The late great Herb Scott taught me a lot about poetry during my days at WMU. Two things he said always stick with me. “Everyone has their throwing-up poem,” and “I’m not interested in poems about not being able to write poems.”
The second bit of advice came to me about the first poem I wrote at the start of my MFA degree. I wrote something about sitting at my table, staring down into the street and trying to get the wheels turning. But it points to a tendency I notice about writers and what they say in interviews and such and how they are different in person.
Most writers are concerned with the difficulty of producing great writing. Most writers therefore struggle with resistance and motivation. Most writers I’ve met, especially the struggling poet sort, are interested in talking about the difficulty of finding time and energy to write. But few of them are interested in writing about losing the battle.
If one starts talking about losing that battle, the conversation slows, eyebrows raise, and suddenly everyone needs a refill on their glass of Chianti. Most such conversations take place at writing workshops and conferences and people go to such events to pump up their motivation and kiss up to the stars. They are not interested in conversation about the real specter of failure and the hard questions one has to overcome to keep writing: What if you can’t finish? What if you can’t publish your work? What if you produce your best work and no one cares?
In every group, there are the haves and have-nots, the cool people and those-who-eat-lunch-alone. At writing workshops and conferences publication credits are the currency. Everyone who attends believes they can attain such “riches.” And if they don’t, they start blaming everyone else: Editors are too fickle. The reading public is too small. Americans are dumb and don’t read any more. Wall Street bankers killed the economy.
So Herb’s advice has troubled me. Failure is not an option, especially as a subject for writing. You can be self-deprecating and funny all you want, but don’t breach that subject of the pointlessness of most of writing endeavors (unless you are already a success and are complaining about how hard it is to be a bigger success; then you can have your essay published in Poetry). If one views publication in the right journals and presses as the true measure of literary success, the odds are spectacularly against you, approximately equal to winning the lottery and being struck by lightning in the same moment.
Some get out of this predicament with the bohemian mentality, which tends to take the long view and ignore the present. They point to examples such as Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka, who published almost nothing during their miserable lives and are now hailed as literary geniuses. I say what’s the point of literary fame if you’re not around to enjoy it?
But I will write about failure because it is interesting. By any measure of literary stock I am a failure. I’ve published four poems in seventeen years. I’ve published a handful of 250-word book reviews and one short article in a national magazine. I’ve written thousands of words on five different novels and abandoned all of them.
I think the reason for my failure is the lack of follow through, which should be no surprise to AD(H)D-ers. I told a friend, a successful poet who has urged me to submit more work that my success rate for publications is about 30 rejections for every publication. “That sounds about right,” he said.
The thing I’ve learned is that writing and marketing are two very different things. Writing involves the whole creative self, the flow of ideas, the long view, the high ambition. Marketing involves writing a lot of cover letters and keeping track of things you send out and deciding things are done enough to show to an editor and to expose oneself to the long wait which 97% of the time ends in rejection, and mostly indifferent rejection, the form letter: “Thank you for your submission, but it’s not right for us right now. If you’d like to subscribe to our journal . . .”
Blogging has been exhilarating. I publish immediately after finishing a piece. My standards for “finished” are lower because, well, it’s a blog. In my world, academia, it has almost no sway. Blogging is at best a curio, the literary market equivalent of meeting a writer you admire and discovering he has extraordinary halitosis or collects bottlecaps. No one in academia really cares too much.
But I have readers! I have my stats page. Some people comment on my writing. I need that kind of feedback, especially the positive sort, the little mental boost to keep going. Mostly I despise that part of me: my vanity. But here I will use it shamelessly. It keeps me going. There’s nothing like spending part of a day putting words and sentences together and then finding out someone likes you for it in the same day.
I have often introduced myself as a “recovering poet,” which was my cover story for “failed poet.” I tend to think now the failure is in the 10% of work that I haven’t done in the publishing process: sending my work out. Relentlessly. And that’s due to the poor wiring in my head, rather than neurosis.
And now, a poem about throwing up:
(By Philip Levine, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, and one of Herb Scott’s teachers. It’s the circle of life!)
- Writing’s the Thing (attentiondeficitwhatever.wordpress.com)