Finding Your Voice:
Learn Your Own Process
by Susan Plett
This is Susan's thirteenth and final column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.
The last week of every poetry course is the trickiest lesson for me to teach. I’ve spent weeks talking about every single thing I think about poetry, being passionate and hopefully encouraging, but after the last class, the student is on her own. When I first started writing poetry, I took several courses and workshops because that was the only way I could gear myself up to write. I went seeking what I came to call “workshop energy,” and it took a long time for me to be able to tap into that at home. And if I was ever going to take myself seriously as a writer, I had to be able to create without an assignment or writing exercise or simple peer pressure to get me started.
So that’s what we talk about the last week—now what?
I’ll start with the assumption that you are a writer, and by that I mean, you have come to the point where you realize you could no more stop writing than you could stop being a mammal. “Writer” is an integral part of who you are, and when you do not honour that, you suffer. (I get irritable and depression-prone when I don’t write, for instance.) So if this is who you are—how do you do it?
Sit down with a notebook and a pen, or with your laptop, and start. I love this quote from Chuck Close:
The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.
There are any number of ways to get yourself started. March’s column, Whatever Gets You to The Page, discusses some of my favourites. I also carry around a notebook. The size and shape varies, but there’s always a notebook nearby. (Nowadays it’s my smartphone, but I secretly think that’s a bit silly of me.) When I first started attempting to boss the workshop energy around, I would sit down at my computer, with the notebook, and say, firmly, “I am not getting up from this computer until I have the rough draft of a poem.”
Here’s the tricky thing. If you say that—do it. I have learned from experience that if you say that and then do not do it, your subconscious mind will learn from this experience that you might not mean it, and so it will take a wait-and-see approach.
2. Learn your own process
Sigh. I spent so many of my early writing years trying to find out how to do it right. I would listen carefully when prolific writers would talk about their process. Here are some of the things I tried, and how they worked out.
a. "Write before you do anything else.”
Someone got up at 4AM and wrote for two hours before breakfast. 4AM seemed a bit extreme, so I set my alarm for 5AM and sat staring dully into space until the rest of my family got up. Not only had I not written anything, I was also sleep-deprived. The only thing on my page was drool.
b. “Create a calm, quiet atmosphere.”
I spent a lot of time and energy finding an isolated work space, quiet and organized, with all my writing books close at hand, only to find the silence far too loud for me to think.
I discovered my own process quite by accident. I had an evening away from home, and brought my laptop along to do some writing while the people I was visiting were in a meeting. I got very little done, until their two very large dogs begged to be let in from outside. With the (rather small) kitchen full of playful pups and wagging tails, I started to write, which is when I figured out that not only am I a highly efficient multitasker, I am a very poor single tasker. If my “underneath” brain doesn’t have something to do, I can’t concentrate. I still have a dedicated writing space, organized, with all my writing books close by—but it’s in the dining room, and my family comes and goes around me.
(I had to discover my own process when it came to poetry as well. The first few poets whose work I admired wrote rough drafts that were rough poems, whereas I wrote rough drafts that were elegant, plot-free, prose. I expended a ridiculous amount of energy trying to wrestle my beginnings into someone else’s procedure, time that would have been better spent learning the craft.)
c. “Pick a daily writing time, and keep that protected.”
There are lots of very good reasons for this. It just doesn’t work for me. For one thing, I am almost always convinced that whatever I write this very day will be garbage, so why even try? If I know I am going to sit down to write at two in the afternoon, I almost immediately start talking myself out of it. I have to sneak up on myself.
I also do not need several dedicated hours. Because I am given to multitasking, several dedicated hours become torturous for me, but twenty minutes here and thirty minutes there, all throughout the day, can be some of my most productive days. I leave the file open on my computer so that every time I sit down to check email or write a blog entry or find my husband on MSN to ask him to stop for milk on the way home—there’s my current writing project.
I’m sure you have your own list of beautifully reasoned writing advice that has worked for someone. I’m not saying any of those are the wrong approach. The only wrong way to do this is to not do it.
I’m saying—your writing process is as individual as your voice, your world view and what you bring to the page. Give yourself permission to experiment until you find what works best for you.
And maybe someday I won’t be the only one who has written a poem while a small boy rests his head in her lap, playing Lego Star Wars at full volume.
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Copyright ©2011 by Susan Plett