The Tyranny of Inspiration

This doesn’t happen to me anymore.  But through my latter years of high school and my first few years of college, the one time I was guaranteed to be inspired was when I was driving.  I’d switch lanes and suddenly a line pop into my head.  With one hand, I’d pull a pen from my purse, and whenever I stopped at a red light I scribbled, as quickly as I could, on my arm, praying that the light would not change.  At those moments, I seemed to catch all the green lights.  When I arrived home, I transcribed the words scrawled across my skin, desperate to find that spark I felt when I was getting off the freeway.  What I was able to save seemed to die on the page, in that rush to catch the muse’s words I missed something and that magic was lost.

As of late, I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about how poets must allow the poem find its own way, to remove their ego from the process.  If they start out with an idea of what the poem should be, they will suffocate it by trying to make it fit that mold.  I think that this is true—poems are about discovering the unknown.  However, I often felt that my own process is antithetical to this concept; I start with ideas.  Well, maybe I should say I start with questions that I try to answer.  What if Bluebeard had a wife who hadn’t looked in the bloody chamber?  How did Pygmalion’s statue feel about her transformation?  What is in the bathtub buried in my neighbor’s backyard?  Why did our friendship end?  This process still has room for discovery, yet it seems so constricting when compared to the process of other poets.  After all, from the onset of the poem I imagine that I will find an answer.

I suspect that I don’t really understand the process of the other poets.  One thing that I don’t lack is sense of insecurity. So when someone responds to my statement that “I revise the hell out of my poems” with the fact that they tend to do minimal revisions, I don’t take the take the statement as it was meant—a simple observation in the differences in our process—but as a reprimand.  In the end, I can’t escape the feeling that my work is contrived, lacks inspiration, and that I’m strangling it with revision (apparently, I’m my own worse critic).

Yet, when I’m writing I’m often surprised by what shows up on the page.  In one poem where I’m deal with the fairy tale, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” I found it interesting that the bear the heroine married was considered monstrous, but that his human form that visited each night was welcomed without fear (on the part of the heroine).  I started writing with the question “What if the human half is the real monster?”  A few drafts in, I wrote the lines, “Mother should’ve told me/to light a lamp,/ warned me/ that it was the devil/ who visited each night.”  The poem had veered away from the fairy tale.  In subsequent revisions the girl never left home, and I realized that the poem was about incest.  Revision had led me into territory I had not planned to enter that I would probably have never choose to write about.  Like I said, writing is about discovery.

Perhaps the reason that I so doubt my writing process is because it seems to lack that quality of inspiration.  Inspiration—I imagine is when you suddenly feel electrified words burst forth, and they seem to crystallize that very moment.   When I write, I sit down and trudge.  I try to get an idea on the page.  It is usually awful, so I come back the next day and interrogate the thing—I revise.  Sometimes it leads me nowhere—sometimes I write what I (presumptuously) call a poem.  After a good day of writing, I have the same feeling I get after a day of moving or cooking or cleaning.  I’m tired, but I’ve accomplished something.  I don’t feel the elation, the energy of inspiration.

When I go through my old notebooks and look at the car poems—I see ideas that never should have made it to the page.  In that moment of what seemed to be inspiration—when I drove dangerously for what I hoped to be a poem—I’d just gotten an idea, an idea of what I wanted a poem to be.  This so-called inspiration did not allow me to examine each word, to question my assumptions, to let the poem breath and grow with each new draft.  After all, who was I to doubt the muse?  At the time of writing, those words seemed to lack ego, to appear out of the ether.

Looking back, I wonder why I mistook those moments for inspiration, why when I write now I feel that my process is lacking though the writing is leaps and bounds better.  Maybe, it was because those moments of elation were so similar to those moments of coming across a great line or paragraph when reading.  Maybe I subconsciously thought that writing must feel like reading that it should simply flow and that there are moments of epiphany.  But writing is nothing like reading, the same way baking is nothing like eating a slice of cake.  It seems so obvious, but it is hard to resist the elation, to resist what seems to be inspiration.

