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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Not Writing While Writing

I've been participating in the August Poetry Postcard Fest 2014. It's my third year participating (not consecutively) and this year I've learned something interesting about writing due to a combination of the rules of the postcard fest and my travel schedule.

The relevant rule is that the poem is to be written directly onto the postcard, not first written in a notebook or on paper and then transferred to the card. I've always done this, but it has resulted in crossed-out words and slashes indicating improved line breaks. All that editing can get messy on the back of a small postcard, but I've stuck to the rules.

This year I was traveling abroad while participating, and I repeatedly found myself with jet lag in the middle of the night, lying awake in bed not wanting to get up and reinforce my errant inner clock. So I decided to think about the image on the postcard that I was currently working on. I always begin thinking about the next card image as soon as I finish the current day's, to give my unconscious a chance to weigh in .In general, I have written poems in response to the card image, to the name and location of the card recipient, to things I've seen or heard that day, and to any cards I've already received (although traveling has made this last component largely invalid for much of this year's postcard poems).

So there I would be, lying in bed, thinking about the postcard and whatever else entered my head, and I would write a line of poetry in my head. However, instead of immediately jotting it down in a notebook, as I normally would have done, I just tried to hold it in my head while working on the next line, so that I didn't have to turn on the light and move out of a supine position, encouraging my errant inner clock to believe it was time to get up.

I found that not only could I easily hold 3 to 5 lines of poetry in my head at once, I could revise them in my mind so that by the time I did get up and write them down, they didn't need any more editing. Plus I found that I could fall asleep and still wake up and write those lines that I had worked so carefully on.

But the important discovery was this: by not writing lines down immediately, I was less committed to them and more open to editing them more radically than I would have been had they already existed in paper. This I did not know: how attached I become to lines that were physically written down, already born into the world. I revise often and deeply, but still I found I could do it with less emotional confusion when the lines were only in my head and not in my notebook.

So I will try to transfer this technique to my usual writing life. Instead of writing down little fragments and half-lines as I normally have done, I will try to hold them in my head and see what I can do with them there. Obviously when I am not in a place of concentration, I'll have to write things down that come in fits and starts, but when I am sitting down to write, I'll be slower to put pen to paper for each thought.

This comes counter to a lot of writing advice which suggests that you should just write and write and write and not censor yourself, and then go back and see what nuggets you can find. But I think that it is not dissimilar: I am thinking and thinking and turning things over in my mind and will only keep what is best. And I'm not sure this will work (though I know the uncensored writing technique has been for me, nearly useless--I can write pages and have none of it yield anything), so it's just an experiment. So stay tuned to see how it goes.

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