It’s difficult to diffuse the reasons for needing to write. There is the creation of clarity and beauty but also the desire to communicate understanding and preserve perceptions and facts. Although I wouldn’t have known it at the time, I sometimes think I became a real writer the day my mother died suddenly. I’d been writing and rewriting poetry for five years but somehow that year it became a priority, with the understanding that I had a finite amount of time. I had a dim realisation that I wanted to preserve, wanted to create something that would last beyond my lifetime and make a statement about who I was and what I thought about. My mother had been a fluid writer but had died without leaving much writing behind that we could gather. Many of my friends hadn’t met her but asked me to describe her, and I stumbled around for a place to begin. Her clear and rich laugh still sounded in my head, but I felt inadequate and unprepared when trying to respond to basic enquiries about who she was.
The myth is that writing comes to you in a flash, that like a divine bolt, it strikes you suddenly. But for a dedicated writer the content of the work was cooking, consciously or otherwise, for a greater period of time. What you are suddenly struck with is not a complete package from out of nowhere but the way to write a poem you’ve had in mind for some time, and on some level. The need is ongoing but the windows of opportunity that allow you to do it as well as you would like are occasional, certainly where poetry is concerned.
Even while writing this I thought of a sentence that struck me as both meaningful and beautiful, but then turned to do something without jotting it down and now it’s gone. It’s as though somewhere down there small pieces of thought connect like one or two train cars and then rumble by, giving me a chance to note the details before they fade away. Once, I left work and began to walk up the street when the way to begin a poem struck me, without knowing that I’d been giving it much thought. The night before I’d been walking with a friend through the dark and cold and had felt something unwelcome in the air. It had been one of those nights when the world seemed frightened of itself and grim, as though it was engaged in a constant struggle. In the distance we heard a noise we couldn’t identify. Of course, all this was imposed on the scene by my mood, as it was a simple street scene at night. But the next day, while walking again I found myself whipping out some paper and standing on a street corner in the cold, I wrote the first section of a poem down. I walked two more blocks before I did it again and a few more blocks before I stopped and wrote for a third time. By the time I was home, I was happy because I’d written something new and, I thought, effective. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, gives a great example of how writing can come to you sideways when you aren’t forcing it, necessarily. She writes about her son, about four years old, who is asked if he is enjoying the fresh spring air. Her son sniffs the air and says, “It smells like the moon.”
In an essay called Why I Write, George Orwell suggests that all writing is political. To paraphrase, he suggests that even if you avoid directly mentioning political methods or views, the writing is still political simply because it wants and pushes in a certain direction. Even a romance novel pushes for the dreamy, interpersonal world it creates in the mind of the reader, and you can call it political. I’m inclined to agree. All along I’ve had a fuzzy notion that all writing works in some direction, although at the same time I defined political writing more rigidly, as a novel about a revolution, for example.
All writing is a kind of faith. Although there are doubtless exceptions, writing often imposes an order on the events and thoughts that occupy the mind of a writer. It takes those thoughts, even if they are horrible, and transfers them to a more manageable framework, like a fishbowl that we can stand above and look inside. We use narrative as a method of understanding, and after a serious disaster can trust the newspapers to begin the process of turning the event into narrative, not only providing examples of the human drama, but a greater context. We turn on our televisions and watch a space shuttle exploding over and over again while the voices of broadcasters scramble to pull a narrative together, to find out who was involved, why this happened, how it can be prevented in the future. Writing brings things into focus, makes them solid, and it whispers in the ear of possible future. To do that, it must believe in a future. Like wanting to have children and planning to care for them, writing is a statement about hope.
Ben Okri, in A Way of Being Free, states: “To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself. Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the psychic destruction of their people… Great leaders understand the power of the stories they project to their people.”
The thought that writing might provide others with pleasure or understanding is another reason to write. Nothing bridges the distance between people with more strength and accuracy than good poetry to remind us we have more in common than we may have believed. At the same time, the unfortunate catch 22 of poetry is that the more familiar people are with it, the more they love to read it, but that familiarity often never grows. Whole legions of people are turned off poetry by the way it’s often taught in schools and avoid it because it simply isn’t comfortable or enjoyable for them. In addition, there’s a great deal of inaccessible poetry our there that’s difficult even for the regular poetry reader. When writing, I think a writer should keep an eye on his or her desire and another eye on how accessible it is, or the perspective of the reader. Good, accessible poetry walks the line between being expressive enough to be effective and memorable, and going so far that the reader is excluded from a self-indulgent, dense piece.
