Process of Writing 5: Bumps and Drives
Finding myself having difficulty working at the moment. I got another part of a song for the new commission, lyrics if not full melody, this past weekend. I was driving down from the Twin Cities after a short visit, and got three verses of a song about living in the Midwest.
I might need to get out of here for awhile. It's become a pattern that I get my songs for the new commission most easily when I'm driving. Not listening to anything, just thinking about it, and the ideas come. If driving is what I need to do to be able to write, I'm going to make situations in which I can drive and write, even if I don't have anywhere in particular to be going towards.
I'm having medical issues that are getting in the way. I had minor surgery a couple of weeks ago, a cystoscopy to remove bladder stones, and I'm being slow to recover. Everything is taking longer to revert to normal; which is not a surprise, as my chronic illness constantly depletes my strength and immune system. I'm in a lot of pain this week, which is not really from the surgery, but is caused the cold damp weather making my joints ache, and my old injured shoulder and knee touchy and sore. That happens.
We're getting a lot of rain right now—the flowers in my garden are beginning to explode into their full beauty, and I enjoy checking them over every day. I'm not suited to a cold damp climate, so I'll never live in Scotland or the Pacific Northwest. Visit to see the beauty, but living there for a long time would destroy me. I'm a tropical boy. I should probably settle in a warmer dryer climate, eventually. Maybe go back to New Mexico someday. I'm rambling here, just thinking out loud. Don't take it seriously.
The medical issue is that I have to see the doctor about figuring out what painkillers work for me now. It's become very clear that morphine derivatives will no longer work for me. Even if they dull the pain, they give me severe nausea to the point of vomiting—which is highly counterproductive in the context of recovering from abdominal surgery of any kind. We need to work out what painkillers will work for me, and not cause me sever side-effects. I've always been very sensitive to medication, almost never needing the full dose usually given to most folks. And in some cases I've become allergic to specific pain medications. So what's left? I might be looking at a long process of painful recovery with little pain relief. That clouds the mind. It's hard to focus on writing music when you're in so much pain that you can't think clearly. It's distracting, to be say the least.
I've also discovered another issue that is interfering with the music writing: I am currently rehearsing for another choral concert, as well as writing new music, and the concert music that I am memorizing is interfering with the writing. This is completely unexpected. I'll work it out, although I don't know how just yet. I know from experience that I am memorizing songs for a concert when they start playing continuously in my mind: that's exactly how they sink in and get memorized. The problem is, that is beginning to interfere with writing new music. It's like being in a mall elevator and unable to escape the Muzak being played. It can drown out everything else. Even when it's good music, it can be overpowering. Such is the life of a VKA. Meanwhile, the music being memorized is playing in my head, and I can't easily "hear" the inner music out of which I am to be composing the new commission. I hope I can sort this out soon. It's worrying. On the other hand, being the worrying type, I suppose I'm making more of it than is really necessary. I'll work it out.
Writing while driving. I seem to write well when behind the wheel. Ideas come forward, and even if I need to pull over to write them down, they keep coming. If I have the strength, what I should do this next month is hit the road for three or four days. Drive off to Michigan, spend a couple of nights in a hotel. Drive around. Keep the notebooks open on the seat next to me. Have lunch in a state park somewhere, and write down the day's musical or lyrical catch. That process seems to work. I knew that I was a nomadic person, but I didn't realize that writing was such a nomadic process, even for me. I suppose if I were living a century ago, I'd be on horse-back or camel-back, heading nowhere in particular, writing as I rode.
Meantime, my studio computer has been repaired and seems to be working brilliantly at the moment. No more unexplained weird behaviors, so far. It's been a full year since I got anything of any significance done in the studio, since every time I booted up I spent most of my time fighting the computer instead of being productive. This week I am recovering music projects that had been lost (meaning inaccessible) on old hard drives for awhile. There was one old drive that had most of my current recorded music and DVD projects on it; the drive had gone south; now I am slowly copying off most of the old projects onto a new drive, now that the computer is working. Because the old drive is so messed up, it's taking days to copy project folders over, one at a time; a process that should have taken only hours. All I care about is the data, though; when I've recovered the data, the old drive can be a doorstop for all I care. It will be good to have recovered all these old music recording projects, and be able at last to finish them.
This will definitely give me something to do while I'm recovering from the major surgery still to come this summer. I'm not nearly finished with this medical saga: yet creative work is often the only thing that keeps me going. That gives me a reason to endure, to persevere, to keep going. Quality of life is low, except for whatever creative work I can keep doing even while feeling like crap.
It can be frustrating. It can also be annoying. So what do you do? You just have to keep going. Endure. Persevere. Even if there doesn't ever seem to be an end to it, you just keep going. No other purpose, really. I once read an interview with a famous film director from Canada, who was asked what was the meaning of life; he replied: "Do the next thing." That's good enough, for me, for now.
