. . . Or maybe determination and revision.
I used to think I was talented. Seriously. Okay, you can stop laughing now. I have always known what I was going to do with my life. Until college, it never occurred to me that other people did not have this comforting knowledge. Then I met people who walked around as though life was a complete mystery. It was a source of great angst for them and much amusement for me. I was a repellent creature, wasn’t I?
The most ridiculous part of thinking I was talented was expecting to not only be good at my chosen calling, but to also be successful at it. Ha. Yes, I hear you laughing again. Stop. Needless to say, these dreams were crushed rather dramatically in my twenties. Well, the idea of success was. I still thought I was talented. It took another ten years for that to be crushed (can you say: rejection slips?). However, don’t despair, this story has a happy ending. I learned that neither success nor talent matter. They don’t matter. Why?
Because determination trumps them both. Where the hell determination comes from is still a mystery to me; perhaps it’s just sheer stubbornness masquerading as a positive trait (can you say: screw you to the whole world?). Happily, success has mostly lost its luster for me, at least success as other people define it. I’m no longer so obsessed with being a best-selling novelist (though it would be nice, all that money). However, I am obsessed with being a good writer, good however I define it, that is. My husband believes that even if you are determined, without talent, all the determination in the world will not matter. Perhaps that’s also true. Perhaps it takes both. However, I do know that talent is useless unless you have the determination to hone it, practicing over and over again for years. Years.
Today I read an article in the NYTimes that seemed to reflect some of this pet theory of mine: Genius: The Modern View. In it, Brooks discusses genius and how we all seem to think that one is born with it. Einstein was destined to become a famous physicist. Phelps was destined to become an insane swimmer. Uh no. Not necessarily. So, what is it that makes these types of people so “successful?” The ability to practice the thing that interested them over and over again for years. This practice can make practically anyone into a genius. Except, who can stand to do that sort of thing? You miss a lot of TV and nights out at the local bar. You might even have missed the last episode of BSG (gasp!). So who is determined enough to do something like that for hours every day? Hmm.
Many people ask me how I could possibly write a fairly complete poem each day for a month. The short answer: I can’t, really (yes, I know I didn’t finish the last seven days of NaPoWriMo this year, enough already). The long answer: I didn’t used to be able to do that and now I can, but it’s only because I studied for ten years. See, I thought I knew how to write even though I didn’t do much of it during the 1990s. I was wrong. In 1999 I couldn’t stand it anymore. I missed writing. I hated not doing what I always thought I would and I hated even more the desperate sensation of being trapped in a hell of one’s own making. I began writing. Much drivel appeared at the end of my pencil (if you are desperate for proof, I’ll post a poem from 1999 so that you may laugh and hurl simultaneously).
Point is, I spent the next ten years practicing. It was useless as far as careers go; I think poetry is the last art at which you make nothing (there are a few cash prizes, but still, no millions). Why the hell would I do this? I was determined. I promised myself when I was ten I would be a poet. And it was exciting to get better at it. I can’t even begin to explain what it feels like to grow a sixth sense about line-breaks or the first time I really understood what an iambic foot was. (Although I still think Hopkins’ sprung rhythm is madness. He pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.)
So, I slogged through Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry with her fascinating ideas about metaphor and her bizarre charts. I slogged through The Heath Guide to Poetry, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Writing Poems, In the Palm of Your Hand, The Language of Life, The Face of Poetry, and about one hundred others (forgive me, lists are boring, I know). Then I wrote. I focused on one aspect of poetry for months at a time: sound, metaphor, personification, etc. I revised. This cannot stress this particular thing enough: I REVISED A LOT. Anyone can write a vast amount of dreck every day and not improve the writing one iota if one does not think critically about what one is doing. I revised one poem over seven years time and it still isn’t my best work.
By 2008 I could consistently write a poem I felt worked in a style recognizably mine without much revision. By 2009, I could write a poem that worked in a style not recognizably mine without much revision. Consistently being the operative word (there are always those happy accidents, but the ability to do something intentionally is the goal). So, the most important thing I learned from all this? Stuff takes a long time. It took a minimum of ten years for me to feel like I’d figured it out. Ten years to learn how to write a poem. This doesn’t include college or high school or all the years of my twenties. Ten years of study and obsession to get a good poem at the end and no monetary compensation? Madness.
Of course, the question remains: is the stuff I put out any good? I like it. Some others seem to like it. It doesn’t look like a lot of what’s published today, but I don’t mind anymore. I am successful in my own head which is, oddly, right where I was when I was eighteen years old and a freaking genius. I have walked forwards and ended up at the beginning, but at least I can say that I know what a poem is now. I can knowledgeably converse with others about poetry. I recognize a sonnet even if it doesn’t bite me on the ankle first. And none of this is attributable to any freakish inborn aptitude.
Sestina circa 1999 — only thing good about it is that it’s not in first person
There she stands at dusk, lost on the curb,
staring silent into the dank gutter.
The autumn leaves are trapped, still
and frozen in the open iron grate.
Cinder and ice islands lie stranded
around her, surrounding her:
unfortunate winter monuments. Her
face is tight, holding a desperate curb
on her emotions. A thin strand
of hair flicks across her cheek while the gutter
smells wrinkle her nose, grating
against her senses. She is still,
lost, until a sharp wind stills
her thoughts. She crosses the street, her
heart beating fast. She hops another grate,
avoiding the mess in it to step onto the curb.
Up in the sky painted clouds far from the gutter
in her mind leap across the blue expanse in strands.
Looking up, startled by beauty, she imagines the strand
of her life changing, streaming free. “I am still
alive,” she thinks. She looks down past the gutter
and glimpses of trees and water beckon her.
She pivots, and turns down the walk, another curb
in her way. Jump! She leaps over the edge, past the grate
and runs down the hill to the valley. No grates
collect waste and ice here; there’s only rich strands
of old leaves woven into the ground. No sharp curbs
trap the yellow grass, no slippery sidewalks still
the wildflowers. She leaves the blocked gutter
up on the dark mountain city far behind her,
to still herself in the valley, see the deepening sky. Strands
of starlight curb the horizon, so beautiful! The gutter
above is silent; its grates are frozen shut far away from her.
Free verse circa 2005 — a happy accident
Don’t judge me
she says as I walk in.
I know love is a puzzle,
but her words confuse
more than usual as they fall
from blue lips.
What is she doing there,
on the floor,
wanting to be unmade?
Blood does not lie
as it streaks linoleum.
It doesn’t soak in.
It just leaks like a dropped cup
of coffee, a wasted taste
I lunge for, try to staunch
with a dishtowel.
It’s too late
the tree outside says.
Leaves drop like grief
onto wet ground.
first appeared in: Ibbetson Street Press, November/December 2005, Issue 18