Sunday, February 24, 2013

All the Brilliant Books I'm Not Writing: Life After Creative Writing

From early childhood until I became a student in a creative writing program, I wrote compulsively. Before I learned how to write I would scribble over blank pages in what I thought looked like cursive, and then stamp them with my dad’s business seal. Once I learned how to write, I would quickly fill notebooks with journal entries and stories, quickly even when considering my giant handwriting. As a teenager I started playing guitar and writing songs, gradually abandoning the guitar but sticking with the poem writing part. I wrote constantly, and if I didn’t have a notebook or ran out of paper I would write on coasters, napkins, cigarette packages, even all over my arm.


Though my early childhood writing is pretty bananas and charming (if I do say so myself) the rest of all this text I produced has one thing in common—it sucks. It’s really really crummy—trite, saccharine, obvious or deliberately obtuse—one way or another it’s hard to read it without cringing. The month before I began university I remember reading two poems I had written, and though I recognized that one was better than the other, I couldn’t really put my finger on why (let’s face it, they both sucked, but one may have sucked slightly less). I then did two years of an English degree at a small college, which helped my writing, but not too much. My writing improved, but reading some of those things now it strikes me that I was simply mimicking the poets I enjoyed reading. All in all, still not much improvement.

In my third year, however, I transferred to a university and began the first of three year-long creative writing classes I would take, in addition to completing a creative honours project. Enrolling in a creative writing program vastly, dramatically improved my writing skills in a short period of time—this was as true for my poetry as it was for my essay writing skills. By the end of the first course I had a much better grasp on the different approaches I could take to writing poetry, as well as the skills to judge the effectiveness of a piece of writing based on the approach I took when writing it. I have by no means fully reached the level of proficiency that I hope to when it comes to writing poetry, but I have a pretty good toolkit now to work with. Above all, when I write something I know WHY it sucks, and often I know how to fix it.

Despite the astronomical improvement in my writing, however, I no longer write a lot. This is partly due to external factors and demands on my time, but not entirely. In fact, I think some of the strange habits I have that keep me from writing now are ones I picked up as a creative writing student. I have to stress that I had a phenomenal experience as a creative writing student, and was surrounded by incredibly intelligent and supportive people who pushed me and challenged me to improve my writing skills. However, I think that might actually be the problem.

So, here are the counterintuitive reasons why taking creative writing classes turned me into not a writer:

Hobby vs Work
Before doing the creative writing program, writing was purely recreational and way to blow off steam. I felt deeply compelled to write, or um, inspired. It often strikes me that inspiration is a dirty word in a lot of writing communities these days, and it’s easy to see why. Inspiration alone is not enough—if you rely on inspiration alone you can’t write in any dependable, regular way. Inspiration also doesn’t necessary lead to good writing. On the other hand, when combined with dedication to your writing and a critical eye, it does provide the motivation to sit down and write and edit for long periods of time. I don’t really experience inspiration anymore, partly because of the way being a creative writing student made me re-conceptualize writing. I now think of writing poetry as contributing to an ongoing dialogue between texts and traditions. I think I have to have the project all planned out before I sit down to write. I am pretty much terrified of writing bad poetry now, so I don’t practice, I don’t play around, I don’t just sit and write and see what happens, discarding things that aren’t working or editing things until they become better. I’m petrified of writing, of making terrible contributions to this genre I love and respect. The disdain I feel towards inspiration has worked its way into my mind in such a way that if I do feel inspired, I just push it out of my mind. To me, poetry is no longer a conduit for expression—it’s work. Inspiration is an insipid trickster, and if I want to write poetry I have to sit down and work, not express myself. And like I said, I’m afraid to sit down and work in case it’s bad. Also, I feel unmotivated to do extra work after school and my job and homework and chores, especially when I feel so rotten if I’m screwing it up.

