Monday, May 3, 2010

The Writing Life

I am simultaneously drawn to and bored by articles, blog entries, musings on the writing process, rejection, writing rituals, and all the related minutiae. I suppose I am drawn to them to see how my own haphazard processes compare, and am often bored since we are talking about what amounts to sitting alone in a chair, in front of a computer screen, a typewriter, or with a pad and writing instrument. The excitement happens somewhere between brain and page, and I'm not sure there's a way to capture that excitement without dropping into the banal. Then again, counting the number of drafts a poem takes to "get there," or detailing how many times you've sent off a manuscript before acceptance, isn't all that fresh when you compare the hundreds or thousands of such chronicles that one finds online or in writing magazines like Poets and Writers. The finally product of all this busywork, one hopes, will turn out infinitely more interesting.

I am reminded of the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, a flick I flat-out hated. I had seen so much potential in the concept only to be disappointed by a more-or-less conventional rock and roll story, more of the same drugs and broken relationships. It was more or less the same movie that Walk the Line had been. I realized that everything I liked about Dylan and Cash was in the music, and the personae that came through the songs. I don't care to know much about their personal lives.

All of that to preface a few comments on the writing life.

I recently threw in my two cents in a discussion on Facebook concerning editors' requests for re-writes. I think that fiction writers get these a lot more often than poets, but I have had a couple in my day. They were minor requests to fix little bumps in the meter or to tone down an overly sentimental line here or there. In each case the poem was made stronger, and I was grateful for the careful editorial attention. Others in the discussion treated the issue as deplorable, as high and mighty editors believing they know more than the writer. I can see how this must be true in some cases. But I think it should be taken on a case-by-case basis. I'm not so great that I can't take a bit of advice or a suggestion from an editor devoted to putting out the best work, and patient enough to help me get my own work there.


  1. In my brief stints as editor I seldom asked for revision. Partly because I wasn't going to be around long enough, there was only time for the take it or leave it approach. Partly it was that when you ask a poet to change something, they don't always change it for the better. If, as editor, one is going to ask for changes, best to keep them to the very minor and very specific -- like cutting the first two lines, say. Then the poet can either say, OK! Or, No way! And that's that.

    In one of my few brushes with a professional New York editor (few = only?) I got back poems from Gordon Lish that he'd marked all over with a black felt tip marker. He was running The Quarterly at the time. I was, unsurprisingly, horrified, and thought Lish wanted a total rewrite. Upon careful reading beneath the fat black marks I realized the changes he was requesting were few -- they just seemed huge cuz it was a little poem. I didn't get the idea he thought I'd perfected the poems when I made some changes & not others but the poems did get published in the final issue of the magazine. Looking at the poems now, I only have vague notions about what Lish altered. It took me two tries to get a title he liked. That I remember!

  2. Thank you for the comment, Glenn.

    It hadn't occurred to me that asking a poet to change a poem does not always yield the best results. But I can see how that is definitely true in a genre where the placement of a comma can mean life or death (for the poem, if not the poet).

    I envy you your brush with Lish.

  3. As a P.S., when I got some poems accepted by the Hudson, I had just moved to Boston from Louisiana and didn't have any of my computer files with me, nor even a computer to call my own. I headed down to the Boston Public Library that night to type the poems from my hard copies, punching away at the keys furiously to finish in time before closing. I gave them a quick proof-read and e-mailed the files. I was dismayed, months and months later, to find many embarrassing typos in the proofs, all of them circled with very kind questions as to my intentions (for instance, I had written "bust" for "but"... talk about a Freudian slip... and the editor asked if "bust" was part of the speaker's dialect).