Discover more from Unleash Lit
Ink-Stained Wretches: Notes & Provocations
A guest post by Howie Good
As a writer, are you a jogger (maintain a steady, moderate, disciplined pace when writing)? A sprinter (fast to the finish)? A slogger (two words forward, one word back)? Does it depend on your mood that day? Your level of blood sugar? Is it a matter of the weather? And is it better to be one kind of writer (jogger or sprinter) than another (slogger) – more preferable in terms of productivity or frequency of creative agonies?
If asked, I would say I’m a slogger. I don’t keep precise count, but I would estimate that I typically put a poem through 20 to 30 drafts. Writing is actually rewriting. It’s where you correct the deformities; where you tease out ideas that were barely present in the original; where you polish the fenders. Nonetheless – and to my great frustration – it’s rare when something feels truly finished and not just abandoned.
I have a writer friend who likes to say everyone’s writing process is different, which is another way of saying no one’s writing process is wrong. Personally I enjoy the feeling of being a kind of genius that writing on medicinal marijuana gives me. The feeling lasts only briefly, but at peak intensity, I write with rare freedom and confidence. What a relief to have my dour, stuffy, black-suited internal censor/critic, a master of tsk-tsking, elbowed aside for a while by an old stoner with enflamed eyes and smoking brain.
W.B. Yeats couldn’t or wouldn’t distinguish “the dancer from the dance.” Are the poet and the poem similarly synonymous? What is the character of their relationship? Parent to child? Owner and master to pet? Bull to bullshit?
A poem of mine about, say, the beach doesn’t present the beach as it is. It presents only my personal, particular, partial consciousness of the beach. Waves, sand, gulls, they all operate in the poem as extensions and emblems of my colonizing consciousness. Even the most lovingly detailed description of a plant or bug (I’m looking at you Mary Oliver) is a projection of the poet’s thoughts, feelings, motives, etc.
Everything one experiences of the world is inevitably infused with one’s own flavor and scent. Poetry doesn’t depict the world that exists, but the phantom movement of human consciousness through the world.
Every semester when I was still teaching I would assign George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write.” In it, Orwell enumerates with characteristic honesty his reasons for writing, from the egotistical (to prove one’s worth to doubters) through the aesthetic (to create something pleasing or beautiful) to the political (to move the world in a particular direction). But even he admits very near the end of the essay that the urge to write remains something of an enigma. He wondered if it might be similar to a baby’s urge to cry.
From my own observations, the impulse to become a writer or artist springs primarily from a misfit between a person and the environment. The misfit can have any number of causes: race, religion, class, family, health. The one-eyed poet-novelist Jim Harrison allowed that the alcoholic poet-novelist Charles Bukowski became a writer because he was so spectacularly ugly.
Regardless of its source, the misfit between a person and the environment (including the cultural environment) results in chronic friction, and the friction results in whole areas of the heart being rubbed raw. We can think of it as the Original Hurt, and like Original Sin, the cause for the life-changing loss of something irreplaceable – the feeling of being at home in the world. It’s to console oneself after suffering such a loss that one gravitates to writing or art, initially perhaps for balm, but later as a means of redress.
I didn’t grow up surrounded by art and culture. There were newspapers scattered around the house but few books on the shelves or paintings on the walls. One day I sat drawing in my room – I must have been 12 or 13 years old, just starting to figure shit out – when my mom stuck her head in. She watched me for a moment, then she said, “Why are you wasting paper?”
I’m fully persuaded that it requires a certain degree of masochism to be writer. As a writer, you must endure the loneliness of physical isolation (maybe not if you’re a poseur who writes on a laptop at Starbucks, but everyone else). You also must endure endless rejection, always the likeliest outcome of any submission to a literary publication or press.
The path to a writing career – “career” might be too grand a word to describe what many of us achieve – ought to be heavily posted with warning signs. Not that it would make much of a difference. When you’re young, a struggling writer seems like a fine and romantic thing to be. It’s when you’re in your fifties and older and still pursuing elusive literary recognition that you might be justified in wondering if you totally balled up your life.
Samuel Johnson famously referred to writers as “ink-stained wretches.” In his day, writing was done with quill pens dipped in ink. The quill and inkwell are long gone, but not, I’m afraid, the wretchedness.
A quick example. While you may be obliged to pay a submission/reading fee to a publication, a great many publications feel no similar obligation to pay you if your piece is accepted. And now for something else Dr. Johnson said: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
One year I did earn about $5,000 doing book reviews for a national education magazine. When my editor quit or was let go, my side job abruptly ended. My most recent royalty check – for my poetry collection Stick Figure Opera – was for $3 and a few cents, or less than the price of a gallon of gas.
I used to joke in class that if I had to survive on my earnings as a writer, I would be living in one of those big cardboard boxes that refrigerators come packed in. God knows where my wife and our four kids would be living.
A hummingbird took a little drop of water in its beak to fight a giant forest fire. The forest animals sneered, “What you are doing is for nothing.” To which the hummingbird replied, “No, I am just doing my part.”
This little fable intends for us to admire the determination of the hummingbird, whatever the futility of its efforts. And yet I find myself identifying more with the nihilistic perspective of the animals.
For me, the lack of obvious utility is one of the outstanding achievements of contemporary poetry. In a
n age and culture where any person or object can be weaponized, sexualized, or commodified, poetry remains committed to its own waywardness and resistant by its specialized nature to pacification and cooptation.
A poem has no obligation to be useful. Its only obligation is to be alive.
About the author:
Howie Good, a retired journalism professor, is the author of the new poetry collection, Heart-Shaped Hole (Laughing Ronin Press), which also includes examples of his handmade collages. He co-edits the journal Unlost.