I recently picked up my old copy of The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, and there was a crumpled up sticky note attached to the back of the book that must have clung onto the back of it for years, for I don’t remember writing it, but it is undoubtedly my loopy, ten-year-old-boy handwriting—and this note, which also must have survived two cross-country moves—says, “This is my philosophy on writing about place,” with “place” underlined three times, and an arrow pointing toward the corner of the book. Upon opening the book, there was another note I had written to myself which says, “This is my method: come to the conclusion @ end of a poem,” and “look @ page 3.” What the previous version of myself was telling the present version of myself to look at is this: “When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music.” (Hugo 3). And that, right there, with green, penned-in stars next to it, might be some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received. There is not meaning in everything you know about the world. But, perhaps, truth does come from stacking all the things you know about the world, shifting through memories and finding music in the snippets of a conversation sixteen-year-old-you had; that might be a truth. And that is enough to write a good poem.
When I moved from my hometown to my MFA program halfway across the country, I found it impossible to stop writing everything I knew about where I was from. All of the things I had felt, from the house I grew up in to the people I left behind to all the things they did that made presented a plethora of emotions were killing my poems. When it came time for my first workshop as a graduate student, I didn’t look up and I could not only feel the room cringing, but myself cringing too. And it took me longer to come back to Hugo’s next piece of advice than I’m willing to admit, but here is what I believe the arrow on the back of the book was, at one time, pointing to: “The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it another” (Hugo 12). I can imagine previous versions of myself objecting to this, saying But! Who’s to say I can’t write about where I’m from? Yet, that doesn’t mean you can’t write about where you’re from. Hugo is saying is that if you become too obsessed with getting everything right, you are too close to the subject and risk coming to any meaningful music, pause and language within the poem. We must not risk the music of poetry for anything else. Everything we write is somehow complicated by the “truths” we’ve come to know throughout our lives, and by separating what we know from what we do not know, we come closer to one angular lighthouse, the perfect curvature of a jaw, the depression of a rock in a stream. And then we inject what we do know. We are not risking emotional honesty for accuracy of time and space.
“Your hometown often provides so many knowns that the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns” (Hugo 12). If you have no emotional investment in the accuracy of your triggering subject, taking that you have for a moment put yourself somewhere else, your emotional investment can return in the words of the poem. For the very basic truth is that poems are made of words, and if those words carry a vulnerability and weight within them, then it is an accurate poem not weighed down by the poet’s search for accuracy of memory—the poem is then able to take flight into imagination, which could provide for an even more accurate emotional truth. Take this example, for clarification: “It is easy to turn the gas station attendant into a drunk. Back home it would have been difficult because he had a drinking problem” (Hugo 12). Back home you knew him, but somewhere else, you see him more clearly. What all this means to my evolution as a writer is that I could no longer sacrifice the words of a poem for what I remembered had actually happened. I must be able to sacrifice the Mitsubishi I once drove for the ease a Ford’s single syllable fits with the other harsh vowels of a poem, just as I must be able to silence the person in the backseat if the voice of only one person on a lonely highway gives the reader a clearer image of desertion. This doesn’t mean you are a liar or you aren’t giving your memory the chance it deserves to exist within a poem, it just means you are allowing your words to speak for the truth that memory can sometimes hinder.
What is also equally important to my evolution as a writer is a book I was given as an undergraduate student in my first-ever creative writing class, which I was only taking because I needed an art credit for my then-major in criminal justice. It is fascinating how important those early college classes are, because as we both can imagine, that class changed the course of my college career (I am not a cop.) Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a text that helped me realize my love for reading and writing I’ve had since grade school could be actualized into something I could study. What she also helped me realize is that you don’t just wake up and write a best-seller. Not everything, if anything, you write is gold. It is often trash, and how you sort through that trash is gently told to the reader in her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” which is something I still look back to when I’m feeling discouraged. What she also does in this book is call attention to a preoccupation young writers often have with getting published and signing agents, before they have the tools or mindset to first write the thing that might help them achieve that goal. Writing is an art like anything else, that requires time and practice, and with Lamott’s advice, that was something I was willing to take on, and still am.
