Monday, January 9, 2017

Risk-taking in writing

One of my most treasured Facebook friends—Susan is her name—recently paid me a nice compliment disguised as a suggestion for a blog post. I treasured the compliment—but the suggestion also stuck with me, and I’ve been noodling over it for a few days now.

Susan writes, “Would love to read a blog about how you came/come to take such risks with your own poems, Karen. You make it seem easy. Do you ever deal with an inner critic that tries to muzzle you?”

I need to take a moment to savor a gorgeous buzzy verb—“muzzle.” But then the question remains. How do we allow ourselves to take risks when we are in the habit of shutting ourselves down when we step out of line?

If you’re like me, you don’t have a lot of writing time, and the time you spend in front of the page has to count. A whole day’s writing time can be squandered on writing in the wrong direction—writing what doesn’t work in an attempt to get to what does.

Sometimes we don’t know we have a booger on our finger until we flick it. Sometimes we write with a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm, only to find that what goes on the page amounts only to prewriting—an enumeration, maybe, of all the ways not to approach a writing task.

Were I teaching a composition class, I’d dismiss this as part of the process—I’d say that writing around the topic helps us to locate its coordinates, pinpoint it in time and space. That’s the kind of bullshit thing I say all the time—but it’s only bullshit because it’s so very vexing. I don’t say a lot of things truer than this. A whole lot of time is sometimes required to think about a subject, and sometimes that thinking happens, messily, on the page. Thinking can be kind of ugly, and not the least bit literary in its raw form.

But Susan isn’t talking about that, exactly—she’s talking about an inner censor that tries to shut down the things that might appear foolish, that might expose us too much, that might embarrass. And I do have that critic in me. She saves me from humiliation from time to time, but I suspect my critic also keeps real brilliance from happening on the page.

When I was younger—like, up until last week, the last time I tried to compose anything other than a blog post—I used to write a line of poetry, then read it and feel absolutely suffused with shame and humiliation. I would, in those olden days, write a line and then sit with it, and then I’d scratch it out—completely obliterate it, so that no one (and I am typically the only one in the room) could see it. I wouldn’t just scratch thick horizontal lines, through; I’d scrawl little star shapes on top, so no one would be able to make out any of the actual lines or curves of the letters I’d written.

Ah, youth. It must be noted, though, that poetry deals, frequently, with the psyche—with the images of dreams, and with the ideations of the deepest self. I don’t really want anyone poking around in my dream journal—that stuff’s embarrassing—and likewise, I don’t want these proto-poems to represent me. It’s part of the reason I never make students read early drafts of their work in class.

The problem is that the mine that brings up all the fool’s gold also brings up the actual, Au, atomic number 79 gold—the good stuff. And it’s hard to sort one from the other. They’re both sort of pretty, when you get right down to it.

And I’m not just referring to the sparkle—the clever wordplay, the vivid imagery. The really good stuff is embedded in flawless logic, in thought-provoking new ideas. It’s hard to see what you have flashing in the pan until you get a chance to examine it and to polish it.

Fear of foolishness may make me throw away ideas that are of value. I’m a little sad that I can’t be stupid in front of myself; I’m like people who can’t bear to be naked when alone in their own homes. On a personal and possibly unrelated note, I absolutely love doing that. Down with pants!

In fact, sometimes I prance pantless through my own home, despite the fact that there is a Christian coffeehouse right across my back lawn, and I am likely very visible in my altogether, and in front of some very upright folks. Sure, I’m being baldly confessional, but there is a useful metaphor here. Those good, religious caffeinators aren’t looking at me, and if they caught a glimpse of a shocking expanse of peach, they would likely disbelieve that it was what they thought it was.

No one sees this stuff, so why don’t we parade through our pages, boldly and proudly? I’m starting to get there; I’m reaching the point where I can let the stupid stuff stand. Most of the time the stupid stays stupid, but sometimes there is value in it; sometimes you just have to look at your pen as a vehicle and see where it’s going to take you.

The world doesn’t really need a whole lot more finely crafted work that has nothing risky or unusual to say. We’re nearly full up on that. And trying to get at the real insights, what’s different, can place us on a rocky path. But I’ve noticed that some of the best places are reached via rocky paths—paths that are barely paths at all; paths that maybe seemed like paths until we started to follow them; paths it turns out we blaze.

Sometimes we blaze. And sometimes when we blaze, we sparkle.

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