On owning the work
I spent this morning writing about a thousand words for nothing and nobody.
That’s a lie — I spent this morning writing a thousand words for me. For a project that is only a dream right now and that may never come to exist. For a project that may please nobody else. But the thought of it pleased me, and so I gave it half a day.
That felt like a luxury. I have plenty of work on my plate, and plenty of work-work, and also bills to pay and forms to fill out and submit. I could spend all day at my desk and not make a dent in the to-do list. I often do. How dare I give a few precious caffeinated hours to an inspiration that didn’t even have the good manners to be dressed in a deadline?
Strange, isn’t it? To feel like doing work is a special treat, like the creative version of self-care?
I often think the happiest artists are the ones who truly do not care if anyone ever sees or likes what they make. The ones who can spend a Saturday evening banging on instruments with friends, drinking beer, not “rehearsing” for anything. The poets content to put their poems in a drawer and let posterity figure out the details. The ones for whom the dancing is enough.
I am not that person. It’s not that I don’t enjoy process — I do, deeply. It’s that creative work doesn’t feel complete to me without an audience. Without a reader. If I were stranded on a desert island I would still write, but I’d do it in the secret hope of someone finding my words later, next to my bones.
So for me this means I try to publish, but publishing always brings with it, by necessity, other opinions. The people who publish things are looking out for their readers, their vision, their reputation, and their bottom line. Not for my ego. Which is as it should be. In the best moments, this leads to happy collaboration: an editor makes a suggestion that opens up a new perspective, or offers helpful guidance about how much to take on in the piece. At its best, this kind of work diffuses some of the loneliness of writing. I’m not in it alone.
At its worst, however, this structure can lead to a childish desire to please: What do they want from me, and how quickly can I provide it? There are many opportunities to become overly focused on pleasing people in both of the worlds I write for, academe and publishing. Both of these worlds are hierarchical, obsessed with networks and prestige, have powerful gatekeepers, and dole out success through a lottery-like system that insists on its own devotion to merit.
Academe and publishing remind me of the role playing games I had on my computer in the mid-90s. You appeared in the middle of a haunted house, or an enchanted forest, and you had to figure out both what you had to do and what you needed to do it. You did this by typing commands — “Look under the table,” “speak to the dog,” and so on. Only, not only did you not know what you were looking for, you didn’t even know how you could ask for it. (Could you bonk the wizard over the head? Maybe!) The only way to figure out which commands would work was by trying out as many as you could. You might never hit upon just the right phrase. (Feed a cookie to the dragon? Throw the gold down a well?) And of course, you needed to gather objects in the precise order the game required to make it through its various steps.
I never found these games much fun. I didn’t finish a single one. I suspected that the people who did had a secret manual, some set of instructions that gave them the right words to use, and the right order, and maybe a list of what they needed along the way.
The problem is playing that kind of game with one’s own creativity. Creativity is too fragile. It needs care and stability.
I suppose I’ve read hundreds of quotes and essays by now on this question of how to protect what you love about your work while doing what you need to do to survive. It’s an old story. Before markets there were patrons, and they had opinions too. Sometimes, in medieval texts, my students and I can pick out the exact points where an author is straining to fulfill the assignment but not violate their own standards. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a whole work, The Legend of Good Women, about how writing to flatter someone else’s beliefs makes for a boring, lifeless poetry.
Each artist deals with it in a different way. Some write to market, consistently. If the public liked their first novel about crime-fighting tuxedo cats, then the public will get as many crime-fighting tuxedo-cat novels as it can handle. Others are bullishly independent, trying a new approach, a new voice, maybe a new genre with each project. They’re the ones who are always coming out with an opera libretto or a children’s book or a collection of illustrated recipes. Then there’s the vast in-between, which I suspect involves a lot of hair pulling and emails to friends who don’t see what all the fuss is about.
But I also think there is a way to be conscious of external demands but own the work, by which I mean: to stay in an intimate relationship with it, and to keep that relationship central. Sometimes it’s by engaging a sense of play and exploration, maybe by taking a course or doing prompts. One teacher I work with advises writing a full draft of a book before showing it to anyone, so that it has a chance to come into its own before critical voices are allowed at it. It can also be done by having a side project that’s kept personal, and that has no expectations attached.
I write poetry for this reason. Literally no one on this entire planet expects poetry from me. The only person to please is myself, and I’m not even sure what I like. The poetry is pure in that way, so writing it — or rather, watching it come out of my pen — feels as close as I can get to the energy of creation.
After all, as a couple of thousand writing mavens have reminded me along the way, the glorious thing is that we don’t need much to write. We don’t need a symphony or a studio to make the vision real. Just paper and pen. What’s more, every creative challenge holds the seeds of new work. It costs nothing but time.
Earlier this week I was preparing to teach a well-known Old English poem called “Deor.” It’s a meditation on the sufferings of various legendary figures: the smith, Weland, whom King Niðhad imprisoned and hamstringed; Niðhad’s daughter Beadohild, whom Weland violated and left pregnant; the warriors who suffered the Gothic king Ermanaric’s tyranny. At the end of this list, Deor reflects on his own situation. For a while, he was the poet of the Heodenings, until a man more skilled in songs, Heorrenda, took his place and his territory. Now he’s out of job, out of funds, out of protection.
There are many ways to read “Deor.” Maybe he’s overdoing it a bit, comparing his own situation to the epic sufferings of Weland and Beadohild. Maybe the poem is a resume of the topics he can write about, a try-out for a new gig as some other lord’s scop. It’s certainly a meditation on the changing nature of fortune in human life. But maybe, just maybe, it’s also a poem about creative endurance. Deor lost his role at court, but he can still make poems. He’s unmoored, unprotected, and that hack Heorrenda is getting all the mead and rings.
But all that drama? It just gave him material.
Speaking of poetry, it’s on my mind because my first pub is out — two poems in the latest issue of Cõnfingō. You can get it at the link.
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