Wrestling with Writing

12 Oct
William_Butler_Yeats_1 Maud Gonne
by Rhea H.Boyden
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats- The Second Coming

When my dear mentor sent me back an article I had written covered in correction symbols it felt like a punch in the face. I had genuinely been of the opinion that it had been very good, and nearly ready for publication. How wrong I was. ‘So, I will have to wrestle with this article all night and follow her instructions and disssect and interpret every red mark, green symbol, blue sign and purple arrow’, I sighed in exasperation. She had helpfully included a key to aid me in deciphering the symbols, and told me exactly what I needed to change and how to proceed. I had to do the work though, she wasn’t going to do it for me. I had never been published, and this was my first big chance to get my art show review into a New York magazine, so I was going to heed her rules. I took a deep breath. This was work, much unlike the creative heat of the inspiration of writing a first draft, which is fun and intoxicating. The symbols she had provided reminded me of formulae from my high school maths class which I had hated. Even very experienced writers with a couple novels under their belts, a knowledge of the process of getting a manuscript completed, and a tonne of confidence in their own ability, dread the proofs of their manuscripts being returned to them besmeared with red ink. The accomplished author Zadie Smith (who is my age) talks about her fear of receiving her novel back from editors. ‘Proofs are so cruel!’ she writes in her essay on writing. ‘Breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain. Proofs are the wasteland where your novel dies and the cold reality asserts itself.’ she says. I read this and I wonder if I will ever get my book finished. How is it I came to be writing a book anyway? It wasn’t really my plan. I already have a full time job and a very busy social life. And now I have to spend hours editing in my limited free time? I can only say that somehow writing chose me and not the other way around. Some of the essays I have written just somehow wrote themselves and were stream of consciousness, flowing out of me and onto paper in a river of ink flowing through a burst dam, uncontrolled by me. I am simply a conduit. My article ‘Musings on Modern Gender Relations’ wrote itself as I was under the influence of vodka cocktails on a cold December night. That article ended up as cover story in Gloss Magazine with the Irish Times and the response to the longer unedited version has reverberated throughout this entire year. And everyone had read the unedited version! I have been scrambling to edit it and make it better, but it seems people even loved the unproofed version. ‘It kind of flows and rambles in a very entertaining way, and I mean this as an absolute compliment.’ one friend of mine posted. Why I posted it online the minute I finished writing it, without even editing it or spell checking it is a mystery to me, and one of these crazy ideas of a beginning writer. I am not of the opinion that second drafts and editing are for sissies, and I am, of course, willing to put in the work, but I was just dying to get that essay out there. It couldn’t wait for editing, and the overwhelming feedback on it seemed to confirm this. Scores of people said: ‘What a timely essay, I couldn’t stop reading it.’ Even Gloss Magazine ignored the fact that it was clearly unedited and offered to publish a shorter version of it. This must have been beginner’s luck. I wouldn’t dare send an unedited article to a magazine again. What was I thinking? Even now, when I edit a draft two or three times, glaring errors still become apparent on a fourth read through. I do still post my articles on my blog and on Facebook all the time after two reads through, fully aware that there are still errors, but I think most of my readers are forgiving of this. I do not have the time to stay up til midnight every night, editing stories to magazine quality before I share them. If I ever get any of these articles published in a magazine again, I will go back and rework them. For now, they are good essays for my friends to read and that is fine. Writing is just a hobby that chose me and I was not even intending to get published yet. I started slowly writing an autobiograhy in recipes a year and a half ago for fun with the idea that maybe some day, if I am lucky, I will get it published, and it will be something that will be enjoyed by my circle of extended friends and family. I have no real formal education in style and syntax, neither am I journalist, or in possession of real solid skills that are needed to edit an article to top quality on my own. People keep saying: ‘Rhea, keep writing, you are so talented. Know it, own it, claim it!’ Hearing this kind of feedback is indeed very flattering and motivating, but I know only too well where my weaknesses lie. I need to spend more time studying style and syntax, punctuation and prose style, and all of this takes time. My book, of which I have written 50 pages, has been ignored these past 6 months in the excitement of getting my first two articles published, and then writing lots of other articles and prose poems on the heels of my publishing success. I need to forget all these other projects and get back to my book. Somehow I have developed a fear of revisiting that project though, partly because despite my lack of confidence, I do realise that my writing style and voice has improved a lot since I started that project , due to the sheer number of hours I have been writing. Going back to my book will be going back to a time when I was a worse writer than now, and I will likely groan and cringe at what I have written and realise how much work there is to be done to bring that project up to scratch, and indeed finish it. I completely relate to what Zadie Smith writes about revisiting things she has written and how daunting a task that is. She sums it up nicely in her essay by saying: ‘To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first twenty pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.’ Indeed. Who wants to go back to jail? I need to have a more positive attitude and go back to that project that is dear to me and attack it with all my love. The very act of writing this essay here is yet another writing project I am throwing myself into in an attempt to ignore my book project. I have hope that I will attack it with a happy heart soon, especially as I am reminded by many teachers of writing that it is a good idea to leave things you have written for a spell before going back to them, as you can then approach editing with fresh and new energy that is somewhat removed from yourself and your ego. As Natalie Goldberg, teacher of creative writing and poetry, says in her essay on rereading and rewriting: ‘Time (away from what you have written) allows for distance and objectivity from your work. You can sit down and read something as if it weren’t yours. Become curious. Read it page by page. Even if it seemed dull when you wrote it, now you will recognise its texture and rhythm’. Yes, I must fight the nausea at my own earlier writings that I am bound to experience while rereading them, as Smith so clearly points out, but I can still have the benefit of re reading them from a detached and objective space. Quite apart from needing to squeeze time for writing and editing into an already busy work schedule, I must also find time for reading. Serious reading takes time, concentration and mental alertness. An alertness that is, depressingly, not always present after a long day of teaching. But read I must if I have any hope of being a good writer. My current reading materials are style guides, poetry, essays written by other writers, magazine articles on relationships, psychology, economics and history. I also read memoirs and the occasional novel of contemporary fiction. I have read many of the classics, but sadly my reading still has large gaps in it that I intend to fill when I find time for it. I have not read ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Crime and Punishment’ and neither of these books are high on my list of priority reading, even though I am aware that these are both books that one is ‘supposed to have read’. Both Smith and Goldberg talk about reading in their essays on writing. They both discuss how so many writers fear that their own voice will be lost if they read too much of another author’s work. Goldberg says in her essay that a student of hers complained to her that she was reading so much Hemingway that she was afraid her voice was not hers anymore, but that she was copying him. ‘That’s not so bad’, Goldberg writes. ‘It’s better to sound like Ernest Hemingway than old Aunt Bethune, who thinks Hallmark greeting cards contain the best poetry in America.’ Goldberg states that writing is a communal act, and that no one can lay claim to any voice. Obviously, if all you read is Hemingway over and over again, then you do not develop your own voice. You must read lots of different styles and different authors to broaden vocabulary and ideas constantly. While reading you will never know what will influence your style or not. In my experience, I notice with great joy while I am writing, how the different things I have read influence my writing, and I never have the feeling that it effects my own voice. If anything, all the diverse things I have read strengthen my writing. Surely it is arrogant to say that reading will ruin your voice? I would assume that most good writers have read a fair amount of books in their lives to date, and that all this reading influences their writing. How else have these good writers even developed a sophisticated enough vocabulary to write something worth reading if not by reading a lot themselves? Zadie Smith is also a proponent of reading a lot while writing, and says her writing desk is always covered in open novels while she is in the midst of writing a novel. As she says beautifully in her essay: ‘I think of reading like a balanced diet, if your sentences are too baggy, too baroque, then cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single mark on white paper, stop worrying so much what Nabokov would say, pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of style over substance.’ she advises. Who would worry about your reader thinking you have adopted someone else’s voice? I stand in awe, instead of Zadie Smith, who finds the time and energy to read all these other novels and write her own too. I have another very entertaining and ironic book that I love to read while commuting entitled ‘How Not To Write a Novel.’ by Sarah Newman and Howard Mittelmark. The book lays out, misstep by misstep, how you can sobotage your own novel in laugh -out-loud anecdotes that are easy to digest and somewhat silly, but at the same time very useful. They have one section where they talk all about how they understand how the beginning novelist wants to impress us by proving what an extensive vocabulary they have by wrestling with as many important and big words as possible that even they seem not to know the definition of in their writing. Newman and Mittelmark then offer a simple test that you can apply to any word to see if you know the definition. The test goes as follows: Ask yourself: ‘Do I know this word?’ If the answer is no, then you do not know the word.’ Natalie Goldberg also talks about how beginning writers are intimidated by the success and achievement of published and talented writers. She says simply that you need to subtract rules for writing, not add them muddying your prose with needless clutter. Writing needs to be kept clear, simple and honest if it is to make sense and keep the attention of your reader. ‘Good writing’ she says,’ is more of a process of uneducation than education.’ and her essays and simple tips seem to confirm this. Newman and Mittelmark humourously go on to talk about how confident and published writers have no problem using the speech tag ‘said’ when someone in a dialogue says something. Unpublished and inexperienced authors, on the other hand are uncomfortable with the boring repetition of the word ‘said’ when someone says something and try out every other word under the sun that indicates exactly in what manner someone has uttered something. The following section from their book is entitled: When the author thinks he is too good for the word ‘said’: ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, he divulged. ‘And, far from the coast we had no fear of any sea creature. How wrong we would be proved!’ he appended. She queried, ‘It was a sea creature? How is that possible?’ she further wished to determine. ‘It was a sea creature,’ he affirmed, ‘but one which had subtly mutated to be far more dangerous, far more deadly, than its marine counterpart. For on dry land,’ he uttered, ‘it had become both larger and more muscular. It’s funny’, he smirked, ‘now that I look back from safety.’ ‘Funny?’ she interrogated. ‘Hilarious!’ he expostulated. ‘Surely not?’ she doubted. ‘But how little you know!’ he exclaimed. ‘Says you!’ she objected. ‘That’s the last I am willing to say,’ he concluded. ‘Some listener you turned out to be!’ he snorted. This book wisely says that if we use too many words to say how something is said, we distract from what is being said, and we kill any chance of holding the attention of our readers, let alone landing a book deal. I am a beginning writer and I also get intimidated by all I have not read, all I do not know, and the sheer amount I have to read and learn, but I just try and be patient with myself. I do not have to write if I do not want to. I do it because it brings pleasure and gives me something to get lost in after a long day of work. When I am tired and in a bad mood, or lonely, I sometimes do not write. I sit on the couch, eat cookies, day dream and listen to music. That is ok too. And sometimes I do write when I am lonely and depressed and I find it lifts my mood. Goldberg has a whole chapter on loneliness and how you can write to reconnect with the universe. Smith too talks about how you can fall in line with a feeling, write, and go where it takes you instead of fighting it and going against the grain. Both of their essays on these topics have proven very useful therapy for me when I am feeling blue. In short, writing is therapy on so many levels and it can lift you up and help you process any low feeling you may have, whether it may be inadequacy, depression or loneliness. I live and breathe writing and I feel it is now an integral part of my life and essential for my sanity on many levels. When I was a young student at university in the United States, I did not do a whole lot of extracurricular reading and some would say that I was academically lazy. If I had not had to work the whole way through college, I may have had more leisure time for reading books for pleasure, but it was not the case. I did the coursework, made good grades, and that was that. I read about six novels in my free time for fun throughout my whole university career. I was more interested in going out and having a good time and doing a lot of sports when I was not at work or in class. It was not until a year after I graduated from university that I started reading again for pleasure. The book that set off my post university reading career was an autobiography by a woman named Mary Karr called ‘The Liar’s Club.’ It was so funny and so honest that I devoured it in one sitting and I immediately ordered her other novels and poetry and I have never looked back. Karr awakened in me a mature love of poetry, something which I, like a lot of people, found to be a chore at school. In Ireland we were forced to read a lot of W.B. Yeats and I never appreciated it. Presumably educators realise that the average teenager will not appreciate poetry at school, but will hopefully appreciate it at a later point and their wish is to lay the groundwork for this future appreciation. Mary Karr quotes Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ which is a serious poem about Christ’s Second Coming in the middle of talking about her crazy, hilarious Texan childhood. This was the first time I saw that poetry can come to life and have meaning in the middle of not such high brow literature. It was a revelation to me. Since that time, I have found poetry to be of great solace and find that it is speaking to me in a special language that only I can deciper at that time. This of course, is the very essence and beauty of poetry: it is very personal and it is there to be interpreted in many ways. I have cried and laughed at poetry and recently even written some of my own prose poetry, a process which was an incredible experience. Here again, like some of my crazier inspired essays, the poem wrote itself and just flowed out