Three things I’ve learned recently
This is the least interesting of the three.
2. Sometimes, looking at the big picture doesn’t help.
Writing was not going terribly well the last little while—and by “writing” I mean poetry. Over the past few months I’ve written book reviews, an article, and an online interview, but have had trouble focusing on poetry. Thinking that a bit more structure might help, I decided to get deliberate about setting up a routine. I settled down on a Monday afternoon, went through the magazine file on the desk and pulled out a stack of poems that need revising. There are quite a lot; the file box was bulging. I read through all of them, and that was where the trouble started: I couldn’t decide which one to start with. I just stared at each one in turn and thought, “I don’t know what to do with this.” After beginning with high hopes, or moderate hopes anyway, I ended up having a frustrating and unproductive afternoon.
Later, while taking a walk to work my stiffness out (both physical and mental), the title of Anne Lamott‘s book on writing, Bird by Bird, popped into my head. I’ve read this book a few times and found certain things Lamott says very helpful; this time it was the title itself that grabbed me. In one of the early chapters she explains where it came from: when her older brother was ten he had to do a school project on birds; he procrastinated, and the night before it was due he ended up panicky and overwhelmed, unable to even start. Their father sat down beside him and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
So this is what I am trying to do at the moment. I am deliberately trying to not look at everything at once—the stack of poems needing revision, the half-finished manuscript, the possible chapbook—because that inevitably leads to my wanting to work on everything at once. Instead, I will make a concerted effort to focus on only one poem, or a handful of poems, at a time, not get too concerned about picking the right one, just go with whatever happens to click on any given day.
3. The final 20 per cent of a project takes 80 per cent of the time.
I’d heard this principle before in another context, but it seems to also be true of writing at times. I often reach a stage with a poem where it almost feels right—except for the last line, or the title, or that one line in the middle stanza that somehow still doesn’t quite work. That one last thing can take months to figure out, because the thing is, it can’t be hurried. If it’s going to come together, if the poem is going to end up really feeling like it’s got the right words in the right places, then I have to take the time to find those words, try them out, let the piece sit for a while, look at it again—then do that several more times if necessary.
I would like this to not be so consistently true. (It’s true now, in fact, as I look for a way to conclude this post.) I know it’s all fine, all part of the process, but sometimes I think it would be nice if there were not quite so much patience required.
[The anecdote from Bird by Bird is on page 19 of the paperback edition.]