Wednesday, April 29, 2015
A Thousand Sucky Poems
I give my best secondary work to my day job. My very best, less than passionate effort. If a job could have feelings it might feel like a unloved wife,who is dimly aware of the existence of a cherished mistress hidden away somewhere. Signs of the mistress are occasionally leaked to passers by in the way of Word documents that I seem to be peering at intently, occasionally tapping at the keyboard of my workstation to change some language here and there. Then suddenly a tap at the keyboard to drop tthe screen or make the word document disappear behind some dutiful report as though I might be stuffing a young woman into the closet and trying not to look guilty.
My mistress of course is that work to which I have given my best passion and effort, that thing which I genuinely love. That which other writers, not me, loftily refer to as “The Work”. As in “I must begin The Work.” “I am struggling with The Work”, or “”Now I am doing The Work”. One does not say “Now I am doing the mistress.” But one is. Definitely doing the mistress, even occasionally when the neglected wife is present.
Doing The Mistress has changed a lot over the years. There are times when I seem to lack inspiration and my most audacious and ambitious premises were in years past so that sometimes I fear I may be going through the motions. I know what to do. I even know what is necessary to Do the Mistress. There are four things which I keep scribbled on a mysterious looking Post It above my honest workstation in my drab gray cubicle:
Feed Your Head.”
That’s my formula. When I drift from it I suffer creatively and my mistress complains of neglect and boredom. She stops talking to me. She does not get done. Formulas like this are very good for you. I am becoming a fan of summations you can write on the lens of your eyeglasses. Micheal Pollack’s formula for eating healthy, the foundation of the Paleo diet:
“Eat Real Food
Not too Much.”
That’s it. That’s all you need to know.
Writing? Show up. Show up at the keyboard, even when you have nothing to say. Bench press whatever daily goal you have set for yourself even if you’re just shoveling shit with a keyboard. Do it every day, at the same time everyday if humanly possible, in the same place every day if humanly possible. Think of it as a date you;re keeping with that most special goddess, the muse, and if you don’t show up, very soon she’ll stop showing up. I would say, paraphrasing Woody Allen, 80 percent of success in writing craft is just showing up at the keyboard.
Write Actually, means as much as possible have a real project, an actual story projectI have ambitions for, which means mostly rewriting.
Practice Daily. I suspect this is what separates the serious from the scribblers more than any other thing. I practice. I practiced from the very first day I started taking this seriously, which was the first smart thing I did, that and seeking out advice from better writers which at the time was pretty much everybody. I try to practice every day if I can. Musicians practice their scales. Baseball players practice pitching and batting. Why shouldn’t word smiths practice with language? I think one of the most important things a writer of any genre can do to make themselves stand out is develop a geeky love of words and sentences and paragraphs. I was born with that. I was swooning over Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling at an early age as much as for their intensity of language as for their story craft. Now its Angela Carter and Vladimir Nabokov and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, anybody with a silver tongue and a wild imagination. There are so many ways to practice writing craft and practice language which are two separate elements. The ability to write the music and the ability to play the instrument. These days I’m studying poetry form and prosody seriously; I’m studying sound and word choice and the arrangement of words as an art form in itself. I practice by trying to write a poem every day. These are not good poems. They don’t have to be. These are sucky poems. But, hell, I’m not anybody’s idea of a poet so I can have a special folder in my laptop titled “A Thousand Sucky Poems” and feel cheerful about it, because I know if I pay my dues over times, a thousand sucky poems is the price you have to pay out to get one non-sucky poem and I’ve written a couple co far. And when you write a thousand sucky poems your brain makes the stretch to pay attention. Mistresses, more than anything, need you to pay attention.
“Feed Your Head”, a phrase from the old Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit”, means - read. Read. Do what? Read. Read what? Everything. If I’m left alone at a kitchen table I start reading the backs of cereal boxes. I read the ingredients on jars. When I visit someone’s house I start drifting instinctively to the book case. I use my cell phone on secondarily as a communication device. Its main purpose is as an ebook library clipped to my belt. I read erotica. I read classical literature. I read the Bible. If I can’t find those things, I read the nutrition lists on food cans. You stuff your head full until it starts to ferment, you keep a notebook in your pocket at all times and when your mistress burps fragrantly in your face, you scribble it down fast before the fumes are lost.
Those four things are my mantra. That’s how I’ve changed.