In “Shitty First Drafts” she talks about a writer she knows who, every time he sits down to write, he tells himself (nicely), “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type, or kill yourself” (Lamott 22). This speaks to two extremes that so many writers feel: we must write, but when we can’t write, we feel like failures. There have been many times where I’ve stared at the computer screen for hours, moving only a comma. Does this count as writing? What I’ve come to realize through this book and what it’s taught me, is that yes, it does count as writing. If we are thinking about writing, and actively using the tools we’ve learned, and not expecting genius to come to us every time we attempt it, we are writing. Writing is a process, not an end-point. You don’t wake up one day and are suddenly a writer. You are a writer every day you try, even if it’s not the greatest thing anyone has read, or if it’s even good at all.
The “shitty first draft” is the “kid draft” that you must get through first. Lamott explains that you may find only one great sentence in a sea of six nonsensical pages, but once you get to that one sentence, you are closer to finding what it is you want to write about. Then, the next day, you fix it. The day after that, you fix that one. You cannot write without revision, but you cannot revise without writing that first draft. This book has taught me that being a writer is having the guts to make the first, blind leap into potential failure. And if you tread water long enough, you might surface with something great, and the next day, you try it again. You keep trying. One giant leap of faith for one great sentence or line of a poem.
A second, equally important essay in Bird by Bird is “Perfectionism” which is, as Lamott states, “…the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” I don’t know any writer who says their finished drafts are “perfect,” even if we believe everything we read by our favorite writer couldn’t be anything but that. When we abandon the need for perfection in our writing, we come closer to the more human qualities like humor and emotion that we might second guess in our revision process if we hold on to a “perfect” ideal. This is something I struggle with daily, because if I speak for all graduate students, I think we all have a certain level of neurosis to be the perfect student and write the perfect poem, story, or essay. The best writers are not perfect and they do not write the perfect thing. They take risks, write stories about terrible things and terrible people, and are not afraid to fail.
Early in my writing career, I was told by a poetry professor to keep a notebook to help with “the writing process.” I don’t remember exactly what she had told me to write in it, but for a while I carried a pretty, small notebook around with me, but wrote in it sparingly. A few years later in a nonfiction literature class, we read “On Keeping a Notebook” in Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which led me to start carrying a notebook again, or because iPhones are faster, I took notes on my phone. For a while, though, I seemed to miss the entire point of the essay. I would look back to notes as some kind of beacon of truth, a moment of inspiration I had in a time where I didn’t have a chance to write the poem down, but I was left feeling confused, and unimpressed with myself as I re-read them. Yet, the notebook’s purpose is for herself to remember a previous version of herself, and the details are secondary markers that lead to some kind of memory of feeling. What is the most poignant moment to describe this is when she writes, “…our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I”” (Didion 136). Every detail we remember keeps us at the center of it, no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from it. Our memories are biased through the filter that is our own brain and self. First and foremost, I can trust the things I remember, even if others may say that’s not what happened! because what matters is the emotional truth I do remember. The spider Didion remembers as a black widow was not a black widow, but the distinction does not matter. What matters is, “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point” (Didion 136).
These texts have all served a signposts that lead me to a different version of myself as a writer, hopefully, learning and growing in the process. Though I am, perhaps, an emotionally-centered writer, and remain interested in the purposes memory serve in writing, Hugo and Didion have helped me approach those inclinations in the most artful and direct way, never straying from the power a beautiful sentence can serve for a piece of writing, and first and foremost, to trust what you remember and how you approach it. Yet without Anne Lamott, I wouldn’t even know where to begin the process of sorting through the things that give me the knee-jerk reaction to write it down. These three writers, along with countless others, have helped me practice both the techniques and mental states I need to have and be in to write something.