When I first became “serious” about writing poetry, I was all about being pastoral. I found beauty in nature, its simplicity inspired me and there was always plenty of opportunity to use it in various, non-complex ways. I began as the nerdy girl in the front of class, pretending I was taking notes while actually writing bland love poems about my crush du jour (and they were bad). It took years to move beyond my permanently unrequited loves and move towards subjects outside of myself. To write a poem about a tree or a pond became a major event, because it wasn’t about me. The irony is that I began to become uncomfortable talking about myself at all. I would sit in undergrad poetry workshops with poems about vocabulary, nature, you-name-it. Very rarely did I write about myself, and when I did, it was so bogged down with image and diction that I became a secondary focus, the language was what I wanted people to see.
Flash forward to now, as I sit in the midst of a fantastic graduate program at the University of Nebraska studying for my MFA in writing (my focus is poetry, of course). Every semester, the students are paired with different mentors. These educators are not your typical profs; they are writers, publishers, editors, basically everything a writer wants to be when they “grow up.” Yes, they teach at other programs, and are fantastic, but what sets them apart for those of us in the program, is that they truly care about what we want to write, what we want to study. One girl in my program is the sweetest thing you’ll ever meet, but her dark writing literally gives me nightmares, she is that damned good! Her mentors will steer her towards the dark, grotesque-yet-eloquent writers that best exemplify the writing she wants to produce. Last semester, I wanted to work on developing a feminist voice and examine race, class, sex/gender roles; I read Ai, Plath, Rich, Lorde, an anthology called Gurlesque, and about twenty poets I had never heard of. It was fantastic. I evolved. I became comfortable with these subjects I wasn’t totally sure I was qualified to write about as a white, heterosexual, married woman with five kids. But I did it.
So what do I want to write about now? My rage. My. Rage. There are writers out there who have made entire careers based on their personal lives. My concern is that I am not entirely comfortable writing about the dark places, and I am so scared of any writing that does come from those places will be too maudlin or, worse, too “flowery.” But I still want to do it. Why? Because no writer truly writes for him/herself, no matter what they say. They always want someone to read their work and connect to it, react to it, feel something. Like my dark friend, the fact that her work gave me nightmares is somewhat of a compliment because she knows that it stuck with someone. So how do I connect when I’m not even sure of what to say?
Here is what I know: there are poets and prose writers (prosets?) that have gone before me. There will be some Etheridge Knight, some Anne Sexton, Plath of course, Sharon Olds and others on my list that have explored/expressed anger in different ways. This is a good place to start, always find someone who’s doing what you want to do.
Second? I’m going to write crap. I believe it was Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird that recommends writing “shitty first drafts.” Now that is not to say that one shouldn’t even attempt to write something good before writing something awful, but that one should feel comfortable with imperfection. Remember this: no one will read your work until you deem it ready to be read. Take all the time you need to revise and make it into what you want it to be, but don’t be worried if it comes out like, well, shit, the first few times.
After that, I’ll cull some of my favorite parts and play around with them. At a lecture during my most recent MFA residency, Natalie Diaz presented a marvelous new technique: IEDs, Image Explosive Devices. These little sweethearts break apart that simple image you have, say, an apple, and blow it up into millions of pieces. Identify all of the things an apple is, all of the things it is not. What is the space it occupies, the space it does not occupy? From three pages of exploring everything you can about this one image, you can retrieve one or two amazing things about it that are completely new. When working with what scares you, a little explosion is always warranted, if only to pick it apart so much that it becomes almost meaningless, like saying “egg” over and over—after the 40th time, does it even seem like a word anymore? Will this ghost that you’ve built up and given power to still be imposing when you’ve stripped it naked and dissected the corpse it came from? Maybe, maybe not. But there will be some amount of triumph and pride that you got through it.
Another idea to try is the extended metaphor. Write a poem (or story) that has seemingly nothing to do with the thing you are actually writing about. For instance, me being my pastoral self, I wrote a poem about a tree in a forest being overshadowed by a taller tree, shaking beneath it in storms, but never getting the light or water it needed to flourish and basically allowing the other tree to have all the power. It wasn’t about a frickin’ tree. It was about an abusive relationship where someone simply shrinks away and allows it to happen. Only one girl in my workshop got it. But she got it. That’s the person you’re ultimately aiming for, but if you’re scared to address something, do it by using a veil. Eventually, you’ll be comfortable enough to write the next “Daddy” (Sylvia Plath, I do love you so, no matter how cliché our love affair may be). You can’t get to the “Screw you/it/this/him/her/all of it,” without first clearing your throat a few times and mustering up the courage. Extended metaphor is a great thing to try for doing just that.
Finally, don’t be afraid to be funny. Remember that old adage, “If you’re scared to go on stage, just imagine the audience in their underwear?” While odd, and, depending on the audience, disturbing, it has a grain of truth to it. How often do we try to find the humor in the most serious things? At funerals, people tell happy stories about the dearly departed because they want to lighten the mood. It doesn’t cheapen their mourning, but provides an outlet for it. If something about your fear is ridiculous, be ridiculous. Heck, even Harry Potter learned that in Defense Against the Dark Arts (3rd book, I think thing was called a boggart). Even if it doesn’t work, it may make you more comfortable.
In the end it comes down to the things we want to expose, and how we go about doing it. I am not entirely comfortable trying to write about things that upset me, but I look at it like this: if the ghosts are determined to hang around, they better damn well make themselves useful, give them a chore or two to earn their keep in the recesses of your mind and heart.
In closing, I’d like to share the obligatory anecdote of a writer’s life. I asked a poet to autograph her book, Boneless, for me after a great reading of her work and an amazing lecture on compression and the line. We hadn’t talked about any of this, but she took a couple of minutes in signing my book. You want kismet? Here is the inscription she wrote to me:
“To Jillian—With Pleasure in your wild spirit! Write what scares you—Jan Beatty, 2012.”
Amen, Jan. I plan to.