Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Why Do You Write the Way You Write?

Lots of writers ask me why I write the way I do. Especially poets. There is an assumption behind the question: that writing is an act of will, or of self-expression, or of conscious activity. I dispute this assumption.

Why do I write the way I do? Because when I listen to the trees, the wind, the waters, the sky, the trees, the dancing fire pit, that's what I hear. I listen. I pay attention, and what I write is what I experience, and is my response to that experience.

I learned that from Matsuo Basho, the haiku master. I also learned that from Pauline Oliveros and John Cage and Morton Feldman, who each in their own way created musical situations in which listening was paramount. Oliveros took this to the point of almost sacred intensity. Interaction with the environment, by listening and responding, is central. Oliveros called it deep listening. Cage called it paying attention to the sounds of the environment. Feldman called it forth by playing his music always very softly.

I feel like the assumption behind the question, why do I write the way I do, is ultimately about ego. It's about wanting to fit a key into a lock and have a pat explanation. I feel like it's about control, in the end. In the days of social media, it's hard not to feel like it's also about narcissism, and self-empowerment, and self-expression, and emotional process work, and placing the individual personality foremost in the field of being.

This unspoken assumption about why writers write, perhaps especially poets, also leads me to be often asked about my writing habits. We have two generations of poetry workshops and MFA writing programs, now, which if you've been paying attention has led to an over-emphasis on craft. Why? Because you can't teach anything but craft; you can't teach heart, the writer has to have that, or develop that, on their own. When people ask me about my writing habits, I am alert to their quick judgments about how my habits differ from their own. According to one poet I knew, I have no discipline, because I write when listening calls me to write, not for an hour or two every morning, like a newspaper opinion editor. I don't write every day. I write when what I hear calls me to write; which takes me back to deep listening.

All of this puts me in a secondary stream to what poetry publishing is now. It puts me in a lineage of meditator-poets, nature-engagin artists, listening composers, writers whose work is based on observation and listening rather than milling their personal biographies for grist. Maybe that's why I rarely get published in the mainstream. There's not enough "I" in my poems, perhaps. I do not claim to be a great poet, or even a good one; but I *know* that some rejections from some quarters are due to the unfashionability of the way I write. Which is another assumption behind the question, that I also dispute.

Well, some of that is indeed about finding your niche, fitting a key into another lock. But some of that is not: it's about making an egoless art, rather than an art that projects personality-ego.

Egoless art is VERY unfashionable lately. Don't kid yourself into thinking that art isn't subject to fashions.

I don't know where my poems fit in; honestly, I haven't been trying very hard to find or create a niche. It is, or it is not. I do feel deeply connected to a lineage of writers, though; not just influences but kindred spirits. I certainly have the same small amount of ambition and ego as any artist, in wanting my work to be heard, seen, read by others. Another favorite poet of listening and response, Odysseas Elytis, once said, "Every poet needs an audience of three, and since every poet has two good friends, the search is for that elusive third." The poetry written the way I write has always had the two, and is always searching for the third. So, there is a stream of this kind of poetry, and there are many who do it. Perhaps they are content to be far outside the mainstream, and just keep listening.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I’d never really thought of saying it that way but it does express what I do, what I’m doing constantly, listening. I am, of course, listening to myself. I long lost any belief in the mystical or spiritual but not in the unknown. There’s a difference being told something and coming to know it. I’ve a head full of knowledge but most of it’s never been properly processed and part of the problem there is the sheer volume; every day I’m encountering such a vast amount of data. I kind of miss the seventies when I had time to think. I think that’s why I’m writing so little at the moment. Nothing’s ready to be regurgitated. It’s a horrible image to conjure with but what I mean by that is I’m waiting on the significant words coming back to me with the message attached: Here, these are the ones you need to think about some more. As far as your post goes you’re preaching to the choir. It always annoys me when people insist that there’s only one right way to do things. Yes, there may well be more efficient ways, cleaner, slicker, but if you’re not comfortable with them why force yourself to do something that’s unnatural if your way works? Some authors can just churn the stuff out and it’s decent enough stuff and good for them and, yes, I’d love to be able to produce more but writing for the sake of writing was never me and never will be.

7:25 AM  

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