Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Do We Write?

Dawn Haines begins her essay, "To Begin, After A Long Time Gone", in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers with the following sentence: "In January 2006 I graduated from a low-residency program and stopped writing." Sound familiar? How about her analysis of why: "The deadlines instituted by the MFA program I attended had given me the incentive--even the discipline--to write, but after I graduated the reality hit me: Writing is hard."

Haines has hit upon the precise reason I write this blog and the reason I founded an online poetry community: the writing life is a life of connection--a connection with what others have written and a connection with other writers. In an MFA or BFA program we wrote, at least in part, because we purchased, among other things, an ongoing community of fellow-writers with writing deadlines imposed upon us.

Unless we find (or make) a substitute community that holds one another accountable after leaving the program, many of us will do something like what Haines did: "I thought a break [from writing] was rational...I was tired of fighting for time and for the even more difficult-to-acquire quiet space I needed for writing...Before long, I noticed I was feeling bad. Really bad. So bad that I wouldn't get out of bed. I told myself that tomorrow I'd start writing, every day, just for me. But I stayed in bed and read novels and watched movies on y son's portable DVD player. I turned on my computer only to read e-mail and catch up on American Idol news. And the longer I didn't write, the more I felt like a failure because of all the unwritten words."

The path back to writing, for Haines, came from listening to a member of her writing group who suggested she simply write about not writing. That led to other ideas that she developed into stories and she was back on track.

What is your path back into the writing life? What are you spending your time thinking about? Write about it! What are you spending your time doing? Write about it! What are you reading? (Oops, not reading--pick up that book you bought your last MFA semester, the one that you never got around to reading.) Write about it! As Haines points out, you don't have to have open-ended hours of isolation to make progress. You don't have to live the idyllic writing life in order to write. And that brings up the question: "Why do you write?" Do you write in order to fulfill other needs--to feel important, to be a success, to avoid being a failure? Or do you write for the intrinsic benefits that writing brings?

Haines writes to connect--to connect with her readers, yes. But more important, to connect to herself. "It's a process of unfolding, and what it reveals to me--however troubling--is deeply satisfying. There is no failure in discovery. Often when I'm writing, I feel most alive."

What Haines is speaking about is writing as a deeply meditative (spiritual) act. Like breathing, it has benefits outside of itself. But there is a joy in simply focusing upon and experiencing our own breath. In. Out. In. Out. Read. Write. Read. Write.

How can we not do it and be alive?

Haines concludes so well: "Writing is about making connections and creating something where before there was nothing. It's about energy and intellect and gifts. It's about hope. This day, in spite of myself, the writing did what I nearly forgot it could do. And more."

Here's hoping...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Best of AWP: Putting Together Your First Book II

E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel distinguishes between story and plot: story being "a narrative of events arranged in time sequence," and plot being a narrative of events, "the emphasis falling on causality." Forster reserves story for the "wriggling and interminable, naked worm of time," the skeletal backbone of actions present in any literary organism. Plot, on the other hand, involves the hidden, mysterious, causal elements necessary, among other elements, for transforming the bones of a story into a living, breathing piece of literature.

Nicky Beer's contribution to the panel discussion ("The 25th Poem: Putting Together Your First Book) centered around Forster's distinction, applying it to the sequencing of poems in a book, with the main point that each poem is to be viewed as an action contributing to plot, rather than merely the story. Thus the poet should strive to link poems organically, rather than chronologically, to achieve the greatest effect.

James Allen Hall echoed this maxim and pointed out that a chronological structure does organizational work, but what is also needed is emotional work. One should consult the images in one's poems as one would themes in a musical score and attempt to organize them in the same manner.

Anna Journey (author of If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting (The National Poetry Series), emphasized that there is no one right way to organize a book of poems. One can group them by theme (somewhat artificial), one can utilize a linear ordering (tends to box one in), or one can "allow the poems to order themselves." (This is where I gagged!) Journey articulated her own strategy as one that attempts to "persuade a reader by voice." By this she said she meant to "sense the psychic preoccupations of the poems, and make them resonate."

Finally, Sandy Sang (author of Sediment (Four-Way Books) emphasized the overall diversity of the manuscript. She advised creating an arc (not necessarily narrative) from beginning to middle to end, where every poem is seen to have a purpose. This begins with identifying the "core poems" and discovering a direction for the book from them. Identify the themes that appear again and again and utilize them as an organizing principle.

Of course these panelists were poets and, therefore, most of the advise was couched in metaphor. But if the advise was difficult to reduce to a ten step program, at least it provided a tremendous amount of motivation to experiment with order and structure in one's manuscript. So much so that the next morning I went downstairs from my hotel room at 5:00 AM and completely re-ordered my full manuscript. It may not win any awards any time soon, or even be published, but it is better for the process, and I think I have finally laid to rest my misgivings about its weaknesses. Perhaps more importantly, I'm ready to move on and write another manuscript. Maybe that's the lesson to be learned. If, after making it as good as you can, your first manuscript doesn't get published, just write a better one! And while you're doing it, you might look at the advice of these award-winning poets.