Some experimental writers take the attitude that content is meaningless and banal but I refuse to accept that. Anything, in the right hands, can be made fresh and interesting. Alain De Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, provides an example of how Shakespeare can sound like a brief note in a newspaper if treated poorly enough: “Tragic end for Verona lovebirds: after mistakenly thinking his sweetheart dead, a young man took his life. Having discovered the fate of her lover, the woman killed herself in turn.” In reverse, I’m sure it’s possible for newspaper articles to become great literature, if handled properly. We’re still reading Shakespeare hundreds of years later because the emotions he explores are still with us—lust and love, greed and trust and so on. Although he’s remained popular, his images are still fresh, they haven’t been worn out through constant use in everyday language the way, for example, we’ve routinely used, and finally deflated the power of a word like “heartbroken,” or a phrase like “dead as a doornail.” Fresh writing doesn’t simply wash over the reader, it moves in blood. Okri also states: “The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints as human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.” And what is poetry, if not the emotional core of a story?
A good poem can contain as much meaning as a novel. I love how direct poetry is, that I can think of a way to express something I want to say (usually through metaphor) and then simply say it. Poetry must be my first love because I’m always happier to have written a poem. In fiction, I’m less pleased with the outcome and often frustrated with the process of writing it. Fiction requires constructing a village around what you want to say. It requires plot with direction and characters, each with a believable history and motivation. The reader walks in, as though into that village, wades waist deep into the words and eventually, through looking around, can begin to gather your meaning. Of course, this is ideal for a certain purpose, but in contrast poetry is like a shot from a needle that can hit your bloodstream quickly.
Writing a poem requires two things: that I have some idea, something worthwhile to talk about and that I have an effective way to say it. I would naturally feel that prejudice is a worthwhile topic but if I don’t have a way to express it that steps outside typical boundaries, I’m highly unlikely to write a poem rather than an essay or something else. Similarly, anecdotes are things I say to friends over a drink unless they fit into a poem by becoming part of a fabric wound tightly around a theme. The disturbed woman coming into my workplace and demanding to know if I’m alive is interesting but not useful in a poem unless as a part of something larger. Poetry should be more than anecdotes. The kind of poetry that simply relates a scene or moment (and I’m probably guilty of this too) can be interesting but misses any chance at greatness. With its greater canvas, fiction has the luxury of pausing for anecdotes. Writing fiction requires gathering story, a stretched and manipulated truth from you, someone you know or what you’ve imagined happening to you or someone you know. Fiction has hidden rivers of truth just as non-fiction will contain error or exaggeration.
Any kind of writing (especially poetry) is built on details. Noticing details provides the basic building blocks, not just for the connections that can form the thread of the piece but the most startling moments and images. Atwood has a small but great human moment in The Handmaid’s Tale when the main character looks back on her life before the new, brutally restrictive society was created and asks, “How were we to know we were happy then?” In a poem in Secular Love, Michael Ondaatje explains how “the crickets like small pins / begin to tack down / the black canvas of this night.” In mentioning details, I mean not just descriptive details but new connections and observations as much as possible. My goal, in writing poetry, is not to bore you with the story of any broken heart but to find hidden details or perspectives. Even the story of a broken heart can have impact if told in a new way, though it’s obviously more of a challenge than most things. And even if some of the time I fail in my writing, then stopping to think about these things at all is worthwhile in its own way.
Orwell also believed that all writers have secret desires to be recognized and famous. I doubt that fame fascinates everyone, but it does take a certain amount of ego to be a writer, as you must be prepared to endure rejection, prepared for the possibility of little recognition, and at the same time maintain you have something to say, and something worthwhile. But ego needs to walk a fine line between having the confidence to overcome basic obstacles and an inflated ego that has lost the proper perspective. To lose perspective means you fail to recognise that you’re one writer making one contribution. Aside from becoming an irritating little monkey, the flavour of your writing changes because it’s no longer as grounded, and falling into certain traps, such as not rewriting your work, becomes more likely. Never forget that whatever stage of the game you’re at, there are things you can learn from others.
Having fame can dilute effective writing if nobody dares tell you how to edit your work. Wanting fame can dilute the writing process in favour of getting to the end product quickly or worse, designing a book for this purpose. The best thing to do is write your contribution as well as you can, and patiently. There is a great difference between wanting recognition and fame. I think recognition is far more important because it means that others appreciate what you’ve done and that you reached them. Fame has certain advantages, but they have nothing to do with assuring quality. What many people fail to realize about celebrity culture is that millions of people knowing a name and attaching it to a face doesn’t necessarily mean that person has created a highly personal, lasting expression. Regardless of how successful your work becomes, it’s there that you can create something personal and resonant with whatever wisdom you’ve gathered in your life, something that flashes out like a searchlight to find a corner of the world that would have gone unnoticed but for you. This desire, above all others, is in the soul of a real writer.