every single day, I’m not lacking for ideas for poems. It’s possible that someday I’ll decide my focus on revision is a flaw. But I am currently pretty damned dedicated to it. I will pound and hack away at a poem for years, put it away, pull it back out and add/change/rearrange/break apart/start over some more, until I can figure out how to get it right. For better or worse, that seems to be my process. It means I have relatively few ‘finished’ poems to my name for how long I’ve been writing (1st grade, writing poetry. Age 16, the intention to become a writer. College, the determination to really become a writer.) But I think my finished work, when it finally gets there, is worth all the effort.
Though I sure wouldn’t mind if I got more right earlier in the game. I read in some interview an older poet, I can’t remember who (Charles Wright maybe? John Ashberry? I forget) said they revise less now because they’ve gotten, over the years, better at not writing down the wrong words in the first place. The thing I’ve gotten better at over the years is sensing when my feeling that I should move on to something else means I need to suck it up and keep pushing, and when it really does mean I need to take a break from that poem.
Here’s where that word ‘failure’ comes in. At the panel, as during any conversation with people who are serious about creativity, they spoke about the usefulness of failure, about trying not to be afraid of it, about its intrinsic spot in the creative process. And I realized that I fail all the time — but I never think of it in those terms. That’s not a decision I ever made, to rename failure as opportunity, or to think of it positively. I just have always accepted the maxim that your first draft always sucks.
I look at revision as like snapping out a sheet when making a bed, trying to get it to lay smooth. You do it once, you get some wrinkles. You snap it again, you get rid of those wrinkles but create some other ones. Sometimes the cat jumps under the sheet. Sometimes you realize you’ve been trying to put the short side of the sheet on the long side of the bed. But you keep snapping until it floats down all smooth.
Or, I think of revision as massaging clay until it is the right temperature, malleable, cohesive. Or maybe holding a paint chip (the poem) up to the sky (what you want to say) til you find just the right match. (Or maybe I’m getting carried away with revising my metaphors for revision…)
So that’s how I do it, anyway. I show up every day. I think (stare) more than I move my pen. I believe I can get it right, if I keep writing. And some days the sheets even wind up getting hospital corners.