Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Inner Compass: Avoiding Advice About Writing

When you write do you take anybody's advice about writing? Don't do it: nothing will so mix you up as advice. If a fellow wants to keep clear about himself he must first of all swear a big oath that he'll never take any advice.
—Walt Whitman, 19 April 1888; from Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden

At a certain point (a point I have reached as of a few months ago), you have to stop taking advice from other people about your own writing. At that point, you have to learn to trust your own craftsmanship—you are no longer an apprentice, but a journeyman—and to trust that your internalized craft will keep you honest. You also have to start to trust your internal compass, for lack of a better phrase, your intuition and instinct. You have to give up caring what other people think about your poetry, either before or after you write it.

If this is too scary, try it for a short period of time, then go back to asking for feedback from those you have trusted before. You might discover that your own objectivity and self-confidence have increased during the interim. You might also discover that you went down a blind alley for awhile. But you might also discover that while everybody else thinks you've gone down a blind alley, it's still an alley worth exploring, and until you're done exploring it, you need to keep traveling through.

Whitman's quote above speaks directly to the last stanza of Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken (1920):

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Many people quote those last three lines. Many others imagined they too have taken the road less traveled by—but have they really? How many have actually taken that road less traveled, compared to those that deceive themselves into imagining they have?

One way to tell that you have indeed taken that road is to reflect on how much resistance you have faced. The more artistic battles you have fought, the more resistance you have faced, the more likely you are to have stepped off the well-worn paths.

The vast majority of people are tribal in nature: they resist change, they enforce conformity to the known standards of conduct, and even when they pay lip service to growth and change and experimentation/evolution, they don't really mean it. The group, the tribe, is conservative by nature; they move much slowly than can the individual who has freed herself or himself from the group's influence. But the group doesn't like to give up its influence.

This is where the advice about writing that you get can mix you up. Whether you get it from a critique group, a writer's circle, your ill-matched thesis advisor, or your clueless best friend, if you take the advice you receive to heart, you can lose touch with your inner compass and get lost at see. Few things can send an artist into the rudderless doldrums than advice that misunderstands, even misrepresents, one's own art. If your self-confidence and self-esteem are not in place, watch out: you will find yourself spinning in circles after every advice you receive.

Trusting yourself, and your craftsmanship, is essential. Even if you only go off on your own for a few months, a year or two at most, when you return to the social network of artists who like to talk about their art-making, you will realize that you have changed. You will have realized that, somehow, you learned to trust yourself. I mean, to trust your intuition: about what to write about; about how to write about it; about how to revise it, prior to presenting it to the world.

Talking about writing is not writing. Writing remains a solitary activity, practiced in solitude. Even if you sit in a circle at a poetry workshop and all write together in silence, that silence is deep, eternal, and insulating. Solitary silence is essential: you must trust that silence, if you trust nothing else. There is no other way to hear the voice of intuition, and to learn to trust that voice in the face of all criticism is to practice self-confidence as an artist, and as a person.

Don't mistake me, here: I am not saying that all solitary artists are genuine artists. But I am saying that all genuine artists have experienced that solitude, that silence, have made friends with it, and inhabit it in their work. Too many writers are far too social, far too chatty, far too gossipy, and thus too dependent on the opinions of their peers. You need to let that all go, at some point, and stop taking everyone else's advice, and start listening to your own. That's the road less traveled.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

The thing is, and this is a problem many poets face, how do you know when your apprenticeship is complete? When I was young I was so full of myself that you'd already think I was some kind of grand master. The fact is that none of us every stop learning. And even in a small field like poetry there is much I have never attempted.

I suppose I've been lucky in the fact that I've spent my entire writing life in isolation. There was no one who knew enough to judge a poem by any higher standard than whether they liked it or not; to ask if they actually got the poem was taking things one step too far. Some poems got published, some did not. It didn't take long before I could see what worked, till I could be objective about my own work. Maybe then my apprenticeship came to an end.

I don't think being around other poets would have changed me terribly. I would likely have investigated styles which weren't really me – i.e. wandered down their roads less travelled – just to be sociable. I did correspond with a fellow who put an advert in a poetry magazine looking for like-minded souls. The letters didn't last too long but they were illuminating. He was a great fan of Ginsberg and sent me a copy of 'Howl' which I never finished because it was too long and waffled on about stuff I wasn't interest in. To this day I've still never read it all the way through.

6:15 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think learning is forever and continuous, we never stop. (Those who do stagnate.) There is always more to learn, even in arenas in which has a lot of experience.

But I also think that one does know at some point that one has become a journeyman, rather than an apprentice. Those who are very young in any craft who think they're no longer apprentices are almost always wrong, or premature, in their self-assessment. But those who have honestly done the the work of learning, and studying, and making, and now find themselves not learning much more from the venues they've been in for a long time—those are ready to go their journeyman pilgrimages. There does come a point when you know you're ready, or your mentors tell you you're ready. And that's when you take off for the open road, to keep learning, but in different and new places.

"Howl" is one of those modern poems one needs to read, to be fully versed in the possibilities of the art. One doesn't have to like the poem, or agree with any of it, but one needs to have known it. There's a lot of modern poetry I don't like, but I've read it. I don't voice opinions on things I haven't read, and I am a thorough researcher, even if I end up repudiating the topic I've been researching.

Reading lots of poetry, and many kinds of poetry, is still the best apprenticeship there is, and the best way to learn how to write poetry.

2:09 PM  

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