Single Poems vs Book-Length Projects:
I first feel in love with stand-alone poems… Marvell’s Coy Mistress, Eliot’s Prufrock, Hopkins’ Carrion Comfort, Plath’s Mushrooms, Atwood’s This is a photograph of me, Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning, Auden’s As I Walked Out One Evening, Williams’ This is just to say, Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est… the list goes on and on. I love these stand-alone poems in a greedy, highly detailed way. I memorized them—I loved and still love every little lick of language in them. However, my favourite contemporary poetry is by and large Canadian book-length poetic works… Queyras’ Lemon Hound, Walschots’ Thumb Screws and Doom, Bök’s Eunoia, Ball’s Clockfire, Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia, Robertson’s The Weather… this list goes on and on too so I should stop. In any case, these books are all unified works in some way—stylistically, thematically, something. And they are glorious. Before I encountered these kinds of books, I mostly wrote stand-alone poems. Now, however, I feel like I have to plot out and completely arrange every aspect of a book-length project before I sit down to write. This too isn’t necessarily bad… like I said, the majority of contemporary books of poetry that I love are coherent books, not random collections. I think this approach to writing is a great way to engage with an idea and with readers in a sustained, meaningful way. However, I now think I shouldn’t write a word unless it’s part of a clearly planned out major project that is going to take a year at minimum to complete. This is daunting, and vaguely stressful. It also prevents me from again, practicing, messing around, seeing what happens. One of my chapbooks, A History of Button Collecting, was actually stuck together from bits and things I had written. This worked because the random little things I was writing eventually did fit together stylistically and thematically. Writing this chapbook was also kind of fun. Arriving at a coherent book doesn’t necessarily mean planning out every little detail before sitting down… it could mean sanding and polishing work until it clicks together, and then filling it out once a shape has begun to emerge. I don’t know how other people work, but either seems like a perfectly reasonable approach. Anyway, considering that poetry now feels like work, it feels like even more work when I feel pressure to only write book-length projects rather than trying to get just 15 super solid lines down. It seems increasingly difficult to start writing when it’s got to be the first steps towards a heavily planned out gigantic manuscript that has to be good because like I said, I’m petrified of screwing it up now. On the subject of shame and terror…

Self-Deprecation
Before the creative writing program I thought poetry was important. Yup, IMPORTANT. It felt pretty important—so many poems were so important to me and close to my heart. They changed the way I felt about the world and about myself, and I don’t think I’d be going to far to say being an English major saved me, in a lot of ways. I found something I loved, something I was good at—it gave me purpose. I don’t know if I would be dead or in jail without it, but I certainly would be worse off than I am today. Creative writing classes in particular helped me. Our mentor insisted that our weird compulsive interests and ticks would be the best source for our writing. This made me feel like, by extension, it was okay to be a weirdo and that being odd was actually the best thing about me. When I started taking creative writing classes I was so paralyzed by social anxiety that I couldn’t order food in restaurants. Having someone tell me that being a weirdo was potentially good was an enormous relief. And having to sit quietly while my prof (of whom I was absolutely terrified) and my classmates talked about my work also boosted my self esteem. I wrote a lot of duds but people often pointed out the strengths of my work, even if it was just one good line in a poem. One of my most vivid memories is my mentor reading a poem I took as risk on out loud, and then commenting on how good it sounded. Be still my beating heart. Workshops helped me see that people didn’t think I was an idiot and that people thought the things I wrote had value and potential. I can’t stress how much this changed how I saw myself. Creative writing workshops aren’t therapy, but for me seeing that I could do something well and seeing that people held me and what I did in good esteem was incredible, and it changed me. I am so much more secure with myself and so much more confident now, and I owe it to those classes.

