For this week’s blog, I thought I’d try and tackle the question of “Why I Write and What I Get Out Of It”. It’s a question lots of writers, many more accomplished and erudite than I, have tackled over the years, but one I thought I’d throw my oar into anyway. In a nutshell, I suppose, I write because I have something to say, and a narcissistic streak that wants people to pay attention… but there’s also this need in me to be understood and to use writing as a way to understand. I’m going to try and explain, no doubt in my usual clumsy hamfisted way exactly why writing, and writing poetry, is a thing I feel like I have no choice but to do. Grab a coffee and curl up with this one – there’s lots of links to other things hidden in here to keep you busy.
I Write For Sanity and Clarity
I have always had a very fertile imagination. Sure, that means I can come up with stories, but it also means I worry. A lot. I think. A lot. I question things. A lot. I feel A LOT. My anxiety and bouts of depression over the years have come largely from having too much in my brain. There are a lot of thoughts and feelings whizzing around in there I have to do something with them or else they clog up the hard drive and I start to run sluggish, or I go into overdrive and everything is too fast and big and loud and there’s far too much muchness.
I write to make sense of my own emotions, to reflect on and understand the things happening around me, in my personal life, in the world, in politics, but also the big universal questions of self-knowledge, spirituality, love, fear, truth… Being someone who observes and feels and thinks so much, writing allows me to process it and put a full stop at the end of it. This doesn’t mean I necessarily magically stop feeling the feeling, or stop thinking the thought, but writing it down helps me to get a better sense of it once I’ve tried shaping it from my brain-fog into actual letters on a page (or screen). I’m too far inside it all, too surrounded by it all, when it’s still in my own brain. I can roll around in it, live in it for a while (and sometimes, that’s necessary too, to get to the truth and the grain of grit at the centre of it), but eventually, I have to get some distance. I have to get some perspective on it, so I put it outside of myself as a poem to be able to look at it from different angles more objectively. In the process of writing something personal, I often get deeper insights into why I’m feeling it or how it’s linked to something else (which might then weave itself into the words). It’s cathartic. It’s healing. It’s closure of sorts.
Even when I’m not trying to turn whatever’s in my head into a poem; even when I’m not trying to create, I write to get my thoughts in order. I have hundreds of notes on my phone, and on my laptop that are letters to people, are letters to myself, are “braindumps” to help me work through the puzzle of my messy brain.
Being able to take those messy, seemingly unconnected thoughts and turn them into something somewhere closer to art, with form and function and flow, gives me more control over it, helps me lay it to rest.
I have to write. It’s not a choice. I may have days or even weeks that pass without me finishing anything (or the long dry spell when I didn’t write anything at all after my father died), but I knew, ultimately, I would come back to it. Ray Bradbury said, in Zen and the Art of Writing:
“if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic…”
Writing and crafting words is and always will be, inherent to my existence. Published or no, successful in the financial sense or not, I’ll always turn to jotting down my thoughts and seeing if I can shape them into something palatable for others.
To Tell Stories
The power of storytelling has always been a huge draw for me. I collect fairy tales. I have at least 9 anthologies of fairy tales from around the world. My favourites are Angela Carter’s collection of feminist folk tales, the tales curated by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in “Women Who Run With the Wolves”, a collection of odd, dark tales called “An Illustrated Treasury of Fairy and Folk Tales” that my dad’s mum gifted me, and a beaten up falling apart Grimms collection my mum’s mum salvaged from a boot fair for me. I’m not just talking about the post-Victorian “fairy tales” that had been sanitised and cleaned up, but the dirty pre-Grimm folk tales, the dark tales, the twisted and gory, bloody tales. Even as a very young child, I found these old tales dark and haunting, as if I could feel the weight of the years and the mouths and hands that had handled them. Each tale has existed in some form or other for hundreds of years, and that’s as arresting to me as the stories themselves. Storytelling has always affected me, and the dark ones, the gritty ones that felt more real than any Disney movie, have stayed with me for years. I am a collector of stories. Stories, and folktales, are so incredibly important as part of our human history (what are cave paintings but a story someone wanted to record and leave behind?). Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K Chesterton, said in the epigraph to his dark, twisted modern fairy tale Coraline, that “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
Fairy tales were spoken folk lore. Those that kept and told the tales were often seen as vaguely mystical but integral parts of any community. The histories of folk tales and poetry are entwined. Many folk tales are poetic in style (the great epics of Beowulf, the Illiad and the Odyssey, of Robin Hood, for examples). The history of poetry is an oral one. Poetry is older than the written word; a way of recalling and passing along stories through the generations. Poetry is, at its oldest secret core, a spoken art. Poems are also like fairy tales in that they teach us something about who we are and our place in the world by bundling up an idea inside a metaphor or analogy and then letting it slowly become realised in a way that somehow makes it more true. A poem, in much the same way as the really good folk tales, can make you feel the truth from the inside and that, somehow, makes all the difference.
My poetry has always been very lyrical, has always played with rhyme. I’m not sure why, it just seems to come more naturally to me when I use rhyme and rhythm more obviously than some would deem “acceptable”. I think, the more poetry I write, and the more I devour the work of amazing performance-poets and spoken-word artists out there at the moment (Andrea Gibson, Sarah Kay, Guante, Donte Collins…) the more I realise that I am writing poems to be performed. To be spoken aloud.
