Don’t Worry, Write Happy: daily drafting, Tom Raworth, and the hedonism of writing

It’s been a busy week or so since my last post – lots of teaching to prepare for and do. I’m hoping to manage another blog post today about some of that, but now I wanted to share some more thoughts about getting into a lasting writing habit. A few things have happened since last Wednesday.

After I wrote that post, I reminded myself of the section in Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit where she lists her top 5 fears, and summarises how she tackles them head-on every day. For example, one is, ‘People will laugh at me’. No, they won’t, she tells herself; at least not the people whose opinions I care about and respect. They never have done, and they’re not going to start now. Boom! First fear neutralised: she’s stared it down and won, based on real evidence from her life. She does that 5 times for her big fears, and she’s ready to create.

I’m always up for learning from people who know better than me, so I tried it – but I decided to write it all down, because I find that more powerful.

My top 5 fears, at least that day (last Thursday), were:

  1. I don’t know what I’m doing
  2. What I write won’t be any good
  3. In redrafting, I will mess up anything that had the potential to be good
  4. Nothing I can do is any good compared to what other people write
  5. I don’t know anything and therefore have nothing to say.

These are big fears – I can see why they’ve been able to stop me at times. But they’re not true, and I set about proving that to myself and them. I wrote down a list of arguments: first writing down everything I could think of that would support the fear, then countering that with everything that could go against it.

It was absorbing and useful to do; I recommend it to anyone who’s feeling blocked. Several things emerged, but the biggest was to rethink the balance between product and process.

I was stressing too much about how good my product – the finished poem – was going to be. The best answer to this, I found as I wrote, was to remind myself that what really matters is not the product, but the process by which it’s made. That’s the reason I came to poetry in the first place: because I love playing with meanings, rhythms, sounds, forms. The rush of getting a new idea that I like, and being totally swept up in it; then trying to make that idea work in words, sentences, lines, shapes, sounds. Or the enjoyable nag of a phrase that won’t go away from my head, that I just have to write down and see what poem it might end up being  part of. That’s why I do this crazy thing,  have chosen to make my living out of it, and spend a great deal of energy on helping others to get  the same joy. That’s what writing is about, really: it’s lovely to get published, or have someone say how much they liked my poem after a reading, but I’d keep doing it even if those things never happened.

So this week I’ve been trying to block thoughts of, ‘How well is this poem going to work?’, and concentrating on process: experimenting with different voices, forms, images. And it has worked: I’ve drafted at least a little every day that I feasibly could have (giving myself a day off for a school visit), and I’ve enjoyed it. And the more I do it, the easier it gets.

It also helped that I went a reading by Tom Raworth at Winchester Uni on Friday. He’s not a poet I’ve read or heard of before, but he was a very interesting guy. First up, his avant-garde poetry was fascinating: his Collected Poems should be arriving on my doormat pretty soon (if it fits through the letterbox – it’s a chunky book) and I’m very much looking forward to seeing his experimental collage-style work on paper. But secondly, his attitude to writing was just stellar. In a number of answers to questions, he stressed that he just does not care at all what others think of his writing. He does it because he wants to; he does whatever he wants; if others want to read it that’s fine with him, but when he’s writing, he’s not thinking about any reader other than himself. ‘For me, writing is hedonism,’ he said.

I asked him, ‘Have you ever worried about a poem?’

He paused, with furrowed brow, for a few seconds.

‘Hmmm,’ he said. ‘I was just trying to imagine what it might feel like to worry about a poem. No, I never have.’

What a guy! My hero? Maybe for a while. As a life-long worrier (about everything, not just writing), it’s great to know there’s another way. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following it this week – the poem and I have shared a few little dances, and to my surprise it’s falling into something I quite like. All without fear or worry.

So, to answer Wednesday’s question, ‘Can I keep it going?’ Yes, I have, and next week can’t come soon enough.

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