Some thoughts from the poet William Stafford:
When the snake decided to go straight he didn’t get anywhere.
Lost pioneers were the ones who found the best valleys.
In Oregon, the coyotes are still the best poets.
It is absolute havoc inside my head. Nothing is going straight. Thoughts are falling all over each other, some dressed in nice jeans and a sweater, hair neatly coifed. Some are naked and foaming at the mouth. These are the ones that live in the dark corners. They respond to the impulses of my hypothalamus, but not to much else. They are not religious, they are not kind, they have no manners. I can’t get to them to teach them any manners. They are the source of my creative impulse. I know it and they know it and this is why they hide. They don’t want to be dressed up. They don’t want to be turned into concepts or decorations. They need to be lost.
They are howling like coyotes, but when I try to grab them by the tail and write them down, I can never say what was meant. They’re the speechless, elemental, generative core, boiling hot like the center of the earth. They don’t care to communicate with anyone. So, this work we do comes out of that core, but if we ever expect it to speak to anyone else, we have to distort it by using words. Okay, we just have to. The words are never exactly right, but they’re what we have.
When the raw havoc in us rises to the level of words, several things happen. At this point, responsibility kicks in. Ours. First of all, we’re responsible to the impulse within us. We need to work very hard to find the right words that come closest to what we deeply sense. Richard Hugo said this to his students: Yeats. His great genius was that he was willing to spend six hours on a line. Chant it over and over.
Another interesting thing Hugo said to his students: With Dylan Thomas, when he really wanted to get wild, he got strict with himself.
We’re all writing out of that deep havoc. The tendency is to let it go, let it flow, and I think that’s good. To pour out on the page whatever comes. If nothing comes, drive it out with a stick, but keep it moving, keep it coming. Then we look at what we have and after an hour or a day or a week, we come back to it and it looks very little like what that deep impulse had in mind. Usually. Almost always, from my own experience.
Then is when we turn into parents. Make it sit up in the chair. Make it put on a clean shirt. Make it better. This feels to me like a sacred responsibility, to ourselves and to the reader. To ourselves because the closer our words come to our initial impulse, the more true to ourselves we are. We’re not letting our desire to get it out there fast, to have an adoring audience, cause us to be flippant. We’re responsible to the reader, to not skim the surface of what we meant, to spend enough time with our words to change them and change them to communicate as exactly as we can. This is how we get close to each other.
So revision goes two ways: we want to be true to ourselves and we want to be true to the reader. This is not as simple as it might seem. What if being true to what is, will be offensive to others? What’s my responsibility there?
The final essay in my collection of memoir-essays, Driving With Dvorak, is about my father. In this essay we all, the whole family, finally realize that what has been “wrong” with my father all these years is that he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum. I was trying to describe how it used to be with him. I had some scenes with my mother that were breathtakingly graphic. His tantrums, his sexual obsessions. I showed them to Judith Kitchen, who, as we know, is a brilliant critic. Keep all that in, she said. But even though my father was 96 and unlikely to ever read the book, I just couldn’t. I felt a responsibility to the children, the grandchildren, and frankly, to him, not to expose the worst of him that he couldn’t help. Yes, he was hurtful. Yes, all that I said was true. Yes, it fills in a more complete picture. But after going on in the essay about his awful manners, his dirty body and clothes, and other of his strange behaviors, I stopped short. I wrote this:
Now I’m tipping over again, losing boundaries, getting lost in the weirdness of my father. Am I using his peculiarities, his ingenuity, to my writerly advantage, to enhance myself in the process? How do these inevitable filters affect what I try to see of him, just him? How much exactitude can a loving portrait contain, can love contain? And what’s the right distance? I adjust the microscope. He took us swimming. He made us kites. He played with us, really played, with great joy. He was amazingly funny. He made up great and ghastly bedtime stories. He’s always been a child.
I chose to use my own dilemma about how much to include as part of the essay. The essay became, actually, about my struggle to see clearly, to recognize pain, but to remain loving.
Here’s the thing. My effort to be kind provided a resistance that made me go deeper, changed the whole essay toward more reflection. Judith liked this version, too, by the way.
There are built-in resistances we can make use of, traditional forms, for example, we can follow if we’re a poet. If not those, we have the model of other writers to push against. Can I do anything this good? Can I learn from this? Any act of humility like this pushes us toward improvement.
So, there are those responsibilities, to ourselves and to the work. There is also the larger world, that’s running knives through pregnant women’s bellies, starving children, living in shacks with no plumbing, trafficking young girls–you know, I could go on and on.
It seems to be the perennial worry of writers that we’re doing nothing for the world. We’re sitting at our desks, piling up words while Rome burns, so to speak. Well, whatever else we do for the world besides our writing is our own individual calling, but the writing itself–how does that figure in?