I write to leave my mark and leave my stories to others. And, I can’t pretend I haven’t always been a bit of a closeted performer, just always too self-conscious to get up on a stage and act or sing…. Maybe at some point in the not too distant, my rock star ambitions will align with my wannabe-wise woman storyteller sensibilities and I’ll get up and perform some of this stuff that I know needs to be read aloud…
It’s Exciting! (And Sometimes, Soul-Crushing)
Creating something, anything, is exciting! It’s passionate and frenzied and a little crazy. I’m not going to go into the whole “where do my ideas come from” or even the “my process” element of writing; both are probably complete blog posts on their own, but when these various islands of thoughts and ideas suddenly start to connect in my brain, when the words start flowing, the glimpses and islands of ideas or phrases, start shifting into alignment, and you can feel this force rushing through you, it’s electric. It’s addictive and will keep me awake at night, or missing my stop on busses. It’s a rush. Yes, writer’s block is a thing, and believe me, it can feel like you’re chewing up your own spleen at how shit you are at everything and how you can’t even string a single fucking sentence together… but when it’s working, when it’s flowing, it’s better than sex. OK, no, it’s not better than sex (unless…you know…your sex isn’t that good?). But I’d definitely say the buzz and thrill and reward of creating and finishing a new poem is better than even that perfect pizza-and-beer combo, even after you’ve been fantasising about it all day.
And yes, the flip side to the exhilaration is that writing can be frustrating. Trying to find the right words or phrases can be tricky and elusive. Sometimes, you re-read what you wrote the day before and realise you’re just going to have to consign more than half of it to the recycling bin, because it doesn’t flow, or it doesn’t belong in this poem but in that other one you’ve been trying to finish for a month, or…maybe, because it’s just not that good. It’s frustrating when a poem takes longer to shape than I want it to. Many of my poems are started and finished within hours, then tinkered with over the coming days (Fear Country poured out almost complete in one sitting, in the bath) but it’s not always that way. The last quarter of Army of Me took years to get right, because I was trying to figure out who I was and how I felt, and so many attempts to finish it jarred and didn’t gel and felt false. The Marvellous Mechanical Wind Up Man took me months to even start, perhaps for obvious reasons.
Creating Something Out of Nothing
When a new poem is finished, and I can step back out of the creating-inspiration-frenzy, it’s a whole, complete set of words hung together in a certain way to tell a story or set out a feeling, or idea. A whole set of words that, until I had set them in this precise order, have never sat together in quite this way before. I’ve made this little hub of finished, completed stillness in the crazy tangled web of my brain, out of nothing. I made a thing. It’s a whole, living, breathing thing. Released into the wild now, and I am a proud Mamma watching it trip over its own feet as it crashes into the furniture and tries to stand on its own. When I can see the effect one of my own poems has on someone else, that’s a buzz, too. When people respond with their own stories, explain to me their own reactions, that can be incredibly humbling.
It’s Challenging But Fun
Choosing the exact words to paint the theme; finding the words that fit, like a jigsaw puzzle, into the rolling feel and rhythm of the poem, is a game. Selecting the best words to create this thing so that others can unwrap it and see it for themselves is a challenge. When I land on it, there’s this little internal bell that rings “yup, that’s the one. You got it”. Condensing a complex emotion, idea, or story into something that takes less than 10 minutes to read is my modus operandi.
When I was younger, I wrote long-form fiction. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think I choose poetry writing over fiction/prose writing now for the same reason I prefer movies and binge watching on Netflix to ongoing weekly TV series’. I find it easier to process stories when I know they have a finite end in sight. Writing a poem is more condensed – the ending more within reach than when writing a novel. I write to tell stories and I use poetry as a form that allows me to condense these stories to their most essential essence. The less wanky way of looking at it is that I’m a lazy writer…
Poetry allows me to explore something from lots of angles, and write lots of poems pretty much about the same stuff (exactly how many poems about love have you written, dear Alice??). It lets me chose to shape and hone many smaller poems connected across a web of thoughts and ideas rather than try to write something bigger, more sprawling; rather than try to pin down so much more of my over-crowded brain-web in one go…Well, there it is. I’m a poet because I’m too easily distracted for anything longer!
Connecting The Dots
I write poetry to tell truths and shine a light on emotions, to wrap feelings in carefully chosen disguises and present them to the world. The metaphors or similes, or plain and simple play on words drive it home and people see it more clearly than if I just said, I’m sad, I’m in love, I’m angry, I’m…hungry…whatever. To see a truth, a feeling, emerging through the lines of a poem, like an old house just visible through trees – a window here, a chimney stack there, until the trees clear and you can see the house in full, and you suddenly realise you already knew all along that it would be breathtaking… it somehow makes it all more tangible, more relatable, more real. Using the meter, the pitch and roll and rhythm of language to draw people in and present them with an idea, or a string of ideas held together by rhyme, it’s like they discover the whole of the truth for themselves by the end. And it’s not always my truth they discover by the end of it. Sometimes what I meant when I wrote it isn’t what they see when they read or hear it, but that’s OK. Sometimes people will see their own truth in it, but that’s the magic of it. Strangely, the best compliments I’ve had about my poetry are the amount of people who’ve told me that a poem of mine has made them cry. Emotional connection, that’s all it is. It’s joining the dots. Amanda Palmer, goth gypsy punk cabaret queen, in her moving book The Art of Asking, says
“We can only connect the dots that we collect, which makes everything you write about you. … Your connections are the thread that you weave into the cloth that becomes the story that only you can tell […] once you’ve shared your art and it’s resonated with a single person, it’s no longer about you — once you share it, it’s about everybody.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to join the dots in my own mind, striving to learn and to understand, and I have always found stories a way for me to learn more about the world, the Universe, how things work, how people work, why we do what we do…my poetry is my way of joining my dots with other people and with their dots. That’s all poetry and storytelling and art of any kind really is – human, emotional connection. It’s reaching out a hand, shining a light, saying
“You’re not alone, me too. Me too.”