The Writer's Craft
My dictionary describes craft as: a strength, a special skill particularly in the arts, a skill in deceiving or underhanded planning, or a boat, ship or aircraft.
I think all of these descriptions are applicable when it comes to poetry. Certainly it takes strength and skill. It also takes a certain amount of deception, or, if you will, magic, to convince your reader to suspend disbelief, to put themselves aside in order to step into the strange little life of your poem. And most importantly, the idea of craft as a boat. Is your poem seaworthy? Does your poem float? Does it keep the water out? Does it have a kitchen? A place in which you can rest? Is it equipped with navigational tools? Can it withstand all kinds of weather? Do you trust it?
For me, the craft, the skill of writing falls into 3 categories; reading, playing and writing, writing being the least important of the 3. I'd also like to add have something to say, write beyond your abilities and be fearless. Wallace Stevens once said that the act of writing poetry was actually a very intense form of reading. If you want to write, you have to read. And read everything. Read the classic poets. Read contemporary poetry. Read journals, magazines, e-zines. If you find a poem you like, find everything that author has written and read it. Read fiction. Read biographies. Find out how the writers you love lived. It always makes me happy to read how neurotic most of the famous poets were. Read cookbooks, magazines, the operating instructions for small household appliances. Read advertisements on buses. Read your cereal box. Take notes.
Carry a notebook with you all the time. Sure, you're young now and you can remember a word that sparks you for at least a couple of weeks, but trust me, as you get older and your brain fills up, you'll be glad you have paper and pen on hand when you read the words pig trotters on a menu in a restaurant. It might take months before pig trotters actually find their way into a poem, but those words will be there, waiting for you when you need them. Create your own lexicon. Steal conversations. Write them down word for word. Sure, it makes people uncomfortable and they might suspect that you're writing down their conversation word for word but don't worry about that. We all have a desire to be immortalized in print. When you read, pay attention to what moves you, what works, what doesn't work. Read all the poetry you can find. And read the poetry you love as though you are writing it. If you find a poem you really love, memorize it. This will make it easier to steal from later.
The next point I want to talk about is play. I approach all art from a place of deep play. I think it is a mistake to take ourselves too seriously as artists. I'm not saying we shouldn't write about serious themes, we should. We should write about everything. What I am saying is that we should never forget why we write, we should never lose track of that goofy, glittery, firey, child-like sense of wonder that made us want to do this odd thing in the first place. When you set out to write a poem, don't try to write something important. Poems that try to be important or intense or didactic most often fail. They lose sight of the human. I mean, we're funny. And the more tragic and heartbreaking our lives become, the funnier we get. Never lose track of that in your writing. I think art should celebrate the human condition, what ever it may be. Don't be afraid to take chances, to know nothing, to write from the beginner's mind, to invent everything brand new each time you sit down to write. Be honest in your writing. Be human.
The last thing I want to mention is writing. Sure, it seems obvious, but I'm not talking about writing when the fire is inside of you and everything is spilling out in a glorious outpouring. That's the easy part. The skill of crafting poetry lies in the revision, the cutting, the paring, the sweat. Richard Tillinghast, in an essay titled "Notes on Revision" says that " The willingness, the ardent desire even, to revise, separates the poet from the person who sees poetry as therapy or self-expression." Revision is the poet's most demanding, difficult and dangerous work. But I'm not going to talk about revision here because that would use at least five hours of my fifteen minutes. I want to talk about the practice of writing. Writing every day. I don't mean write a poem a day. But write something every day. Keep a daily journal. Take notes. Write letters.
I'm a violinist and I have to practice. I practice scales. I practice Mozart, sure, but it is the daily habit of practicing scales that allows me to play Mozart. Practicing scales every day allows me to stop thinking when I actually sit down to play Mozart. My brain can get out of the way and my body takes over. My fingers know where to go. This is where joy lies, for me, in the letting go. Is writing every day going to make the crafting of poetry easier? It might and it might not. But I can guarantee that once you get used to facing a blank page or the blue hum of a computer monitor every single day, that task becomes less daunting as time goes by. It gets easier to start. Your hand and your brain are used to this ritual. Fear is displaced by habit.
copyright 2003Rebecca Loudon