General 8-13-2007

The Big Ambition: Notes from a writing retreat

Lightsey Darst gives an account, firsthand and real time, of pulling individual poems together into a book.


I am writing a book. That’s the big ambition. I’ve been working on this project for two years and now I am taking three weeks at a writers’ retreat to finish it off.

The pressure to make a big thing comes and goes. I mean in artistic history. Once a great writer could only be great by producing an epic. Then again, once there was no such thing as a great writer. There was a harpist who told a tale that suited your mood, the tale lasting only as long as your mood. Shakespeare produced no epic. He wasn’t bucking for that title of great writer, presumably, and look at the results. Wordsworth wrote an epic that only scholars read (it’s called The Prelude, for god’s sake). Keats began his epic many times, got cut off before he arrived there, and still made his name. Our early and mid-twentieth century writers did not pursue the epic (please don’t bombard me with your petty exceptions). But somehow it has trickled back, the big thing. Poets (those who have a clue, by which I mean an eye for the fad) do not produce collections anymore. You cannot simply open the book anywhere and read. No, it’s a project. It is a construction. You must read it straight through, you must not sit back and sigh after each poem, because here comes another hard on its heels.
    So why do we want the big thing? What are we after?
    I can only speak for myself. I want my life to have meaning, my work to have meaning. I don’t want to be like a person driving rapidly by, tossing out this scrap and that scrap as I go along. I want to amount to something.

What’s the difference between a big and a little thing?
    I have one answer: form. (There are probably others.) You can get away with a lot when you’re writing a little thing. Form doesn’t matter so much. Just put it on the page. If it’s short enough and vivid enough, readers will wade right through it. But the big thing—readers need help. Readers need guidance. And form, that is something you do not learn in school.
    I was talking about form with dancer-choreographer Arwen Wilder (of Hijack). I was discussing a certain problem to her—the problem of outliers. Outliers are elements of an artwork that seem less connected to the other elements of the artwork. For example, if you have forty poems about your mother and one about your father, that one about your father would be an outlier. Now, the impulse is to hack off outliers whenever they become apparent. But there are two problems with this:

    1. Hacking off an outlier will create a new outlier; thus, the practice of hacking off outliers will eventually reduce the artwork to a point.
    2. The outlier may be essential to the form of the work; it may cast the rest of the work into the proper relief. (It is easy to see how the outlier given above might do this.)

Wilder’s comment was something like this: Right now, I think it is important to put more material than possible into a work of art.
    Wilder is thinking of form as political (as indeed many avant-garde dance-artists are). And this is an exciting field: to consider the politics of one main character as against many main characters, etc. But I can tell you that it’s not easy. The politics of form is an evolving study. Frequently audiences do not know that such possibilities exist, and even when you know they exist, it’s very hard to see the politics of form, to train yourself to read that way.

Meanwhile, down in the trenches, I am trying to put together this manuscript, and it is hard work, like solving a jigsaw puzzle in the dark, except worse, because the pieces don’t really fit together. I’ve been thinking about the theory of form, sure, but what I’ve been doing is arranging poems in order of narrative sequence or increasing tension, weaving together the various themes, and so on, in a time-honored way, just as Dickens did in his novels a hundred and fifty years ago. Occasionally I feel good about the way it’s all “coming together”. —But wait: I did this for my last manuscript, and it ended up reading like the Lord’s Prayer, belching out a great big “Forever And Ever Amen!” at the end.
    Endings—maybe that’s all there really is to form. Maybe that’s the key. And if it is the key, well, I’m deeply afraid that my mediocrity of thought will be revealed in my endings. How can we end something in a way that is neither incomplete nor a lie? Is the question itself a contradiction?

Choose Your Own Adventure/Ending

    1. Trail off.
    2. Fake it.
    3. Set up, you know, an image with a moving resonance, and slip away while the audience is still reverberating with it.
    4. Kill someone.
    5. Cut to a lower layer of the fabric: the artist at work, possibly.
    6. Cut to another scene entirely, with two options:
        a. The new scene metaphorically replays the old scene;
        b. The new scene has nothing to do with the old scene.
    7. Imply, in ,a href=””>Chekhovian fashion, that you have reached the end of the changes in the situation you have been exploring. To go further would be to belabor.

    8. Happy ending; resolution; epiphany; arrival.

Currently I am employing 3, 6a, 7, and 8. These bore me. I would rather be using 4, 5, or (my favorite) 6b. But how? Well, who says your ending needs to fit? The perfect ending may be an impossibility and is probably a mistake, so why not end wrongly? A happy ending for a tragedy. Why not? It’ll send the audience madly into their own minds, scrounging for what went wrong. It’ll implicate them.
    But, I have to admit, I don’t want to implicate. I want to devastate. I don’t want to soothe, amuse, teach, uplift, share. I want to shatter.

