Why Good Writing Begins and Ends in Poetry

About 15 years ago, as I worked on the final stages of my dissertation, I often got stuck (as people working on dissertations tend to). Sometimes days would pass without my producing anything. But eventually, I would remember my foolproof method for getting unstuck: reading and writing poetry.

Let me note for clarification that poetry had nothing to do with my dissertation subject. I wrote a very social-sciency study of students in a freshman composition class. From a semester of observing, reading papers, and interviewing students, I crafted a set of case studies trying to explain why some of the students gained more than others. My final product reads way more like anthropology than it does like Nikki Giovanni.

Nevertheless, I turned to poetry while I wrote, as I have turned to it many times before and since. And wherever I see brilliance in writing, I find elements of the poetic. From the Preamble to the Constitution to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, from Dashiell Hammett to Lorraine Hansberry, from Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting to a Chris Rock monologue, where language engages and moves, entertains and enlightens, poetry is at work.

These days, we ghettoize poetry as the realm of emotional expression; poets, according to that thinking, are rarified “artists” who create through inspiration or some inscrutable gift. Poetry is a dense and tangled garden in which the creative hide “themes” and “symbols.” Or we denigrate poetry as “flowery,” forgetting that without flowering plants, much of the food we eat would not exist.

But ultimately poetry turns on precise language. And using language precisely means employing all of the facets of words, not only their literal or denotative meaning but also a word’s history, its connotations, its sound, and all the other associations it evokes. Whenever a writer concerns herself with how the reader will respond to the words themselves—that is, with aesthetics—she has entered the realm of the poetic.

For much of history and around the world, poetry served as the dominant genre, and not just in texts we would now call “literary.” Historians, politicians, educators, theologians, and cultural critics of every stripe and in every culture have used poems to argue, to advocate, to persuade, to philosophize, to rouse people to action. Even today, much of the multi-billion dollar industry of advertising used poetic strategies and techniques, if not outright poetic forms.

In fact, I believe that the false (and common) separation of the practical and the aesthetic (rhetoric from poetry, art from science, art from technology) constitutes one of the greatest disasters in human history. It has meant that we devise “things” (a machine, a policy, a law, a building, a system) to do something without considering how we (people, living things, our environment) will experience what’s being created or devised.

This was, ultimately, the brilliance of someone like Steve Jobs—like him or not. He relentlessly, obsessively considered how the users of his technological products would experience them, not just in terms of ease but in terms of engagement. He didn’t simply ask, “Does it work?” He also asked, “What kind of relationship with the user will it foster?” He thought poetically. The writing that I admire most does the same thing. It creates an engaging experience with the reader. It creates a relationship between the reader and the text that generates attention and trust.

For that reason, to this day, when my writing well runs dry, I turn to poetry. As in the days of my dissertation, I find that when I struggle to bring a stubborn concept to the surface, casting it in poetry and letting in sound and rhythm helps me clarify what I really mean. Or I open a book by one of my favorite poets (Dickinson, Shakespeare, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, C.P. Kavafy) and remember that language is much more flexible and expansive than I’m allowing myself to be.

I’m not trying to create great poems; I’m simply returning to the poetic heart of all good writing.

Where I’m writing from

This is my (until this point) secret: Almost every time I contemplate writing, I feel afraid. Thoughts of sitting down to write pass through my brain, and on what I can only describe as the muscular level, I find myself avoiding pen, paper, notebook, word processing program, typewriter, pencil, notecard, tape recorder (I once bought a voice-activated one in case I was driving and any ideas came to me), and any other implement or device for putting words next to one another. I don’t know how many other writers, or would-be writers, experience fear when they contemplate putting down words; mine took up residence with me and shows no signs of leaving.

Sometimes my fear takes the form of boredom; at other times it arrives in the guise of restlessness and jerky energy. My fear has presented itself as depression, lust, fatigue, indecision, a need to exercise, a need to clean or cook or read or look up long lost friends or watch episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent that I have seen so many times I know the plot as soon as I see who’s going to discover the body. My fear has demanded that I do more research, that I review the research I’ve done, that I give up because no research exists, that I organize the research I might do. It has asked that I prepare myself spiritually, meditate, pray, stretch, or read a portion of sacred text from a smorgasbord of religious traditions (and some secular ones). It has driven me to plan, to abandon all planning and wait for inspiration, and to give up the very idea that I might ever become a writer of any kind and embark on a career in customer service.

Now, here’s the part where I’m supposed to launch into the requisite attack on fear. Here’s where I tell you how I’ve overcome and triumphed in spite of fear’s tenaciousness, how I’ve learned to find a way out of the dark cloud or fog or some other metaphorical representation of obscurity and into the bright light of hope and courage and fearlessness so that I can now spin words endlessly from my lion’s heart. But that’s not my story.

Neither will I tell you how grateful I am for the presence of fear in my life. I’m not going to say (though I considered the idea) that fear has helped make me the writer that I am—though that may be true—and that since its part in my journey has been essential, I cannot celebrate my identity without celebrating the fear too. I won’t say that not because it isn’t true but because it isn’t what I really feel.