It’s born in havoc, in the unconscious. Not one of us, I’ll bet, ever said, “Oh, writing seems like a good thing to do. I think I’ll try that.” I’d guess we’ve all been scribbling long before we used the word “writer.” We got some kind of pleasure out of seeing the words on paper. Our words. We loved the way The Cat in the Hat sounded. We got lost in Charlotte’s Web.
So we can’t exactly claim nobility for wanting to write. It’s built into us, pretty much. And most of us aren’t going to be read by thousands. Especially us poets!
But we can pay attention. We can be aware of those horrors happening elsewhere and in our neighborhood. We can be very aware. We can be overwhelmed. Maybe the first step is to give in to the havoc. I’m thinking about our great poets. Hopkins. Frost. Plath. Akhmatova. Our best prose writers: Dostoyevsky, Twain, Nabokov, Joyce. I’m picking names from a vast list.
You feel an urgency. There’s nothing that can be done but to write the poem, write the novel. You feel the back and forth of losing and gaining control of the language, the image, the whole thing.
Here’s a poem from No Need of Sympathy. It’s called “Child Labor.” You can feel my own helpless overwhelmed-ness in the way the poem throws itself back and forth, not being able to “solve” anything, only see and feel—children at sewing machines in warehouses all day, pleading for bathroom passes, and the whole structure of society including glossy New York Times ads encouraging us to buy the T-shirts they’ve made, including my singing hymns at church camp, including large people at Walmart, Heraclitus, hot dogs; they all tore through my mind in a fit of anger, despair.
All I could hope for is to somehow hold it together, my own mind and the poem, to illuminate how a mind struggles when it encounters bald-faced immorality. That’s all I can manage—to illuminate it. Attempting to solve the “problem” would be a cop-out, and less than useless. What is needed is to feel the anguish of the situation. To be aware of the feeling. Then one might act, and act out of the feeling rather than some sense of having the “right” answer.
Child labor is desperately sought by both the manufacturers
and the starving children. Morality is another one of those words.
Sometimes there’s a haze of words, sometimes a fog. My breath
is one of the two. The palm of my hand is a shallow lake,
enough to hold stones and lose words in. The world is held
in God’s hand. We sang this on the spillway at church camp
as fingers of water spread out below. True, the earth’s crust
miraculously hangs on against the breath of all our talk, our tossed-
around ideas. Factory workers and children still forage in the dumps
at Phnom Penh, and under them, rats and bacteria eat away
at the garbage, and below everything, the earth’s core swelters
in its own juices. Isn’t it odd that we knew hell was down, heaven
was up, before we knew about the core? I would like to discuss
the consciousness that mumbles to itself so that it won’t hear
the hum of sewing machines in the vast rows of warehouses,
and the children’s pleas for bathroom passes. How consciousness
skips along on the level sidewalk of words as if it were headed
to a picnic. Heraclitus says everything is fire. We have lit a fire
in the barbeque pits, and the thighs of the large people who shop
at Walmart are on fire, but they can’t help it. Things got heavy
so fast, to the point of combustion. It was the corporations who
got the children to make the T-shirts, it was the luminous ads
in the Sunday Times that sold the shirts, it was the carefully placed
words in the ads, God, we are all jabbering away while hell
cooks the hot dogs and heaven rains the iced sodas, and along
the banquette are the pump dispensers of ketchup and mustard.
So, there’s the havoc, the madness. What you don’t see or hear is the work, the control and the revision necessary to come as close to that sense of madness as I could get on the page.
Sometimes I fall one direction, toward havoc, sometimes the other. More often than not, I’m WAY too responsible. I start editing before the impulse has a chance to fully show itself. You may be the kind of writer who leans in the direction of letting the impulse take control. Good for you. You may get some brilliant moments on paper.
If you’re like me, how do you dip into that mad impulse, that authentic, red-hot core? You can’t control when it will choose to let itself be known. I’ve found that the sheer time spent at the desk can finally, in deep frustration, bring it forth. Just when you’re ready to cry with hopelessness, a phrase comes to you. And writing a great deal in one sitting can bring it forth. When we force ourselves to keep moving, to keep the fingers in motion on the keys, the controlling mind can’t keep up. We may surprise ourselves. I find that reading some people’s work that I deeply admire and actually copying down phrases I love can begin to dredge up my own words and phrases, in response. These are not exactly tricks. They’re ways to bypass our critic before she gets a stranglehold on us.
And then we turn to the critic who shows us examples from the great writers, the one who knows that often restraint and boundaries create more energy themselves. The child and the wise one. There’s no war between the two.
Fleda Brown earned her Ph.D. in English (specialty in American Literature) from the University of Arkansas, and in 1978 she joined the faculty of the University of Delaware English Department, where she founded the Poets in the Schools Program and directed it for more than 12 years. Her books, essays, and individual poems have won many awards. Her collection of memoir-essays, Driving with Dvorak, was released in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press. Her eighth book of poems, No Need of Sympathy, was published by BOA Editions last year.