What's Your Best Writing? (and Why Haven't We Heard About It?)
I was reading something last week that mentioned (partly in jest) how all poets really want to write brilliant poems. Even though this was mentioned as an aside I still think there is a lot of truth in it and that it's a topic we don't talk about much (well, I've looked at lots of poets' blogs in the past year, for example, and I haven't seen much mention of it...everyone's very cautious, very modest, very lighthearted...about their own poetry...on the surface at least). There is lots of recommending other writers, lots of talk about how we work, about how we feel about magazines or criticism or publishing...but there's very little mention of whether any of us might ever think that anything we write might ever be any good. It's a bit of a...great unsaid. Don't you think?
Then she poses the question as such:
So my question is this...and it's a bit of a painful one...what is the best bit of writing you've done so far? What is the closest you've come to a great poem or any other type of great writing? It might be a simple poem, it might be a weighty novel...but I don't want modesty...I want truth! What is the best you have done so far (in your own opinion)? And what more are you capable of?
Before I answer this question for myself, I want to consider the question itself, and why I think it's such a very important one. It's a necessary exercise for creative workers at any point in their career to ask themselves these questions, and they are good questions to return to regularly as part of an honest self-assessment.
Setting aside many cultural and social factors for personal reticence—most of which reduce to our birth-tribe telling us not to stand out and not to brag about ourselves, no matter what—there remains the issue of the writer's personal self-esteem, and behind that, the issue of accurate self-assessment.
All too often, we tend to think that an honest self-assessment equates to a negative one: that confession means telling our dark and dirty secrets (most of which are small things, except in our own minds), and admitting our shame. This is so embedded in our culture that it doesn't even get noticed most of the time. (I'm not going to get into a deep analysis of it at the moment; suffice to say this cultural attitude first became dominant many centuries ago, on the heels of the invention of the doctrine of original sin, and its companion doctrine of fall-and-redemption. Neither of which are strictly Biblical, one might add.) This message, that truth means something bad, is reinforced throughout our lives in all our public venues, ranging from the fearmongering news media to so-called confessional poetry, which is not so subtly modeled on the religious and psychological models of confession and penance.
We tend to put ourselves down and beat ourselves up before anyone else can. We're very good at it. But it's a learned skill, not an innate one. It's a self-defense mechanism we learned as the tribe repeatedly told us to keep in our places during all our young years; a learned defense mechanism that may no longer serve us, and which can therefore be set aside. At some point, these defense mechanisms, which we acquired or invented in order to keep ourselves from harm when we were young, must be set aside, must be let go of, that we might live free now.
The more I contemplate the issue, the more I believe that healthy self-esteem lies at the root of it: or rather, a lack of healthy self-esteem. Our birth-tribes not only tell us not to stick out too much, they also tell us that creativity is a luxury, a "leisure activity" that one should only do during one's copious free time—of course, there never is any free time in this accelerating technocratic world, so why are you artists wasting your (meaning, their) time just sitting there staring into space? As artists compelled to make art, to do something that to us is sometimes more important than food, our self-esteem is under constant attack by the culture that surrounds us, just as our art itself is under constant dismissal. It takes all our energy, some mornings, to want to make art; but we all know miserable we become if we give in to the pressure and set it aside, to languish undone. That way lies the archetypal life of quiet desperation. it's no wonder so many writers suffer from poor self-esteem. (Not to mention its mirror-twin, the unhealthy inflation of personality-ego. Some of the most arrogant pricks I've met in artistic circles are just fragile little children inside who puff themselves up to overcompensate for their miniscule self-esteem.)
Here's a bit of autobiographical truth, as a case study:
I was picked on and beat up regularly by bullies throughout my young school years. In hindsight I can say that I was an irresistible target: smarter than most, a redhead who wore glasses and was kind of geeky, kind of a different and soft kid who didn't like to fight, or fight back. (The reason I didn't like to fight back was because I knew that deep in me was a volcanic rage so powerful and explosive that if I ever let it out, I wouldn't just beat up the bullies in return, I would fraking kill them. My biggest fear was of my own inner power, in those days.) I was an easy target, and so it went on for several years. (I learned only as an adult how upset and helpless my parents felt during that time.)
My defense mechanism was that I learned to become invisible. I learned to hide my light under a bushel, and to pretend to be normal and ordinary and ignorable. I learned to suppress who I was, in all ways, to avoid notice. I raised my hand less in class—which was hard, because learning is fun—and even though my grades continued to be good, I was always cautious about revealing those parts of myself that people might not like or approve of. I learned to hide: to redact myself in the presence of others. The times when I could just relax and be myself became fewer and farther between, as I learned to hate the fact that I was often the smartest person in the room.
There were two problems that resulted from this long learning. The first problem was, hiding never worked. I still stood out from the pack. I couldn't help it: I am "different." A moment of enthusiasm and it would all flash out, oops. And I've never been very patient with wrongness, even as a kid. I've often been unable to restrain myself from speaking up against social injustice, malicious hurting, or hatred. The first time I ever joined an activist group—it was an environmental group trying to save a nature preserve, some woods I dearly loved as I walked through them to school almost every day—I was 11 years old. I've frequently gotten into trouble in school and in the workforce because there were some ways in which I just was unable to compromise my soul and shut up in the face of what I knew to be indelibly, permanently wrong. I've always trusted my inner moral compass more than the voice of authority, or the banal truths of received wisdom. This is a lesson many bullied kids learn: authority is often stupid and ineffectual and not to be trusted. (Along these same lines, I ceased accepting at face value most of what they told us in church by the time I was 13.)