Here’s the truth: More often than not, fear has beaten me. More often than not, I’ve walked away from the page because my head was crowded with the possibilities of my failure—again—as a writer, because I could picture readers (partner, children, family, friends, former professors, former colleagues, other writers, agents, publishers, critics, scholars, intellectuals, bookstore and library patrons, people who speak languages besides English reading my work in translation) rejecting my weak, regurgitated ideas, my trite phrasing, my convoluted syntax (see above), my incoherent structure. More often than not, I’ve considered the possibility that my failing was inevitable and that furthermore when I failed, no one out there would even really care.

But here’s the good part: I’ve figured out that none of that really matters. The odds of my success or failure in writing making a substantial difference to anyone but me are quite low. Which means that I have nothing to prove, no one to win over, no one to disappoint. I have only myself and this discipline of writing that I have taken on for reasons which remain unclear to me. I have only this space to step into and explore, this universe of possibility to absolutely bugger up or absolutely knock out of the ballpark or—more likely—wander about in and clarify in some miniscule way meaningful only to myself. But that’s reason enough to try.

So rather than a foolproof method for understanding writing and guaranteeing success in whatever situation at whatever time, the romance with language that I discuss here should probably be read more like the diary of a would-be lover trying his damnedest to figure out what his relationship is actually about, how to maintain it, and why it’s worth the trouble. It’s my way of trying to accept the fear (and other neuroses), stay sane, and actually keep writing. Wish me luck.

The Practice of Romancing Language: Habits of Courtship

For all our dreamy imaginings, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other about destiny and desire and what is meant to be, both writing and romance are practical arts that find their life in action. And thank goodness for that, because it means that my attitudes and practices have much more to do with the course of my life than would otherwise be the case. But in both of these realms, magical thinking permeates our popular perceptions of what makes them work. Would-be writers try to think or inspire their way to good texts; would-be friends and partners wait for the right person to come along, someone who will understand them intuitively, like what they like, hate what they hate—someone who will somehow “click.”

In some times and some cultures, what we might call romance takes the form of courtship—actions that lay what that culture considers the proper groundwork for an good relationship. Of course, that proper groundwork varies from group to group. It mean demonstrating potential wealth; it could mean having a certain name or reputation. Sometimes it means having the right values or character. Of course, sometimes it’s also meant a way to control and repress whole groups of people, especially women. And for that, among other, reasons, the language of courtship seems to have been set aside in our own time and place.

But whatever we call it, I recognize that both writing and romance are ongoing relationships, not a single, discreet decision. Romance doesn’t end when people commit themselves to one another, and writing doesn’t end when a string of inspired words land on the page or computer screen. I have to feed my writing life with ongoing attitudes of openness and discipline, and those attitudes manifest themselves in deliberately chosen acts—what I like to think of as acts of courtship. My writing process has six of them:

I attend: In a relationship, we try to learn more about the other, and I approach writing in the same way. I attend to language by reading, listening, noting how people use words and how I and others respond to those uses. I also try to notice how I  use words, both when my writing succeeds and when it fails.

I interact: I interact whenever I’m drafting—putting down words that I hope to use in a piece. This may seem an obvious activity for a writer, but I’ve seen students try to think their way through their writing, focusing on ideas but refusing to put down words until the piece is “perfect” in their heads. But doing this only makes my drafting harder and my revision and my revision agonizing. Who wants to change what he’s taken that much time just to get down?

I set intentions: At some point in any relationship, I need to have “the talk.” Who are we to one another? What do we expect? Are we on the same page about what’s going on? Some people, and some writers, like to “go with the flow,” as do I. But I’ve never brought a piece to completion without making some conscious decisions explicitly defining my task. I rarely do it first, but I always do it.

I play: The most underrated act of courtship, especially when it comes to writing, play happens when I interact and experiment with language, not for some larger purpose or set outcome but just to see what emerges and for the pure pleasure of the sight and sound and sensation of it. Sometimes I use these bits of play; sometimes I discard them. But it reminds why I love writing, and that however much I think I know about language, it holds surprises for me.

I reconsider: Whatever intentions I have for a  piece of writing—for the content or diction or syntactic style or structure—I always take time to reconsider them once I’ve drafted. In any relationship, I need to think about how to improve it, about whether we’re going as we hoped we’d go and whether that’s bringing us satisfaction. I might abandon a piece as a result, or set it aside for a while. I might radically change the genre or subject or point of view. I might confirm the choices I made when I set my intentions. But whatever happens, reconsidering keeps me from charging blindly ahead just because I said I would, and it makes responding to obstacles less intimidating.

I shape: When I play in writing, I manipulate words and sentences and ideas and structures just to see what happens, not for any specific purpose or outcome. But when I shape my writing, I manipulate those same elements so that I can achieve the intentions I’ve set for myself. Often in the course of drafting, I drift off on tangents or put concepts or events in a confusing sequence. My sentences often get away from me and from what I want them to do. When I shape my writing, I try to align what I put on the page with my intentions so that I create the experience I aimed for.

So those are the writing habits I try to cultivate and maintain. I want to talk more in later posts about how I do that. What are your writing acts or habits?