Poem, Poetry, Poet

Although I’m passionate about poetry, and I have written a number of poems (which the world should be grateful I rarely share), I can’t claim to be a poet.

In college I recall being fascinated by the discourse surrounding Poem vs Poetry vs Poet. I hadn’t given the terminology much thought up to that point, but in these (now many) post-college years where I endeavor to write novels, short stories, blog posts, I still reflect on these terms.

In my mind the definitions go something like this:

Poem – The artifact, the work itself

Poetry – The act and art of writing poems

Poet – The person performing poetry in order to create poems

Current or former Literature scholars will have to correct this, but I seem to remember that it was the Romantic poet Coleridge, who while writing Kubla Kahn, identified within himself a preference for writing poetry over creating poems.

At the time, I probably bashed the poor opium addict for his failure to finish a poem and get it out into the world, but now, when work and life threaten to consume most if not all of my time, I’m much more sympathetic to Coleridge’s plight.

We are, as writers, often addicted to the act of writing, the process of it. We’re collectively much worse at finishing our projects, calling them done, pushing them into the light for others to read and experience, and yes, judge.

In that space where poem, poetry and poet flow as confluence within us, we favor the rough incompleteness, the perpetual state of being unfinished. I understand why we do this—why I do this—and I wonder if it’s basal human nature, fear or something else.

Rules for Writing – Rule #8 – Thou Shalt Know When to Trust Thy Self

In the film When Harry Met Sally (still the only Romantic Comedy that matters), the character of Sally explains how she is decidedly not high-maintenance by referring to herself as simply ‘wanting things the way she wants them.’

That’s easy enough to understand, isn’t it?

As writers we are, alas, always learning. We never ‘get there’ and every project set before us presents us with challenges unique and particular to the project. Added to that is the complication that we need feedback from others before we release our ‘completed’ projects into the readership wilds. These notes can be high-level and conceptual, or these notes can be minute, specific, nit-picky, painfully on-point.

Recent New Yorker pieces by John McPhee (Writer Extraordinaire) and Mary Norris (Comma Queen) instruct the writer on how to conduct oneself when constructing works amidst the critical flood-plane 

Style, which flows from big concept down to comma placement, from blueprint to individual nail as it were, must be alternatively unique and standard. We must uphold, and we must innovate. This is no less true of the writers as it is of those who edit our work.

In Norris’ words: ‘One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.’

What’s fascinating is the implicit lesson that there is a certain amount of subjectivity when discussing style and grammar. There are rules. And then are…rules. Some are meant to be adhered to and some are meant to be challenged, fought against, broken.

For that latter category, the writer has to stand firm, to be high maintenance, and declare – I want it this way because I want it this way.

It’s not always the most advisable or defendable stance, mind you. I learned from my mentor Richard Cortez Day that consensus is important. If one person tells you a description is lazy or doesn’t make sense, you take note, but if five people tell you the same, you revise. Most of the time—probably 98 or 99 percent of the time—you should take the feedback your beta-readers and trusted opinion-givers provide and make the changes they offer.

But there are times to push back. There are instances when you the writer—because you are uniquely you and you think of things the way you think of them—wants it the way you want it.

High-maintenance? Of course. We're writers.

Traveling the Travails: The Decimation of a Writing Routine

I’ve blogged before that as a traveler, I have much to learn. Not just the mechanics of how to take care of myself while on the road, but more importantly, in maintaining a proper mindset. By nature, I prefer the stability of a regular, non-traveling routine – get up early to write, commute to work, exercise, head home for (chaotic) family time, watch TV, read, go to sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Routine gives my creativity a place to return to; structure gives my imagination a place to ground itself.

In other words, I’ve attempted--however poorly I may have executed it--to live Gustav Flaubert’s quote: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.’

(Note: I make a terrible bourgeois.)

So I’ve carved what we’ll call my Flaubert-ality into the canals of my brain, the tissue of my body, to such a successful degree that I think if I were to die this moment, my body would still shuffle onward, hitting all the points of my schedule perfectly. Triumph!

And now, of course, this is changing.

With my recent job switch, I’m now traveling on a regular basis (this is countered by my now being able to work from home when I’m home, which is another future area of adjustment). The travel, which will likely be weekly or bi-weekly air travel, is disruptive to all levels of my being all at once. There’s the time away from family, the effects of sleeplessness on inferior beds, there’s the impact on diet, there’s the inactivity and hours of sitting and talking.