Poetry by Alphonse Mucha

Poetry by Alphonse Mucha

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Writing in Different Genres

As I mentioned earlier, I’m participating in A Writer’s March, and so far I’ve been doing pretty well.  My goal was to write three hours a day everyday, and while I can’t claim that those three hours have been without interruption or even that I wrote everyday, I’m certainly writing on more days and for longer.  I’ve started a few poems and had some fruitful revision of others.  Also, I’ve been writing fiction.

Like many other writers, I dabble with other genres (as this blog clearly shows).  However, I always find short stories problematic and frustrating.   Because I’ve spent so much time writing poetry, I’ve developed a sense of what works and doesn’t work for me.  Even when I run up against a wall while writing a poem—it doesn’t sound right, it’s too abstract, some mysterious thing is missing—I have methods that I fall back on to work through the problems.  With short stories, I still haven’t found the methods that work, and in a lot of ways I’m still building my foundation and learning in that area.

I feel that a writer must write X amount of bad poems or prose before they find their own voice.  It’s just part of making mistakes and learning from them.  I’ve written X amount of bad poems.  While I’m sure I still have a quite a few left in me, I know what works for me and what doesn’t.  With short stories, I haven’t written the necessary amount of bad fiction and still have mistakes to make.

Part of my problem comes from the sense that I need a different process for short stories.  When I sit down to work on a poem, I approach my writing like a sprinter.  I will usually get a draft out in one sitting.  When I revise, I usually completely retype or rewrite a poem.  Once again, this is usually done in one sitting.  Say with my own goal of three hours of writing, I may type a first draft of a poem in the first hour.  In the second hour, I will write out a long hand revision of another, and, in the third hour, I’ll read over poems that I’m currently working on making notes as I go.  To say the least, I usually have half dozen poems I working on at the same time.  Each day the process will vary some, but for the most part I don’t sit with one poem for hours at a time.   The big exception is when I’m trying to work on meter in a poem.  I usually have to work on it in sections over a period of days, and it may take me several days or weeks to complete one draft.  However, I don’t usually put in more than an hour a day on that poem, and will switch to the other poems I’m currently working on.

Due to this process, when I write fiction I prefer flash fiction.  I’m usually able to get one draft out in a sitting, even if it takes me bit longer than a poem would.  Also, I am able to focus more on the language upfront.  In a lot of ways, I tend to approach flash fiction as narrative prose poems (though I would not classify the finished product as such).

However, not all the stories I try to write lend themselves to such a short medium.  When I’m writing a short story, I can’t help but feel that I’m suddenly dealing with writing like a long distance runner.  Getting the first draft out may require several hours, and even then I still won’t get it out in one sitting.  Also, I dread the revision process.  Whereas retyping one to three pages is not all that daunting, when it comes to fifteen pages or more it seems overwhelming.  I’m also focused less on the language in the draft, because I suspect that I’m going to lose it in revisions.  I’m trying to avoid creating darlings that I must later kill.  To say the least, the first drafts are very rough.

And whenever I sit down to revise a story, I can’t help but remember all the workshops where the main criticism I received was that I needed to include more—more back story, more setting, more description.  I imagine all these pages and become terrified of the amount of writing I have to add.  Mind you, I have a single page poem that had over thirty drafts before it was finished.  It feels like I would have to write a novel worth of material to get a short story.

I remember hearing fiction writers who talk about working on one story several hours a day for several days at time.   I have poems that I’m still working on, and I don’t want to ignore them while I’m working on the story.  It all feel so overwhelming that I often get stuck after the first draft and am unsure of where to go next.

This morning I realized, that maybe I should stop viewing the process of writing a short story as different from that of a poem.  Maybe instead of focusing on providing enough details for the reader, I should focus on only the necessary details, write towards conciseness instead of inclusiveness. I need to focus on language instead of plot and character, because as poet that tends to keep me more interested.  I suspect that a lot of fiction writers will read this and say “Well duh!” or laugh and say “That won’t work at all.”  But that is the thing about writing, I have to experiment and see what works for me.

In fact this morning, I started working on a story that’s been sitting in the drawer for about eight months now.  Like I would with a poem, I’m retyping the draft, and already I’ve taken fourteen pages of melodramatic scene and reduced it to four.  I’m probably going to work on this story in short bursts, because as I stated above, I write like a sprinter.  I’m not sure this approach will work, but what’s the point of writing if you don’t risk failure.