On the flip side, however, pretty much every poet I know and look up to jokes a lot about how poetry and poets suck. Considering how few non-poets like poetry, and how odd poets can be, as a group, these jokes aren’t baseless. And they have to be taken with a grain of salt. If in our heart of hearts we didn’t think poetry had some value, we wouldn’t be doing it. The problem for me however is that these jokes have gotten under my skin. It’s hard to sit down and work on a big book-length project that I am terrified of writing in the first place when all I think about is how it's a foolish thing to do and that no one will read it anyway. It’s not that I want to be famous or well regarded—I have 0 illusions about these things, but I have a voice in my head now needling me about why I should even bother. This little voice undermines my desire to write, and makes me feel like what I do doesn’t have any value. It also increases the pressure and anxiety to create works of startling transcendent genius because, I have no business contributing to the quantity of texts out there if I'm not contributing to the quality, right?*

But then again…



Before I took the creative writing classes I never would have said that poetry and poets suck. I think I joke about it to come to terms with the fact that this one thing that I am really good at can never be my career and that it won’t really matter to many people. The fact remains, though, that it matters to people who care about poetry, and it matters to me. But I feel a bit ashamed and shy about being a poet now, having internalized our jokes. And speaking of bad attitudes…

Inflated Ego with No Experience
Going through a creative writing program made me a better critic of poetry. Not only did I learn why my poetry sucked, I also learned why other poetry sucks. I can expound upon why a particular poem or book sucks, at great length and with great detail. Buuuut. This is a tricky thing. First, I firmly believe that writing is a useful and therapeutic means of catharsis. It used to be for me. If anyone anywhere wants to write to get things off their chest or for the pleasure of writing then they should. Not that anyone needs my blessing, but that’s how I feel about that. When poems are published however, they’re up for scrutiny and boy can my friends and I scrutinize. Which is a good skill. But this too has worked its way into my brain and has started picking apart my motivation to write. I suspect that my critical skills are better than my poetry writing skills. It’s a lot easier to sit in a pub and be honest about some stranger’s book than it is to sit alone in your apartment and be honest about your own book. I’ve never published a bad review, to the best of my recollection… it’s not something I could bring myself to do for a number of reasons. But all this behind the scenes dissecting and criticism has made me wary. Being a creative writing student made me a good critic of other people’s art, but do I really have the chops to back it up? It’s a sort of be humble lest you stumble situation. I’m afraid of undermining myself—of being critical of other people’s poetry, but not being able to apply this to my own writing. It makes me afraid to write. And, to take the other meaning of criticism…

The Need to Engage in Critical Discourse
I used to post to this blog a lot more, and was given the fantastic chance to blog for Lemon Hound (now a most fabulous website). Then I had to move across the country, I did an MA where I focused on medieval studies rather than contemporary poetry, I finished that degree and started an MLIS (2 more months! Woohoo!), I had several big emotionally messy things happen in my life… my time went poof. But, I was always busy, all be it slightly less so. Finishing the creative writing program and my undergrad left me without the luxury, the privilege of being able to dedicate most of my time and mental energy to thinking and writing about and around poetry. I feel like a failure because of this. My critical work trickled out, and this is the first substantial piece of critical work I’ve done in months. But I wonder how necessary doing this is to being a poet. I know writers who insist that engaging in the critical discourse surrounding poetry is as necessary to being a poet as writing poetry. I just don’t know what I think. I feel like people expect it of me and I’m screwing up my writing “career” (haha, oh anyway, see “Self-Deprecation”) if I don’t blog or write reviews. But I feel like what I really need right now is to just read and write poetry. I find blogging and having a public life in that regard stressful. After posting something, I’ll sit at my computer for ages, checking blog stats, seeing if anyone has written anything mean or encouraging in the comments. Pouring hours into the critical work instead of the creative writing wasn’t helping, and it wasn’t making poetry feel any less terrifying or daunting (see “Inflated Ego with No Experience”). This has become one more node of psychic stress for me when it comes to writing, or rather, not writing. And speaking of guilt…

Constant Feeling that I am a Slacker
To my surprise and delight, I got a grant to write the manuscript I just finished. From December 2011 to January 2013 I worked on this thing, while holding down a part time job, moving three times, and being a full time student. I didn’t really know how to draw but I made 44 big visual poems/folk-art drawings for the book, I wrote 45 poems to go with those, and I travelled across western Canada for a month interviewing people who came from Hungary to Canada as refugees in 1956, their descendants, and other Hungarian-Canadians who are part of that experience.


