On the struggles to get into the habits of writing & some practical advice
It took me about six or seven years (between the age of 19 to 26) to decide that I was a poet — that’s the thing about changes, they never happen over night.
For many years I rejected the idea that what I did was definable by a noun. “I write poems, but I’m not a poet,” I would say, in a sort of smart-assed defensive way. “What’s the difference?” People would say. And, slowly, over time I realised that what I had believed was my refusal to incorporate the language of capitalist purpose into my identity, was actually just fear standing in the way of the thing I found so difficult to do, even though felt so compelled to do it. I wanted to be a poet so badly that I made it very difficult for myself to be one. Adorno’s dictum that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric was my philosophical bat with which I beat myself round the head.
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My defensiveness was the classic act of a young person holding themselves back: you harbour an ardent political belief or idea about what you should or shouldn’t do, and what that masks is just your own personal fear of failure.
In my specific case, being a huge perfectionist grew out of a mixture of parenting and the culture in which I started to write (probably from reading too much Ezra Pound and literary modernism at the age of 19 and 20, surrounded by older male poets obsessed with ideas of genius). I believed, quite wrongheadedly, that I could only write when I was taken by the muses or when I had read all of the books already existing, or when I was fully alert — whatever mental obstacle I’d placed in the way to just doing the damn writing.
Escaping this perfectionism, calling myself a poet became a part of the way to be more serious and committed to writing itself, by relaxing into the role. That’s the thing about seriousness, as Castiglione knew all too well, it takes a little bit of a relaxed disposition to get to it.
Now, I can only write when I’m taking my lunch hours. I have to find comfort in the imperfect conditions. That requires persistence and acceptance of limited time. I take small comfort in reading about the routines of other writers with full time jobs, even the most tedious descriptions of their habits, in knowing that the struggles that writers share in finding time is commonplace. It helps me be less defeated. Equally, I find it easier to think of myself as a writer more broadly, as well as still being a poet.
(Some words of encouragement from Octavia Butler to herself, which I love for their condensation of intensity into singular propositions)
For the past four years, I’ve been trying to improve my writing both alongside and away from poetry (I’ve tried my hand at journalism, criticism, story writing, scriptwriting, blogging and more). It’d be terribly boring to recount this journey. But taking up the mantle of writer has been an important part of that journey. Equally, accepting that practice is ongoing has been necessary every step of the way.
When I was much younger I was impatient. I hated editing to the point that I refused to do it. This found root in all sorts of very lofty and profound ideas of what it takes to be exceptional, a set of ideas I wasn’t writing enough to ever reach (it’s easy to fantasise you’re an undiscovered genius if you make no attempts to discover your capacities).
Through a very slow process (one that involved being in therapy for years and starting to slowly accept lots of other things in my life that I was continuously fighting) letting go of my beliefs about writing requiring genius and exceptional talent meant that I could just get better at doing the damn exercises.
Having slowly dislodged all the egoic blockages that were clogging up my creative pipes, over the pandemic period I found time to commit to writing in a way that I never have at any other point in my life. I tried to write most days in the week, even for just an hour or two. Mostly, I managed it, and my writing improved drastically.
This sounds really silly, but I approached writing like one might approach learning any new hobby. Wanting to improve my prose, I read books about how to do it, checked out blogs, watched YouTube videos, joined a writing class (with some of the most fantastic writers I’ve had the pleasure to work with), I sought out the opinions on writing from even writers I thought were probably stupid (Stephen King’s book on writing is very good, for example, even though I disagree with a lot of it). This overly simplistic approach to learning how to do something would be one that the me of my early twenties would’ve been disgusted by, thinking that probably the best way to learn how to sharpen a pencil is to read Hegel’s Science of Logic or something. And by working out my limitations, I pushed myself to improve on them.
(like Ursula Le Guin, and her outline of her daily routine, I too struggle to write after midday)
Probably from learning how to write within universities, I had never really improved my ‘creative’ writing through exercises before my lockdown attempts. But, writing in response to prompts and exercises, I slowly learned one of the most important lessons about writing: most of the writing you do will never be seen by anyone, and this means that the writing that people will see will be all the better.
The best way that I learned this was by doing what get’s called ‘Morning Pages’, an activity from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which is a sort of artistic 12-step program about unleashing your inner creativity that my friend Florence recommended to me.
I was sceptical about the book, but taking what I needed from it, the morning pages just means that for thirty minutes when you first wake up you write the first bits of crap that come into your head across three pages, and then you never look at it again. For me, it was a great way to clear the decks and relax before cracking on with projects.
And from these regimented forms of practice, exercises became a foundational way for me to let go of the main impediment to my writing: perfectionism. Embedding myself in writing as practice, I started to enjoy play. It also meant that the writing I was doing with an audience in mind. This blog post is just a little note to encourage you all, if you wish to write in any way, to take up with exercises. The best thing about them is that no one has to see them. They allow you to work out what you want to do through someone else’s structured terms, but in your own way.
All of these are partly inspired by Bernadette Mayer’s prompts, that I also suggest you look at.
Imagine you are in the mouth of a giant whale, you have to sing it a song to get it to spit you out. What are the lyrics to this song?
You run into your old boss by the pool table of that bar. It’s closing time. They’re very drunk. You’ve had a couple of whiskies yourself. What happens?
You turn the jewel in your hand. A beam of light shines through it. What is projected out this jewel?
What the honey says as it kisses the ants on the bottom of the child’s jelly shoe in the dirt on the floor of the adventure playground.
Eat so much that you feel like you could burst. Fall asleep while listening to Mozart in a chair. While you are still waking up, grasp onto a few senses in your mind. Dwell on the edge of nonsense. Write a poem from the boundaries between dream and sense.
A forest of enchantment needs protecting from the vicious, profiteering logging companies and their henchmen. What pledge do the guardians of the forest swear to?
You go visit your usual barber/hairdresser. They’re going through some sort of life crisis. Write a monologue of all the ways that they’re currently going through it.
A coin falls into the bottom of a well, a simple wish transforms the life of the wisher. What is it?
Choose any Shakespeare character and work out what their job would be in our year 2022. Write a diary entry summing up their first week at work.
Choose any character from a John Hughes movie (but not a terrible one). What Shakespeare character do they most want to fuck? Why? Write a love letter from this character to the Shakespeare character.
She wore a read broach on her lapel almost every day. Her grandmother gifted it to her. But where did her grandmother acquire it?
What they couldn’t stand about working together ended up being the very thing that stopped them both getting fired. What happened?
Stare at the sky. Look at the dirt. Find something in the dirt and push it back into the sky. Write a poem about it.
Take ten deep breaths, hold your breath after, do a few star jumps. Write from the sensation that now rages inside you, compelling it outward.
He knew that she didn’t know. But she knew there was something she needed to find out. She was determined to do so.
You’re locked inside a box. You can feel you’re being carried somewhere. The lid of the box is being prized open.
You’re finally replying to that email from years past.
Listen to the most hectic song on your playlist, write it as a poem built from alien metal.
Turn words into the sounds outside your window, give it the shape of the purest story.
Write twenty lines of poetry about anything, delete every other line. Make something better from what’s left. You can always start again.
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