of me with me as the conduit. These are the times when I am not wrestling with words, rather they flow easily through my soul, muscles, blood and sub conscious mind easily, and with great pleasure. As an adult who has suffered unrequited love, I can feel compassion for Yeats when I write my own prose poetry. He was desperately in love with the Irish revolutionary and feminist Maud Gonne, who rejected his three marriage proposals. It seems the best muses for poetry and writing are the ones who are unable to give us the love we so seek from them. I wrote a poem (that I am very proud of) this past summer for a man, and I sent it to him and told him I had written it for him. He read it and politely rejected my advances. He has remained my muse however, as I have not yet been able to lodge him from my head. He has served a good purpose, however, as muse and character in nearly every poem and article I have written since then. If he had said he loved me too, and we had indeed started the love affair that I had built up in my silly head, I doubt I would have gotten a whole lot of writing done these past months. This is my solace. I am productive with my writing while not in love. Rejection breeds fertile ground for writing, and I am thankful to say that the writings inspired by him are merely mournful and hopeful for future reconciliation, and not bitter and resentful. Much of Yeats’ poetry requires dedication and a knowledge of Greek myths and a qualified teacher as a guide if you are to become a dedicated scholar and really get what he is talking about. I have read a lot of his poetry and I get a lot out of it, but a lot is lost on me because I do not have a professor at my side to guide me through it. But that is fine, we do not all have to be academic scholars of a poet to allow their writings to touch our busy lives and feed our souls. Poetry can lift you up regardless. Both Zadie Smith and Natalie Goldberg rave about John Keats and what an accessible poet he is. Smith talks about how she much she can relate to him and how he opened her mind to the beauty of poetry. ‘Keats offers his readers the possibility of entering through the side door,’ writes Smith, ‘the one marked ‘Apprentices Welcome Here’. For Keats went about his work as an apprentice. He took a sort of MFA of the mind, albeit alone, and for free in his little house in Hampstead. A suburban lower middle-class boy, he made his own scene out of the books of his library.’ To this I can most definitely relate. I am a homebody too, surrounded by my books, my ambition to write, and no advanced degree beyond a BA and no more professors to guide me. I do enjoy surrounding myself with my intellectual superiors and I lap up what they have to offer, and do not fear it. Keats’ poetry is so wonderful precisely because it is intellectually demanding, while at the same time unpretentious. He admits the limits of his knowledge and education in his poetry. His sonnet ‘To Homer’ opens with the folllowing two lines: ‘Standing aloof in giant ignorance, of these I hear and of the Cylades’. He pays homage to Homer in this sonnet, but admits his ignorance of the Greek language. It does not appear, however that his lack of knowledge of Greek impedes his own talent for writing poetry. His sonnets openly explore his weaknesses, his fear of not being loved, his fear of being alone and his mortality. These are universal fears whether we can read Homer and understand it, or have dropped out of high school and are struggling for recognition in society. We are all searching for love and are wrestling with whatever comes our way in life and we want attention and to be understood. Goldberg warns in one of her essays not to write because you want to be loved. ‘Writers get confused’ she says. ‘We think writing gives us an excuse for being alive. We forget that being alive is unconditional and that life and writing are two separate entities. Often we see writing as a way to receive love and attention. See what I wrote. I must be a good person.’ I must admit that I am guilty of using writing as a way of getting love and attention. I can hardly deny it after what I divulged above. That I have a muse and I wanted him to love me and my poetry. I wanted him to be a fan of my mind and my body. That is the fantasy that lives inside me. Quite apart from my romantic fantasies, however, I simply hope that people will like and appreciate my writing. I am ecstatic when I get messages from happy readers saying how much they love what I write. How could I not be happy? I have my critics too, of course, and I try and take their advice and learn from it. And I apologise for my terrible syntax and my somewhat perverse refusal to use ever use spellcheck. My writing, I know, swims in a sea of misplaced commas, which could, along with my poor syntax, be a result of my having learned the German tongue fluently, which is a language awash with commas and neverending sentences. I need to bear in mind Natalie Goldberg’s teaching that good writing is a process of uneducation. In my case unlearning German syntax while writing English sentences. It is something I wrestle with every day. But this relentless wrestling with language, writing, syntax and style need not be a tough match that ends in bruises if I remind myself that it is all a learning process that I can do in my own time. I, like Keats can set the pace and do my own MFA of the mind, in my own cozy living room, surrounded by the books and people I love.

 

Featured images: William Butler Yeats 1920 (Bain News Service) Maud Gonne (Max Elbo Graphics)

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