I then came back to Montreal and transcribed 655 pages of interviews. I handed the project in on January 15th. I’ve done some editing on the poetry over the past month as well as editing some older poems I was working on before, but I’ve also taken a bit of a break, did some homework, paid some bills, read some books, and doubled my hours at my job. And I feel like the worst, laziest poet ever. Post-creative writing program, writing takes more time. Like I said, I no longer feel like jotting down whatever pops into my head is an adequate writing practice. And I just finished a 700 page project. Yet I feel like a fraud for not having written a new poem for a month. Pre-creative writing program, I wrote a ton, and during the creative writing program writing became a much more deliberate, difficult, challenging activity, but I wrote a ton. My life no longer allows me to block out hours and hours a week to do this difficult writing thing, so I can’t reasonably expect myself to produce as much as I did when I was in the creative writing program. Yet, I do. And I know these amazingly driven poets, some of whom are profs or sessionals, who churn out so much great stuff, and I can’t keep up. Feeling like a lethargic slacker has proven to be a self-fulfilling force for me. Not only am I terrified of writing, I also think I’m a fraud and somehow unworthy of dabbling. I’m fortunate to have great mentors… the kind who are not only supportive but who push. My personality is largely based on my ‘I’ll show you!’ attitude, so when I tell someone I just finished a manuscript and they ask me why I haven’t also finished my other, older manuscript yet, it does get me going. But it also feeds my self-doubt and picture of myself as a dilettante. Oh, and speaking of mentors…

Dependency on Mentors
I’ve had crazy awesome luck when it comes to all things creative writing, not the least of which was that the university in my hometown had an ass-kicking creative writing program. My writing prof there was incredible—incredibly high standards, incredibly supportive, incredibly invested in seeing us improve—invested in us period, really… I consider this person one of the most important people in my life to this day. I feel the same way about my mentor in the creative writing community, who has been, again, supportive, determined to see me succeed, invested in me as a writer and as a person. These two people not only mean the world to me, but they gave me all the tools I have to be a better writer. My prof spent ages working through poems and essays with me, my friend has done the same thing, pointing out where they need fixing, and why (um, often arguing with me. I’ll show you!). And… I have become dependant on them. A friend of mine who did the same classes at the same time with me and counts this prof and friend as his mentors as well confessed to doing the same thing that I do… we play the prof's voice in our heads when we write. We imagine what our prof would say and how, we imagine our prof reading the poem out loud in order to demonstrate its weaknesses or absurdities. This was easy a month after I finished my BA. It’s less easy to do so four years later… I can’t remember the particularities of our lessons or my prof’s voice and mannerism with quite the same level of detail. So this strange co-dependency with the imaginary friend version of my mentor is starting to break down, but my need for it is not. My internal editor is a facsimile of someone else, it’s not my own voice and thoughts. Of course, it’s the voice of my imaginary friend at this point, so the content of my imaginary friend’s comments is coming from my memory and brain… but it still seems external to me. I don’t have enough confidence in my ability to pick a good idea as the basis of a project, to write well, to read my work honestly, to edit well, to be smart enough to be a great poet the way I think my mentor can/is. More paralysis.

