Raise your hand if you’re scared of writing. I am. I’m terrified of writing anything that’s not a poem. Especially blogs. They remind me of casual conversation, recorded. Or of a close-up photoshoot, a friend behind the viewfinder trying to convince me to act natural as I attempt to isolate the muscles around my mouth to make the kind of half-smile that says I don’t know I’m being looked at. I prefer the candid or the crafted, and the blog falls somewhere in between—it says, Act natural, but do it now please. A perfectionist’s worst nightmare.
But maybe this fear is just an excuse for not getting started. Last week I was sitting in Bistro de l’Arte, a cozy restaurant in an early 16th-century building—my favorite neighborhood spot in Brașov, Romania, where I’m teaching for the year—talking to my friend Gail over Skype about my blogophobia. Gail is the most wonderful cook imaginable. Cuisine is her GPS; poetry, mine. She told me about a moment in a book she read in which a young Italian man was teaching the narrator to speak Italian over a beautiful yet simple meal in Rome. Speak like you eat, she said, which is also to say, write simply. Write what you write.
Often the best writing advice comes from people who aren’t writers. If you can tell a whole story in a few lines, said my friend, you can write a blog. A whole story in a few lines made me think of one of my favorite poems, Andrea Cohen’s “The Committee Weighs In” (which appears here in The Threepenny Review and boldly begins her newest collection, Furs Not Mine, by Four Way Books). It tells a story in eight narrow lines. Ha! Sounds like an argument in one’s mind, said Gail, after hearing the title. I recited the poem. In it, the speaker jokes with her mother about winning the Nobel Prize—again. It’s a lighthearted game whose plays lull you along like an established meter—until the last word hits you through the heart.
It’s a little game
we play: I pretend
I’m somebody, she
pretends she isn’t dead.
A monosyllabic hammer, that word dead. Tell it to me again, said Gail. And this—retelling—is another usual difference between a poem and a blog. A good poem, like a good song, makes you want to reread, hear it again, write it into your mind. A blog, something more like thought—immediate speech.
Gail used to be poemphobic. She didn’t know how to approach a poem, said she didn’t understand poetry. Fortunately, poetry isn’t something meant to be understood. It uses language to express something that cannot possibly be said in words. It orients us, is a story, a moment, the argument within the mind. A poem approaches limits—of language, our own. And now, here Gail was, getting the essence of this poem after simply hearing its title. She was right. It was all about the committees in our minds.
The committees in our heads, like fear, are necessary. Writing is easy, but writing well is one of the most difficult things to do in life. This may sound dramatic, but it’s true. It’s why I’ve been tormenting myself for three weeks about writing this post, even though all I’ve been wanting to do for three weeks is write this post. Every time we start a new poem, story, essay, blog, we are beginning again one of the most difficult things we will ever do. Every single time. Fear is natural, is necessary. It means something is at stake and we’re not completely in control. Countless times I’ve read, in interviews with writers, the interviewee ask, How do you write _____? And the answer is almost always, I don’t know. I’m convinced that anyone who says otherwise is lying, or in denial, or producing boring work that runs in place.
Write what you write doesn’t mean write what you know. We begin to know as we write. Writing is realizing, is taking a walk in a known neighborhood and noticing the details that blur by when you travel by a faster means. Walking is a good pace for thinking, for writing. Romanian trains are, too (I’m writing most of this on one now). Writers are always landing in different countries, listening to languages we don’t understand, trying sentence after sentence to see how much sense we might make. We’ll never get as good as we can possibly be, but, at the same time, we’re always getting better.
Writing—it’s a little game
we play. We pretend
we know what we’re doing. It
pretends it’s not in charge.
Write like you’re learning how. Seat your little committee in the corner where you can see them, then turn them to face the wall and pick up your pen. Or, like my dad taught me, turn a positive affirmation into an assertive demand. Look in the mirror, stare down that part of yourself that says, What if I can’t? Tell it where to go.