Oh man! At some point the theory all just crumples up on itself. Because while you are theorizing the thing is growing, and then there it is, your baby, and you can’t change its sex, or alter its brain, without destroying it entirely. Sure, you can continue theorizing on the side. But in the meantime you have a child to raise.

    Find your voice    Kill your darlings
    Write what you know     Get over yourself
    Trust your instincts     Question your assumptions

and the big one:
    Seek and tell the truth    There is no truth

I could write you a paragraph in which angels sing and all these contraries are carried up to heaven in a rosy cloud of seraphic bottoms, as in a baroque ceiling, but that kind of “living in the heart of tension is what gives art its power” talk is the aerial view, and I am not in the sky. I am on the ground, and down here it’s more like the Civil War. Oh god, I really didn’t want to get into what I’m writing about (what a bore, the subject, god, what an aching stupidity it becomes), but let’s just say I’m writing about girlhood, and I keep chasing my tail as follows:     Q. Am I writing only about myself?
    A. No no, everyone has these experiences, you’ve read about it.
    A. Well of course you’re writing about yourself—what else can you do?
    A. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with writing about yourself, your experience is valid too .
    Q. But I don’t want to just write about myself!
Etc. I need a glass of wine.

Work work work. I read it over and over. I combine poems, I slice poems up, I write new poems. I go for walks. I am in it! What a thrill to be alive and working.
    I see that this essay is heavy on the neurosis and light on the joy. The joy is hard to talk about. But it’s there, there in the energy with which I pursue the problem, the energy with which the problem I’ve created pursues me. The struggle is a chosen struggle, and I feel very lucky to be able to do this.
    And I feel lucky in general. Working so densely like this means that I am constantly seeing something, constantly thinking. Suddenly everything relates; I see the links in everything. It may all be delusion, but I feel in a zone of infinite connection. I am sparking, my arms are absurdly long and I can carry everything at once.

At night, when I have just written my little post-it with tomorrow’s directions, I lie down and think to myself, Tomorrow I will make it clean. No more self-indulgence. It will go straight like an arrow. No weak bits. No darlings. I suppose everyone’s been given that helpful little trinket of advice, kill your darlings—good, good, but that presupposes that you are something other than your assembled darlings. It’s a rather essentialist piece of advice. I’m thinking of Sylvia Plath. Clearly she eliminated something to get to the good poems in Ariel, but would you call it her darlings? The good poems in Ariel remain self-dramatic, precious, posing, and we like them for that, their outsized drama, their glittery reach. When the poems came out some people thought they were the real Plath—“she becomes herself,” etc—a little bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of those perpetually seeking the incarnated other, I think. Plath remained mortal, vulnerable, and sentimental. But—her darling was an elemental self, an electrical current she hoped was at the heart. Nothing is at the heart, as Plath’s oven sadly tells us. But in Plath’s burning light, let’s change the advice: strip your darlings, flay your darlings, dissect your darlings. Torture them. But feed them, keep them alive, because your darlings are all you have.
    Or so I tell myself.

I have a dream in which I realize that several poems can leave the manuscript. In the morning I wake up and realize that those poems do not even exist. What a relief, because at times the winnowing threatens to go on and never stop. Oh look—this isn’t necessary either! You start to wonder where the bones are—whether the thing even has bones.

At some point the work ceases to be fun. The wild free-writing, the idea-collecting, the endless expansion, the day-dreaming, all ceases, and then you are whittling, poking, moving this and that around, griping under the weight of the thingness of it. It’s like aging. The way up is all staring into the mirror wondering what you will eventually look like, taking up the recorder, pestering your parents to go to France, changing your major as if it mattered, seriously contemplating your religion or lack thereof—and then the way down is all wrinkles, investments, therapy, bad habits, 12-step plans, face lifts, knee surgery.
    At some point the ms. begins to be a thing, something in the world, not capable of utter erasure. At least you hope it does. How terrible that would be if the ms. could still be entirely wiped away—and yet how easy. To face what the thing, what it is that you have made, and then to finish it, that’s hard.
    The long form is devastating. When you are writing little pieces, you do not have to face anything about your larger artistic project. You can lie to yourself. But in the long form you realize, oh, I’m dramatic rather than expressionistic or philosophical. (These are my realizations. You can have your own.) I’m reading Jorie Graham’s Swarm and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and I feel the distance of these artistic projects from my own. Not that I want to write Swarm or Autobiography of Red—but now my own project has become a fixed quantity. Small, ratty thing! This is all it is.
    So I’m dramatic, effect-driven, divisive—it’s hard to collide with these realities. I know why I am doing this, why it is this way, etc.—but still: I have to describe it this way. The thing has limits.
    And, what’s worse—this is what I’ve done. We are all so possible, so talented, and then we go and create something—and how error-ridden, how small it turns out to be. Of course you can read other people’s books and apply that critical eye to them too. But—you thought you were different. All that potential. . .
    Oh well. This is all the cleverer I am at the moment. This is all I know. This is what I can do now.