The second problem was, hiding worked only too well. In my own eyes, I diminished myself to the point of invisibility. I hid in plain sight for years. I squashed my personal ambition under the heel of wanting everybody to like me, so they wouldn't hurt me anymore. I made less of myself than I could be, and I passed up a probable career as a gifted child because I wanted to be ordinary. (Not narrative hyperbole: fact.) I equated being ordinary with being loved. Too bad that never worked, either.
in fact, I just got more and more dissatisfied and frustrated with the world, as time went by. I was doing what I should be doing to stay safe, so why weren't my defense mechanisms working the way they were supposed to be working? Letting out the frustration and anger about all this out became a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that the inner volcano did become too powerful, because of all the feelings I'd stuffed down in there over the years. When I first started letting it all back out again—for the sake of my soul and health—it was pretty disturbing to be around. It took a long time for the back-pressure to get below the threshold of cold rage, to the point where I could (learn to) just be angry then let it go. So that now, when I get fraking pissed off, it lasts a short while, then is gone and done with. I'm certainly still capable of harboring a smoldering rage, but I've become a lot more consciously aware of my patterns and tendencies, and therefore much more capable of managing them appropriately.
Overcoming all of this has been a long process of unlearning. I'm only now beginning to take my light out from under the bushel, and be comfortable with the fact that I often am the smartest person in the room, even if I don't want to be. (I actually enjoy it when I'm not!) I still catch myself trying to become invisible when I find myself in an uncomfortable situation. But I do it a lot less. I give myself credit for having already overcome a lot of this, even if there will always be more work to do.
I've also taken what I've learned about becoming invisible and converted it into a positive skill. If you think you can find me when I don't want to be found, think again. Especially out in my beloved woods. (By the way, those woods we defended when I signed up as a boy activist are still there.) As a result, I'm a good stealth photographer, and a very good observer of my fellow humans. Lots of times people don't even notice me, if I don't want to be noticed, and I can learn a tremendous about them just by observation.
So, an honest self-assessment must also include our positive aspects: our strengths as well as our weaknesses; our good deeds as well our bad; our contributions to making the world a finer place, our victories (and our valiant defeats) against entropy. To be healthy, you must give yourself the occasional pat on the back.
I think it's important to make a distinction between self-promotion or bragging, and self-confidence. If you don't have any self-confidence about the merits of your own writing, you're doomed to always need the approval of others. You balance that against watching yourself against ego-inflation. Honest self-assessment is a learned skill.
There is also a necessary distinction that must be made between humility and humiliation. An artist needs humility in order to contact anything greater than oneself that can serve as inspiration and guide. What we are afraid of is being humiliated: made small, reduced in self-esteem, taken down a peg or two, shown to be weak and ineffective. Humiliation is a blow to the ego (which can also lead to over-inflation by way of compensation). But humility is a state of being (note that I do not say state of mind; you cannot think your way out of this one) that is open to possibility, that allows for letting go of control so that something greater than ourselves can step in. Being humble, we know that there is more to ourselves than only what we know, and that we can contact it; that path follows the Muses, it is their source and origin. Being humble we still know that we can do good in the world, and be true—be true to both the world, and to ourselves.
As we said, too often people think that honesty means only negativity. It also means being honest about what you're good at. So Rachel's question is a good prompt for reflection, and for becoming aware of one's own strengths.
I can say with self-confidence that I've written numerous poems I'm pleased with and proud of: they were the best I could make at the times they were made. Whether or not they will stand the test of time isn't really up to me, so I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. Rather, I choose to spend my energies on making the next piece the very best that I can do, and to continue to evolve and improve as an artist, writer, composer, and photographer. My two favorite four-letter words in all my creative work, not just in poetry, are DONE and NEXT.
Somebody once asked a Canadian filmmaker known for his innovative and experimental work what the secret of his creative process was; he gave the interviewer a look as though it was the most obvious thing in the world and answered, "Do the next thing." Doing the next thing, no matter what it is, is salvation.
This too I learned from being bullied: keep going, no matter what. Do the next thing. You learn about endurance, and you learn to invent creative applications of avoidance. To avoid the bullies, I learned to vary my route home after school, and that was when I had my first profound encounters with the natural world, off the beaten track. So being bullied was torture, but it also gave me enduring gifts.
I've written a few dozen haiku (out of hundreds) that I think can stand up to the criteria and spirit that the masters said to strive for in one's haiku. I believe that the poems here and here and here are among the best poems I've ever written. I have a series of poems I wrote in the mid-1980s that I later collected into a chapbook that I remain fond of; perhaps it's just that I've lived with these poems so long that I've become used to them, and who knows if they're any good. They certainly tapped into something that's stayed with me all this time.
I find myself completely starting over now, though, after some major life-changing experiences, and I find that it also changes my art. You learn a lot about yourself in those circumstances, and when you take it back into your creativity, you realize that you can drop every single mask you used to think you had to wear, mostly to please other people, and just be true to yourself. It's also a process of discovering who that self is, because you don't know any more. You've changed, so has the world, and you're both re-inventing and discovering yourself and your process.
So what I'm writing now is often surprising even to me, and I have no clue if it's any good. I find that I care much less than I used to; the doing is what matters. Some of these newer poems have received simultaneous extreme responses, positive and negative. That tells me two things: to trust my own instincts, my own inner compass, at least for now; and, I must be doing something right, to have simultaneously pissed off and pleased so many people. So at least these newer poems have some kind of energy to them.