Sunday, July 19, 2009

On self-confidence and suckage

So I spent a good chunk of time this weekend poking and prodding at my new manuscript. Just about every time I read through it I pull out a poem or two; slowly but surely it's coming down to fighting weight. On the last pass through it this afternoon I pulled out 3 pages and put in one new one. I made slight revisions to a whole bunch of poems, and finally rewrote a last line that had been driving me crazy (thank you, Carl Phillips, for teaching me how to see into the architecture of a poem & hear the underlying rhyme and meter even when there isn't any).

And then I emailed the first two (of three) people who've agreed to read the thing, and asked them if they're ready for it. Which is a big step, in a way. These poems are all pretty new, by inclusion-in-manuscript standards; the very oldest of them date back to April of last year. I usually sit on poems for several months at the very least before sending them out anywhere, and most of my two- to three-year-old poems still feel brand spanking new to me. So although I've done a lot of intensive work on this manuscript & on the poems in it, I don't feel like I have that much perspective on it yet. In other words... I can't guarantee with 100% certainty that the thing doesn't basically suck.

Now, I don't think it probably sucks. I am certain that it's imperfect; I'm open to the possibility that it may be deeply flawed. The thing I know for certain is: it's too new for me to have perspective on it. I'm a little in love with the thing, and like any shiny new love, I'm probably blind to both its true virtue and its true failings.

So what I posted on Facebook was, "Yikes! What if it completely sucks?" Which is really shorthand for all of the above. And of course, a couple of friends immediately rushed in to assure me that it couldn't suck, etc. And my reaction to this reassurance was interesting to me. (Why, yes, I'm a Gemini; I react to something with one part of my brain even as I'm observing my own reaction with another. What, doesn't everybody do that?) Because what I thought was, hey, it might suck -- and if it does, so what? I'll just write something else. And I like thinking that way. I like it a lot.

See, early on in my writing life, I had to fight the "OMG what if I write something and it sucks?" paralysis, just like everyone does. And like most people do, I fought it by consciously bolstering my own confidence. I told myself that no, what I was writing didn't suck, that I had the right to write what I was writing, that my voice deserved to be heard. And that was pretty difficult at first. That took me some years, actually, but I finally got there, finally got around to believing that maybe I do have some degree of talent as a writer, that maybe some of my poems are not too shabby. Getting published helped. Getting positive feedback from peers and from teachers helped. Mostly, just doing a whole lot of reading and a whole lot of writing helped.

But now, you know what? Sometimes I write a draft and it's a dead end, it isn't going anywhere, it basically ... sucks. That shouldn't shock anybody. There isn't a poet alive, and probably no dead ones either, who can claim that every word that falls out of them is priceless or whatever. There may be some who believe that of themselves, but they're wrong. *grin* And if I write something and it sucks? So what. I've developed enough confidence over the years to believe that I can leave the sucky draft behind and write something else. Hell, even Roger Federer makes unforced errors in every match, and he just shrugs them off and moves on to the next point. If he let every error get to him, he'd probably just fall apart and never win another match.

Natalie Goldberg (I think -- or was it Anne Lamott?) has written about embracing your own willingness to write "shitty first drafts," and William Stafford wrote about "lowering your standards" as the key to writing prolifically. And you know what? They're right. Not only that, but if you fail, sometimes it's because you are taking risks that ultimately move your work forward. That doesn't mean the failed drafts are any good; they probably suck. Suckage doesn't mean they aren't useful to your process. Write them without censoring yourself; realize they suck; learn from them; move on. That's one way to get better at this writing stuff. It's probably not the only way, but it's the way that works for me.

It seems to me there are two ways to defeat the internal censor -- you know, the one that stops you from writing. One is to hear that little voice that says "this sucks" and to out-shout it with a confident and hearty "Does not! Does not! Does not!" The other is to hear the "this sucks" voice and to quietly say back, "So?" and keep on writing. I think maybe it takes some time and experience to develop this second method, to find the confidence to allow the "this sucks" voice its truth and yet at the same time to disempower it. Maybe this is advanced poetry jiu-jitsu, or something. Or maybe it's just advanced denial. Whatever; it works for me, right now.

And maybe this manuscript does suck. It probably doesn't, but if it does, so what? I'll either fix it, or write another. I've learned a lot from writing it. I've worked hard, and I've had fun. And no matter what, there will be more poems where these came from. To me, that's what it means to be self-confident as a writer: to be okay with failing now and then, knowing that there's more. Because there's always more.

And once you know that, the possibilities are endless.


Supervillainess said...

Thanks for this, Anne. I sent a link to this post to my poetry class - I thought it was very inspiring and painted a good picture of the constant self-criticism/cheerleading inside a writer's head.
Great WV: Pomecrop!

Jessie Carty said...

100% totally true and accurate! thanks for posting it :)

and your manuscript probably doesn't suck but it may have moments of near suck :) hahaha cause don't all manuscripts? that is why we have other readers cause we can never be 100% objective about our own work!

Leslie said...

I love this.

Tom Sleigh said once that no gesture is ever wasted and I think that would be my tattoo of choice--to remind myself that not all gestures as a writer succeed, but making them also teaches us something.

And the more we write the less often we fail and less badly.

mariegauthier said...

Yeah, that was Anne Lamott. The idea of the shitty first draft was a revelation to me. As is your wonderfully sane, "So?" Good on you!

(Word verification: pingslyz)

Anne said...

Thanks, y'all! I hope my ramblings are of some use. And Leslie - a big "yes" to the notion of writing more. It's got to be a practice, in every sense of the word - hardly an original observation but one that still helps me to remember now & then!

Collin Kelley said...

I have a feeling your manuscript is going to be brilliant. If it's anything like the chapbook, then you are golden.

Anne said...

Ha! Thanks, Collin... it's actually very different from the chapbook. Thus a lot of the uncertainty. This whole project has been different in every way for me. In good ways, I think, but it's been new ground.

Peter Joseph Gloviczki said...

Hi, Anne,

Let me know if you'd like me to read your ms; I'm glad to offer my two cents. Peter

Melissa said...

thanks for posting this Anne, esp. this "I told myself that no, what I was writing didn't suck, that I had the right to write what I was writing, that my voice deserved to be heard."

Anne said...

Peter: Thanks so much! I've got 3 readers lined up right now, which seems like about as much feedback as I'm going to be able to do anything with. But then I'm sure I will be making revisions & looking for a fresh eye, so I may be in touch. :)

Melissa - glad you liked! :) I still say it's fine to write stuff that sucks... but it's also important to have times when you sit back and say, hey, guess what, I got stuff to say and I can say it.