April 20, 2016KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsReadingWriting

Writing to Write, to Write, to Write?

Just out from Sidebrow Books, every single poem in Mathias Svalina’s new collection, The Wine-Dark Sea, is entitled “The Wine-Dark Sea.” And every single one is great. But “The Wine-Dark Sea” on page eleven particularly finagled my attention; its entirety below:

My utopia opens
from both directions:
the beautiful line,
the glossy rind.

My problem is
I’ve never not been able
to write.  

Why did this specific “The Wine-Dark Sea” startle me? Mainly because of its second stanza. The speaker’s declaration that she has “never not been able / to write” is one that I myself have been thinking about quite a bit. The concept of writing too much is an arguably foreign one for most writers, and I’d reckon that the vast majority of authors wish they wrote more and/or had more time to write. Joyce Carol Oates, Balzac, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood— there are numerous exceptions to the I-wish-I-wrote-more adage, of course, but I’d wager that the aforementioned authors are the exception rather than the rule. Behind every staggeringly prolific writer seem to be two more writers that either wrote sparsely or published sparsely. Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison are two supremely noted examples, but there’s also Joseph Mitchell and Hilda Morley and Malcom Lowry and Nella Larsen, and that’s just to start.

In books, articles and essays, the concept of being creatively “blocked” has been thoroughly written about before. But what about its opposite, wherein an author cannot stop writing? I’m currently reading A.R. Ammons’ book-length poem Tape for the Turn of the Year. Written between December 6, 1963 and January 10, 1964 on a roll of adding-machine tape—the poem’s line breaks are determined by the width of the tape—Tape for the Turn of the Year is a 205-page poetic diary of sorts, one filled with Ammon’s off-hand observations and daily mundanities. And I don’t mean that in a bad way; it’s a great book and Ammons is a great poet. But the volume’s compositional arithmetic lends itself to the notion that in just over a month, Ammons could write two hundred pages of publishable poetry, poetry that he was comfortable putting out in the wider world. Assuming that he could hold such a writing practice throughout the entirety of a calendar year, that’s ten (give or take) publishable collections of poetry the poet could potentially write in just twelve months. (This isn’t to say that Ammons did try to achieve such a publishing rampage; he didn’t. He was a better human and a better writer than that.)

On page fifty-eight of Tape for the Turn of the Year, Ammons’s speaker—a stand-in for Ammons himself—comments on his prodigious productivity:

the reason I write so much
that I can’t do anything
poem must be now
close to 40 feet long: I
can’t get it out
to write letters or
postcards or anything:
is that cheating?

Is this, then, the type of poetry that is written only out of a compulsive need to write poetry, a compulsion that little concerns itself with “good” or “bad” considerations? In his much-lauded and still widely read collection of essays and lectures The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo, in a chapter tellingly entitled “Statements of Faith,” declares that “[m]any American poets seem to feel personally worthless unless they write. One can easily imagine that, given the conditions of the mind, the feelings of worthlessness may become indistinguishable from the impulse to write.” Elsewhere in The Triggering Town, in “In Defense of Creative Writing Classes,” Hugo opines that “[writing] is like shooting a basketball. You’ve got to stay in shape and practice to do it well. It is not a natural reward of study, and having an education does not mean that you can write well whenever you want.”

Based on the Hugo’s contentions, the diligent, invested writer encounters a Catch-22 situation of sorts: to combat feelings of worthlessness she must write all the time, but she also must write all the time to become a better writer, one who is deft, precise, and in shape. But The Triggering Town is silent on the question of writing too much; no matter the final product, Hugo is content to spirit the creative writer on. He certainly doesn’t want to spur her efforts, and to his way of thinking the writer who can’t stop writing might be better for her compulsion. So many others, he might have said, have the opposite problem. You’re one of the lucky ones.

“My problem is / I’ve never not been able / to write”; “the reason I write so much / is / that I can’t do anything / else.” To be quite honest, I don’t have such problems. It’s very, very easy for me not to write. If I did have such a writing predilection, though, I’m not sure what I would do. Writing well is a thing of great joy, but writing compulsively, constantly, at the expense of the thousands of other things that make life worth living, that make living worth writing about, would no doubt make for a stultifying prison. Somewhat creatively stultifying, sure, but stultifying nonetheless. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” Joan Didion writes in her essay “The White Album,” but if those stories are ones we feel forced to tell, we’re not truly living. Better to take a break, go outside, and study the pristine blueness of the flat, round sky. To take a hike or a drive somewhere new with someone new or to call someone you haven’t spoken to in years, someone who once meant a great deal to you. To simply live and, having achieved that, to live beyond having to write about it. To my way of believing that’s the best way of being a writer—not because you have to write but because you choose to write.