It’s all about vanity, huh? All about me. I want to wear the poet hat. I want to pose for the author picture! I want to write the gracious acknowledgements page.
    Baby, I am already writing the gracious acknowledgements page! In my head, of course, but what fun it is. Come on, grant me this. I need a little break. I’ll acknowledge you.

I have often thought that the people who manage to push through and create artwork are a bit delusional and enthusiastic in their delusions. They are capable of being caught up in their own systems. They are agnostic, they are susceptible, they do believe in fairies, they do! Such is the mind that, unfortunately, given enough time, it can demolish anything. So you have to keep that mind a little off-balance. Give it a steak to gnaw on while you sneak by with the golden goose.

Update on form: I’ve become a bit blind to it. On the local level I can see it. As far as the ending is concerned, I am ending as many ways as I possibly can. Yes, the last moment is a stupid old #3, but somewhat before that is #6b. On the whole I feel I’ve managed a rather clever upheaval. But I couldn’t tell you exactly how this happened (and was that the point of this essay, or what?). It’s possible that I just stared at the foolishness long enough to delude myself into thinking I saw something there. I kind of think, though, that I have been able, through long staring, to perceive where the junk that naturally came out of me needed to be nudged. How did I perceive? My dear, that is the heart of the mystery. But let me go this far: I began to think of the ms. in its own language.

I had the revelation (I have lots of revelations) that I can start seeing the ms. as a whole now. That I can take it as a starting point, that I can revise what it is instead of agonizing over what it is. This is the up side of the previous revelation of the ms.’s horrible thingness. Up side, down side. On the seesaw.
    Another revelation: I’m not writing the only account of the world. Not everything has to be here. I can present one angle, one thread. I can think of this as a monograph.

I believe I am getting close. To what—exactly. Well, to a final printing. What does that mean? Back to Plath—she certainly knew how to finish that book. And that is probably the only way that anything is ever done. The rest is delusion.

I start to worry about what will happen to me after the manuscript. I’m leaving carnage on my orderly work surface, sliced-up poems, piles of free-writing that will not fit in the place I wrote it for—and what am I going to do, eat leftovers for the next six months? What will I write?

So—I just want to know—is it any good? Does the thing do any of what I think it does? Turn from me for a moment and look at, oh, I don’t know, Emily Dickinson. I remember one of my professors saying that his Emily Dickinson was a handful of poems. Poor girl! And then I’m reading Jorie Graham and my reading process is something like this:

    okay, concentrate. . .
    . . . what is she talking about?. . . my god she’s so dramatic, has she earned it? . . .

    . . . what’s for dinner. . . now that’s a line—utterly riveted attention for a minute
    . . . what if I change that one poem, what would that do. . .
    oh dear it’s over and what was it about again?

Poor girl! And part of this is surely my basic lack of interest in the subject matter (I am not philosophical), and part is Jorie Graham, but part is simply the way things are. We are all a bit flat. Someone thinks you are stupid, thinks you are vapid, thinks your stuff is beside the point. You are not writing for that person. At least so I tell myself.

I wonder if I can convey this: how mysterious the work becomes. I lose track of how it does what it does. I begin to be more observer than creator. This might just be me refusing to take responsibility—nah. I’ve polished the thing and it glows. Something was in there all along.
    The “Can I get a witness!” hysteria has passed away. Now I am—not poking at, but rather grooming the manuscript, brushing its hair, filing its teeth. All right my little monster. Get ready.

A strange thing has happened: the end of the ms. fell off today. It’s stranger because ever since I began this project, two years ago, this one poem has been insistently the ending point. And now, today, it’s gone.
    But the funny thing is that some part of my brain has known for a long time that this poem was not the real ending. I think I just needed it there as a placeholder, a stopping point, a mark to overshoot.
    It feels deliciously right to have gotten rid of that poem. It’s as if I had deluded myself about a distance and gotten there an hour early.

Back to that earlier question: what is the difference between a little and a big thing? Form is, I think, not the correct answer. I latched onto that earlier because I needed something to fixate on, like my fake ending. Small things tend to be held entirely in one’s head, unconsciously, easily; I thought I needed a system to be able to see the larger thing. In the end, I just went through it until it did fit into my head, until it became a whole for me, until I could see the larger scale of it. No systems—just work.

Done. Fatigue. If someone offered me a glass of champagne I would drink it. But it’s 10:30 in the morning, a little early for booze. After lunch I’ll go print this draft at the local library.
    What next. A nap. I realize I sound depressed. I am depressed. I do not feel creative at the moment, just hungry and tired. But I’ve gone through so many oscillations of mood already that I realize there are more around the corner. I will give the ms. to someone to read, there will be comments, another revision, more excitement, more depression. Even when/if it’s published, the tug will still be there. The relationship. The ambivalence, the pride, the fear.
    Why do this at all? Take the initial moment of creativity and go past that—those of us who revise our work, who labor at it, I wonder what we’re serving, what it is we want. But that’s another enquiry. For now I’ve done enough questioning.