One of the most frustrating things for a writer is not writing. In my case, I sometimes sit down at my desk or in one of my favorite chairs with good intentions, but the phone rings or I remember the clothes in the dryer or I decide to check out The Weather Channel … in other words, nothing happens. Why not?
For me, the reasons vary, and it depends on what I am trying to write.
I somehow ritually rid myself of the fear of putting down a terrible poem. In my world, I no longer write terrible poems – they are “drafts.” My friend Scott Douglass once said to me, “I have yet to meet the perfect poem.” Scott meets a great many poems, not only as a poet himself, but also as an editor and publisher, so I found his statement to be quite comforting. I still do.
However, it is startling and discouraging when I discover that a piece I had considered finished is really still “a draft” after all. There are endless changes one can make to a poem – as Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” – but when I discover something blatantly off, I am ashamed. Briefly. Then, of course, I try to mend what is broken and move on. The excitement of writing a poem, or the draft of a poem, overshadows the worry about whether it is “good.” When I show something to my poetry group and have to begin by saying, “I’m not even sure this is a poem,” I know that even if this thing isn’t a poem, there is something within it that wants to be. If both that “something” and I want it to be badly enough, a poem will happen.
Anxious distraction, however, often prevents me from writing poetry. I require some space and some silence so that a poem can ferment, perhaps akin to the tranquility Wordsworth was describing in the preface to Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.
Poetry is always trying to strike a balance between experience and reflection. For me, though, distraction is not always the enemy. Sometimes it is my friend. A distraction must be distressing in order for it to be an impediment. Immersing myself too often and too deeply in the news of the day, or in the problems of friends or family, can be anxious distractions. At the same time, these distractions may one day be the inspiration for a poem. Some anxious distractions are far less profound. If I am upset at having to, for example, perform a routine task that someone else was supposed to do, my upset is an anxious distraction. If I am not upset at having to do this something, or if it is something I would normally do anyway, the something itself becomes a benign distraction. And sometimes, in performing this mundane and mindless chore, lightning strikes, and I have to find a pen. So if I am struggling with a poem, I give myself permission to get up and walk away and start folding those clothes in the dryer in the secret hope that the words will come find me in the laundry room. Or in the car. Or in the grocery store. Or in the shower. And sometimes they do. This phenomenon is nothing new and I am by no means unique in this experience, but I am amazed at how often I forget about this aspect of the creative process.
I am sure anxious distraction is a hindrance to my fiction as well, but I have an additional problem when it comes to writing fiction. One of the things I continuously struggle with in general is a kind of perfectionism, not just in writing, but in life. It has made me my own worst critic at times, and, at times, I am embarrassed to admit, a too critical parent, as well as partner. When it comes to my fiction, I can definitely pin my recent lack of progress on a kind of perfectionism. The fear that something is not right or is stupid stops me cold when I stare at the pages I have yet to write, and avoid staring at the pages I have already written.
During this past summer, I had a breakthrough and was able to write the first of three parts of the novel I am working on currently. I worked steadily on it, even though, some days, I would lay my head on the table and say to myself, “This is awful!” I got some encouraging feedback on that draft. It was time to write the second part, but when it came to getting started, I had more shakes and fits, and sputtering starts than my old Chevy Vega with the two barrel carburetor.
Back in the autumn, I gave myself permission to just stop trying for a bit, though I continued to write and revise poetry. And yet, the novel nagged. When the new year arrived, I told myself, “It’s time.” Again, with the coughing and sputtering. Finally, at the beginning of this week, I was able to stop listening to the damned editor in my head and listen to the writer in my head (and my real life writer friends), who kept saying, “Just write it.” The second part is now well under way, and it feels great to be working on it again. Being in “the Zone,” is so much better than not being there. Some of my poet friends and I call it “sitting in God’s lap.” Will there be future fits and starts? No doubt. I’m always squirming around and jumping out of God’s lap. And hopefully, when next I do, I will have the good sense to come back here and read the following paragraph:
“Just write it,” like the admonition to “Turn the other cheek,” is a simple little thing. Simple, but not easy. Sometimes just writing it is not easy until you knock down the door and get in there – in the Zone, in the piece itself. Once you’re in, you’re in and you realize just how long you were turning yourself backwards and upside down. Embrace your inner editor and perfectionist critic … but save them for the revision stage. They can’t lay claim to what you haven’t yet written. And give yourself permission to get up and fold the clothes if need be.