Then there’s the loss of a defined writing time.

Like almost everything else with me, it comes back to my attitude, to my accepting what is over what I want or need it to be. Where once I would have railed against the torpedo that just exploded my meticulously-honed Flaubert-ality, I’ve decided to embrace this new challenge to my artistic existence. Traveling, and how one travels, is as much a mirror of how we wander this life as our creative or spiritual activities are. If I’m a terrible traveler (which if I’m honest is a fairly apt description) it’s because I allow circumstances beyond myself, circumstances that I ultimately can’t control, to disrupt my mindset.

Rather than despair, which would have been my reaction even a few years ago, I’m leveraging the factors playing in my favor to keep on my writing schedule so that I can get my next novel written. There’s technology, for one, which allows me to access my works in progress from wherever I may be. (Thank you Google Docs and/or Windows 360.) There’s the more fluid non-work time, and although I doubt that I can actually write in the evenings wherever I may be staying, I can at least read and research and otherwise prepare for the next morning’s writing session.

I’ve devoted my post-college years to controlling the activities and relationships surrounding my creative endeavors in the false belief that doing so would somehow protect my art-making time. This didn’t accomplish what I wanted. There’s no way to shield a creative act from the world in which it is made or from the circumstances that gestated it.

What of my lovely Flaubert-ality? What of being regular and orderly? I don’t know, but perhaps discipline—getting words onto the page—has less to do with being regular and orderly, and more to do with how well you travel.

Deluded

My ability to delude myself is nearly all-powerful.

I’m one of those writers who maintains a ‘day-job’ – a second career that not only keeps the money flowing in, but that also gives me intellectual engagement separate from my art. The obvious struggle in this type of an arrangement is to maintain balance, to keep both the artistic and non-artistic plates spinning with equal and purposeful velocity.

Lately, though, over the past couple of months, the balance of both plates has been thrown into a warbling, off-kilter orbit because I’ve decided to change that ‘day-job’ after twelve years.

I love the company that I’m leaving. The people, the mission, the day-to-day challenges. It’s rare amidst our current American economic landscape that I’ve worked for the same company for over a decade. The company brought me up, taught me much, and has had—until a couple years ago—my unwavering loyalty.

What happened two years ago? Reality collapsed my delusion bubble.

The danger in being a storyteller is that the stories I tell myself about myself are often the most intoxicating, and over the years, I had constructed a grand narrative about how important I was to this business, how my role was destined to expand, and how I had both more potential opportunity as well as more financial gain coming my way.

This narrative blinded me to the evidence that my position at the company was actually fixed, that my pay was not going to ever appreciably increase, that what I do day in and out isn’t at the forefront of the company executives’ thoughts - it isn't even at the forefront of my supervisor’s thoughts. I kept telling myself that if I completed this task or that project, I might break through. I kept doing this over and over. 

I kept doing this until, finally, just a couple months ago when I was presented once more with evidence that nothing was going to change.

Reality wasn’t allowing me to delude myself any longer.

And what did I do when reality couldn’t be denied any longer? I got pissed. Royally, epically pissed off.

This will surprise no one, but anger is an emotion I have in ample supply. Anger has been both foe and ally my entire life. Most times, my anger is an offshoot reaction to fear – my go-to emotion. I’ve had to work hard to understand and manage my anger, to recognize that often when I’m angry, I’m usually afraid.

But there are times when anger is an indication that something is wrong, that I’m not paying proper attention to a part of my life that needs attending to. When it’s functioning the way that anger should, my anger can be relied upon to cut through the delusions—the bullshit—and deal with the reality before me.

In this case, anger led to swift and immediate action. Anger pushed me to cast-off the fear and the laziness and, yes, comfort, to finally act on an opportunity that had (thankfully) presented itself. Once the delusion burned away, and I was left with the reality—of what is instead of what I wish it to be—the path to action was clear. And obvious.

I know I’ll delude myself again. That’s what I do. But I hope that I’ve learned from this painful process that had I allowed reality to speak more loudly than my delusions, everyone would have benefitted. I would have caused less damage to both my work relationships and to my own sense of self-worth.

That’s the problem with delusions – they can distract you from reality, from the truth of a situation, but reality makes itself heard, eventually.