Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Kicking the crutch of habit



Ezra Pound by Wyndham Lewis

Most days, writers write. Occasionally, though, being a writer means stepping back to look closely at what we have made. And sometimes it means assessing our habits of mind as revealed through those many drafts.

I have a few bad patterns as a writer. Chief among them is my go-to poetry rhetoric. On the first draft, many of my poems are shaped similarly, and the argument moves according to a predictable pattern. I lay out terms—Say such-and-such happened—and then build until I get nearly to the end, where I turn. It’s a painful moment, to suddenly realize that you’ve written the same poem over and over for a couple of decades.

That problem has proven to be fixable, though, and the process of repairing it has been artistically gratifying. I figured out right away that I could shift the location of the claims or the warrants or the supports to good effect. Seeing a poem as a rhetorical occasion is helpful in itself. I’ve found that it’s possible to move the aspects of the argument like furniture within the poem, and that doing so—reframing, reordering an argument—is very gratifying, intellectually speaking.

A less enjoyable poetry problem to fix is my tendency to offer a detail of setting (usually of time, but often of place) in the very first line of a poem. Look at this sampling from a couple of my manuscripts:

Today, I sat in a pew …
At the Laundromat …
I woke this way—bent …
On the way to Provincetown …
Some days everything seems scattered …
After a hard day, only this …
Lately I’ve been forgetting …
Someone inside me is upside down …
Somewhere near Des Moines you work it out …
The minute she threw her wedding ring over the stern …
Today my son opened his arms wide …
It’s the night when the veil is thinnest …
In church today a woman …
At the coffee shop today …
Today at the butterfly house …
Last night my son drew a picture …
The day the eclipse came …
One afternoon, driving …
You wore sweatpants to work on Monday …
Last night the cold feed of Aristotle …

This problem is more vexing for me. It certainly reveals a lot about my processes, doesn’t it? I’m a busy mom who teaches and edits, and I don’t have the luxury of retreating to my hidey-hole for days at a time to ponder big ideas. Sometimes I can convince myself that small ideas are my turf—but then I have to remind myself of the bigness of my world, and the importance of creating and nurturing life, of useful toil, and of helping people to become better writers. And the mom in me knows that small moments in the lives of small people are actually a very big deal, so I chronicle them best I can.

But this is a digression. Clearly, I’ve caught myself with my pants down, artistically speaking. My process is plain as day for anyone to observe; I begin by sitting down and asking myself, “Hmm, what should I write about?” and the inevitable answer is, “Why, I’ll write about that funny/perplexing/scary/important thing that happened yesterday.”

And then the poem begins. “Yesterday, ….”

This seems like an easier problem to solve than that rhetoric conundrum, but it’s really not. When I don’t allow myself to set the scene for the poem, I’m left without footing. I literally have nowhere—and no space in time—to occupy. Oh, it’s fine to recognize that you’re using a crutch, but it gets a bit trickier when you kick that crutch away. A poem can topple right over.

I’m not writing this, however, to propose a solution to my problem. It’s something I work with every day, and like every writer, I find a way in. There are a lot of paths into a poem, and finding different access points has certainly helped my work.

I do recommend this process, though—a clear-eyed look at our writerly habits, whether good (but overused) or bad. In a sense, most artifacts on the page that can be thought of as “habits” are something of a problem. When we make it but we don’t “Make it new,” the ghost of Ezra Pound sheds an autocratic bundle of tears.


It’s painful, but necessary, to assess and correct where our art is concerned.

3 comments:

  1. I think it's so important for writers to evaluate/think about their process. In my MFA program I found it discouraging that my instructors dismissed discussion of process, writing habits, ect. Though we all have repetitious tenancies, many of these writerly habits build into something that contributes wonderfully, and uniquely to what--for a lack of a better term--I'll call style.

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    1. That's absolutely true, and it's an idea I'm tossing around for a future post! (You should write about habits as indicator of style! That's nicely put.)

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  2. Wonderful, thought-provoking post. It's growth to be able to finally understand your own process and accept it, but even more so to take that leap of being able to detach from order & starting point we recognize ourselves falling into, almost without thinking. T0 consciously try something new and stay with it,and have it eventually become something you're proud of, doesn't happen nearly as often as I'd like it to in my life, but it's so sweet when it does.

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