Dependency on Classmates
The creative writing workshop classes I took were the best. I still think those classes are among the best things that ever happened to me. I met my best friends in those classes. And the classes were incredibly intense, weird experiences. Our prof insisted that in order for us to not hate one another, we had to go out after every one of our weekly classes and have a pint together so that no one would be sore about what was said in the workshop and so that we would keep working well together. My mentor’s also big on the idea of community… that no one writes in a vacuum and that being a poet means being part of a community. So, off to the pub we went. We had a blast hanging out together. We’d get drunk and argue about poetry. We’d sit up late on msn or on the phone chatting about things we were working on. We’d spend hours and hours in the basement computer lab together, freaking out about our creative writing class assignments. We’d be in the copyroom helping whoever was handing out a workshop that week print and staple their pages 5 minutes before class, and then run across campus together to get it handed in on time. We’d go to the well-funded poetry readings the university held and sneak beers from the open bar to drink outside later while we debated the merits of the reading. We read together at local reading series events, and volunteered together for local and university magazines. It was f**king amazing. (In a fit of nostalgia I just called one of said dudes and told him about this post and he agreed with everything I said, incidentally, also lamenting all the things that have him all writer-blocked up. Ha.) This was a great time in my life, and these friendships had a hugely positive effect on my writing. There was always someone there to bounce ideas off of. Like with my mentors, though, I became dependant on these relationships for my writing. I don’t really feel qualified to write all by myself without a group of like-minded people around to debate my work with. We all finished school and moved… across the country or to other ones. We’re all in some kind of grad school and busy as hell. A couple years ago dude from the phone call and I made an effort to swap poems every few weeks, but that eventually trickled out too. We went from having our lives deeply interwoven together in one big poetry tapestry or something, and it’s frayed now. Getting used to that kind of environment at such a critical stage of our development as writers has left us a bit stunted now that it’s over. And speaking of things being over…

Deadlines
Like I said, the creative writing program made poetry into hard, picky work, and work comes with deadlines. Lots of them. An assignment every other week, 20 pages of poetry every month, a 40 page portfolio or a book manuscript at the end of the year. Dialing up the stress made me get a lot of work done in a short time, and I became hooked on these deadlines as well. With these artificial deadlines gone, there’s something missing from the dwindling cluster of reasons to sit down and write. Getting a grant to write a book put this into high relief. I once again had external pressure to get a bunch of writing done. I vastly underestimated the time it would take to finish the manuscript (see "Constant Feeling that I am a Slacker") and spent the sticky Montreal summer inside sweating over stacks of illustration paper and typing until 5 am or until my hands went numb, whichever came first. Now that it’s over, I once again feel like picking at little projects piecemeal here and there, but I feel little motivation to churn out another manuscript before I finish my degree in April. Some unidentified part of me used to make me write, now I’m in the habit of being made to write. Inspiration used to be the big motivator, and on the subject of inspiration…

Exercises in Style
Our creative writing classes let us explore a wide variety of writing strategies, from Oulipo to Dada, conceptual to lyric. We had an assignment every two weeks that let us try these writing styles out. For our workshops we were allowed to hand in any style of poetry, though we all sensed something more experimental was the way to go. Indeed, these were often the most exciting types of poetry to explore and play with. Now that the classes are over though, it’s hard to know what to write. Before being a creative writing student, the question of what to write never would have entered my mind. As a creative writing student, I had a constant source of external stylistic input. But now… It’s not that I’m short of ideas. After finishing my manuscript I wrote up a list of all the projects I’m interested in doing, and it’s about 30 items long. But there’s something missing… on the phone my friend complained that he feels like he can’t write the kind of poetry he wants to write right now. That is, stand alone poems that are well, written poems. Poems that are not necessarily completely lyric, but that are written by him, not picked out of google searches or a bag, that are not erasure, that did not have their text generated by someone else. We both feel afraid to write, like, actually write our own work. The manuscript I just finished is half visual poetry, but the written poetry is pretty solidly in the lyric camp. Some of the poems are about me, and some of them are about my bigger community and our shared experiences. But with the exception of two poems they are poems I wrote. About people. People and their experiences and feelings. I am pretty freaked out about this, actually. I’m afraid once it’s published the writers I care about will think I am irrelevant and that my work lacks inventiveness. But I wrote a book I want to read. Even my first book, which was a found/cut-up book was about humans and their lives and feelings. Yet I’ve been left feeling like I have to write in a style that is not really the one I want to write in. I was flipping through a pile of my creative writing portfolios from the first and second year workshops, and noticed that while the first class’ work sounds like me, the work from the second class is unrecognizable to me. There’s none of me in it, and I probably won’t write like that again. I find the further I am out of the creative writing program, the more my writing sounds like me… it’s far better than it ever was before the creative writing program, but I’m falling back into the tone and flow I used to favour. I’m afraid the writers who matter to me won’t be impressed by my new stuff, but on the other hand, a lot of the writing I really love isn’t high conceptual writing. Instead, most of the contemporary poetry I adore pulls from multiple traditions and genres, creating experimental texts that are stylistically innovative yet at the same time evocative and relatable. So the imagined pressure to be a purely conceptual writer is coming from my brain, not the outside world. I think it’s a hangover from the writing program… to pick a style, to follow it all the way to end. But I have my whole life to dabble around and figure this out. I’m going to try to use what I learned from the stylist exercises not to completely hang my entire writing practice on, but instead, as building blocks that I can arrange and rearrange in any way I like as I work on this and that.