Later: Another note about writing in general, articulated for me by a fresh experience:
In my current situation, with my current level of available energy, there are only two priorities in my life—everything else is either on a secondary level, or on hold—my immanent medical situation, involving surgery and recovery, and hopefully regaining the health and strength that I've lost in recent years; and writing this new music commission. Nothing else really matters. Well, some things matter, but they can take care of themselves, for the most part, without my attention or energy. I pay the bills I need to pay, I deal with the daily preparations for medical stuff, and I work daily on the music. Nothing else is as important. My closest friends know this, as we've talked about it together; and they understand if I don't have the time or energy to be very social right now.
Nonetheless, I tried an experiment. I went back to one of those online poetry critique boards that I used to participate in, a place I hadn't visited in literally three years. (Which in Internet time is like a lifetime or two.) I said hello to the old friends still there, and to a couple of new participants I don't know at all. I did the usual thing, post several critiques of other poems before posting one of my own.
Then I posted one of my newer poems, one from the Letters series, and all hell broke loose. It got called a not-poem: something I'm actually used to. It got taken to task for its style, its structure, its contents, and I got taken to task for calling people on their prejudices. That is, for insisting on honest dislike over covert or veiled dismissal: feel free to hate this poem, but don't rip it to shreds for the wrong reasons. It was an interesting reminder of the past. Of why I left such forums some time ago.
Most of the criticisms reduce to the essential: This isn't what I think poetry is. This isn't what I do. Why can't you write more like I do? With only a couple of exceptions, that was the gist. No attempt to meet the poem on its own terms. No attempt to meet the poet about what the poem was trying to do. Have people become so insular, so incestuous, that they cannot see past their own habits? Cannot see where the lines are dissolving, and the strict categorizations don't work anymore?
I grant that I was dismissive of their dismissiveness, which I perceived as supercilious and completely beside the point. Is this not a venue to critique the writing for the sake of improving it? I grant that I took things personally for awhile—with every right to do so, I believe, when no comment was made about the poem but I was called names before there was even any discussion of why the poem might be the way it was.
But then, I saw some very similar attacks being made towards the prose-poems being presented by one of the other long-term poets on that site: the person who I most wanted to interact with again, whose writings are so memorable and powerful, to me, that I will seek them out. Whose writings have been turning me on, artistically, for years. Yes, we have some things in common in our writing: chief among them a growing lack of interest in the definitional walls between "prose" and "poetry," and a desire to explore how to move between modes (say, journalistic and lyrical) within a single piece of writing. I don't take the attacks on my current writing so personally, after all, because I see that some of the aesthetic prejudices on display are universal: directed towards all rule-breakers equally. Not just me, in other words.
Then there was one person who made the comment, which I thought was almost telepathic in its perceptiveness and insight: Admire the in-between-ness. Can't nail down a style. There's a certain level a poet reaches where the workshop becomes superfluous, you're there, but man I appreciate your voice and prescence here. After everything else, that really made my day. That really gets at the root of it. Not only can I also not nail down a style for these newer poems, I don't want to. I think it's irrelevant. (And I can, if necessary, cite my poetic precedents for this direction in writing. it's not completely alien, nor is it entirely new.)
As for reaching a certain level where workshopping poems becomes superfluous, I don't claim to have reached that level. Yet I don't find the workshop environment particularly useful anymore, still. I'm still not getting any useful critique—which was one reason I vacated the premises, those years ago. (That, and the interpersonal bullshit.)
So I seem to be still following my inner compass for now. It's not that I reject critique—although I do feel it acceptable to reject "critiques" that aren't based on meeting the poem on its own terms, but are de facto attacks on the poetic aesthetic itself. I would love to find a small group of mutually honest poets who would do just that: meet each poem on its own terms. I had that once; but that group has long since imploded. The bottom line is, if you're not getting useful critique from your workshop, what incentive is there to participate? (As I implied above, things that waste your time are not priority one. Not when you're dealing simultaneously with a commission and an illness.)
I'm not arrogant enough to believe that all workshops are superfluous for me. However, the proof is in what you get out of it. If the workshop is not directly assisting you in improving your writing, ignoring all other factors, you're wasting your time. I'm not arrogant enough to believe that my time is more valuable than anyone else's—yet I am self-confident enough in my own creative work to believe that my time and work are as valuable as anyone else's.
No doubt some will call any honest self-assessment of one's own creative abilities arrogant, if that assessment is not pathologically self-effacing—because "arrogant" is a word people use to shame others into cooperation. It's the same as with "should"— a word designed to coerce others into doing what you think they ought to do, act how you think they ought to act. What I do have at this time in my life, if I am indeed "arrogant," is a very clear sense of my own priorities. Pleasing others just to please them is no longer priority one—and, thanks to the lessons I have learned from this chronic illness, never will be again.
How does any of this affect my commission writing?
First, as I said above, there are only two high-priority things in life for me, for the foreseeable future: Working on the new music commission, and dealing with my health issues. Period.
Second, I take this fresh experience with workshops as a reminder to—well, not exactly keep my distance, but—invest very little time therein. A certain level of detachment. A certain distance. Checking in, and participating, certainly, but not that often, and only to the limit of my interest. Keep it minimal. Don't spend much energy on it. It will probably be there, still, a year from now, when both the current commission and the current medical crisis will have theoretically been resolved.
And that's more than enough to deal with. I am content to do just that.