In the middle of March, I had a great idea for a poem. Or so I thought. More than two weeks later, I feel like I am wading through setting concrete. Said poem consists only of a couple of possible lines and a lot of messy notes – no structure, no direction, and not very much to show for the hours I have spent on it. Yet it came to me bright and clear and with the final lines already ‘written’. What’s going on?
I’m reminded of a story about EM Forster. Flush with success after selling his first short story, he conceived another one at a Cornish cliff or beach (I think – it’s been some time since I read it!). It would be about a swimmer saved from drowning, and the conception was so brilliant, so obviously destined for more success, that he immediately put a guinea into a Lifeboat collection box at the site, in anticipation of his future earnings from the story. But the story did not sell, and if you’ve read it it’s easy to see why. The basic story is drowned in too-ingenious narrative origami, and the point of it is entirely lost. Forster said he drew a lesson from this debacle that helped him throughout the rest of his writing career.
Luckily for me I have forgotten what that lesson was, so I am free to create my own, which is this: don’t write ideas, write words. Or to put it another and more famous way, Think On Paper. That’s the only place where you can be sure that a great idea is going to work.
Though that’s not the end of the story. Wading through concrete I may be, but that concrete isn’t just just this poem. It’s also the stuckness of trying to write something after having taken too long a break. Instead of ideas pouring out like live fish, I’m trudging through sludge. But the trudging is essential; eventually, all this fruitless work will turn out to have been preparation for something that does work, in a way that I can’t see right now, but will be clear when I look back.
I’m familiar enough with this process, though that doesn’t make it any less frustrating! My only consolation is that in the past, after weeks working on a stuck poem which turns out stiff and dull, another one usually slips out smoothly and shinily and amazes me that it chose me… Here’s hoping.
Now to go back to stirring concrete…(Image © keaggy.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/bk/)