Conclusion…
I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of arrested writing development here, but I think it’s something I need to do to banish these problems from my writing practice. I’ve wanted desperately to be a writer since I was a little kid, and now I am. I’ve published a book. I’ve had my poetry taught in university classes. I’ve even been awarded a grant. I kind of can’t believe it. I’m about to finish school and look for a real career in my profession and my life is going to change in so many ways... I don't even know where I'll be living in six months. But I want to keep being a writer through these coming changes and into the future. Despite desperately wanting to be a writer, I am constantly dismayed by how paralyzed I am. But I’m trying to take all the great things I learned as a creative writing student and to put down all the weird anxieties and hang-ups I picked up at the same time. I've spent four years pulling my hair out wondering what my problem is when it comes to writing, but I love poetry as much as I did 10 years ago, and I still want to love it as much in another 10 years. And I just managed to finish my first book completely alone—without my mentors, without my classmates. I know I'm not the only graduate of a creative writing program with these weird problems, so I think all this is worth articulating. Above all, I'm trying to get over this and just write again and get the same joy out of it that I used to. Which means making mistakes and writing some crappy poems. Which is okay. I can always edit later.

*"there is no point whatsoever in adding to the quantity of poetry in this world. The world has quite enough poetry already. The only excuse for being a poet today is to add to the quality of poetry, to add a quality which was not there before. One tries to introduce a quality rather than merely adding a quantity" (Bob Cobbing, Ballet of the Speech Organs: http://www.ubu.com/vp/Cobbing.html)

4 comments:

The Bastard said...

I didn't take as many creative writing courses as you, didn't embrace the methods the our prof put us through until the end of the year. And it wasn't until the class was over that I realized what a transformative process it was. I haven't really kept in touch either. But I can relate to every single thing you just said here.

I churned out volumes and volumes of poems, essays, fiction and other stuff as a teenager. Pure crap every last word of it. (It's all in a box in the garage if I ever feel the need to shame myself.) University gave me methods of producing better things but after so much schooling my methods became firmly attached to the institution and the programs I was in.

I've always felt like I failed in some ways for not sticking with the creative stuff the way you and some of our other classmates did, but it sounds like a lot of these feelings are mutual. If any or all of you ex-Calgarians wind up back in town simultaneously, I'd totally be willing to lift a pint at the old grad-lounge for an ENGL 494 reunion.

Helen Hajnoczky said...

Yeah I really think it's a common experience... every time I talk to Sampson this is what we end up chatting about, actually, and I've heard the same thing from other writers who took creative writing programs at different times with different profs. It would be great to see you in town! I'm usually in Calgary at least twice a year.

openid said...

Hi, Helen -- we don't know each other, and I'm not sure exactly what link I followed to end up on your blog -- but I live and write in Calgary and have heard your name a lot (in a good way). And I just wanted to tell you that I relate entirely to everything you've written here (so much). My MA was in creative writing, but fiction. Thank you for this!

Ms. K said...

After finishing my MA,I didn't write a word for almost two years. I was too damned scared. I wanted every word to count, to be brilliant. Eventually I let go of that and I started to play: I wrote crappy sentences and the world didn't end and I felt better. Eventually the sentences got better and I re-established my writing practicing. It's hard to be a writer in the world, away from the safety of the workshop. Thanks for writing this - and congratulations on the book!