A while ago I received a phone call from a fellow writer and friend. She wanted to know if there was any value in the manuscript she’s been working on, mostly in isolation, for the last year or so. She’d had only occasional opportunities to share the work with others, and felt she lacked perspective, perhaps in part because she was also consumed with raising a child, and felt discouraged on professional fronts. She wasn’t asking for a critique, but she needed some sense that she should keep going. In other words, did it make any sense to keep working on those poems?
How often have I asked myself whether what I’m doing is worth anything? Certainly no month goes by without the thought, though some weeks can bring it up every day. And when I ask that question, am I questioning the work, myself, or where it meets the world?
Is this a female thing? Or just an artist thing?
I’m recalling this conversation the morning after beginning Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays, ‘Men Explain Things to Me,’ and so of course I’m reflecting on why I, and many of my female colleagues, continue to grapple with the value (and perceived value) of our ideas: the worth of our work in the world. I have many thoughts about this, of course.
Solnit writes “Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.” This I know and believe. What more is there? Well, it still requires practice, obviously. I’ve found that solidarity with like-minded people is also helpful. Total isolation is not, though sometimes one wonders who to talk to about these things. It’s not a conversation enough people seem interested in having, though it concerns our very lives, and it’s so much bigger than our art, which is simply one way to show up and speak and think. It’s about having a pluralistic society, in which a broad range of skills and contributions and ways of being can have a place.
Let me be clear: I’m not questioning the worth of art or artists, but for reasons I’m still exploring, there’s a stealthy voice (Voice of Society? Voice of Disinterested Friends?) that insists on asking what anything I do has to do with anyone or anything else. This is the result, in part, of working in solitude, of being a quiet and private person in a loud culture, of being a minor poet in a time that values celebrity and narrowly defines success, and maybe it’s the result of being unattached to an institution that would, in theory, make space for creative work, though my colleagues at colleges, for example, seem similarly engaged with versions of the inner dialogue I’m describing.
Solnit: “To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.”
Which makes me think of the beautiful, radical, soulful June Jordan, who said: These poems / they are things that I do / in the dark / reaching for you / whoever you are / and / are you ready?
I read my friend’s manuscript with these things in mind, and I read it as one who also needs, despite a deep faith in my words, some indication that I’m connecting to others when I speak or write.
After writing the poems that would become my book Pilgrim, I made a similar call and confession to a friend. Because I had done that work without a writing group or a consistent reader, I had had to learn to trust myself in order to keep working. Or at least I needed to trust myself in a new way. It felt powerful to write and not think about what a workshop would say, including the nice things I enjoyed hearing from my former writing group. Instead, I chose to focus on what I needed and desired to say, and I forgot about everything else for a while.
After my publisher accepted Pilgrim, and even after she’d started working with the book designer to make it a real book, I began doubting what I had submitted. I’d held back those concerns long enough to write the poems, but some kind of new-to-me anxiety caught up with me, and this shook me. I mean, Who am I trying to impress? Who cares anyway?
I wasn’t writing those poems to win prizes or to get somewhere professionally. They were, and are something else to me, but I had to clarify that, again, at that moment. My poems are what I make. I write them to create something with my own “dirty little hands”, as the late journalist, David Carr, encouraged the young journalists he mentored to do.
It’s not so different from my commitment to laying a beautiful table, using my grandmother’s linens and good silver, even on a Monday night. These acts originate in my commitment, my pact with myself, to pay attention to life—my one and only life—and the little world I inhabit. They also give me pleasure, make me happy, and provide a way to create beauty, through meaningful work, using really basic materials.
Finally, I confessed my angst to a friend, and she agreed to look at my poems. She didn’t dish up praise, or console me with empty words of reassurance, and to be honest, this wouldn’t have helped me anyway. Instead, she described her experience as a reader. She had read the poems, understood some things about what I had done, and valued them (and me) enough to put all of that into a few sentences about what it was like to encounter what I’d given her.
This was the antidote. I calmed down. Not because she said that the poems were “good”, but because she articulated what happened when she approached them as an interested human, not a critic, though she has that ability, too. (Psychologists will remind us that it’s a fundamental human need to be seen.)
I wish more readers felt empowered to respond this way. Reflecting on what we read is not solely the domain of experts. Certainly we can speak of literature in terms of what’s good, and what’s bad (at least according to our particular taste and sensibility), and most people also want to talk about what they “like,” but reading is richer than that.
We’ll sometimes have complex responses to what we read, and sometimes this leads to arguments, or changes of heart, or Aha moments, and I really enjoy talking about these things with other people. It’s one of the best ways to get to know someone, as well; it’s not small talk, and it’s a kick to examine what moves in us during the otherwise private experience of a text. It’s a kick to talk about something that goes deeper than surfaces, too, which is what so much of our fast-paced world is focused on these days.
This shift—from negatively ruminating in solitude, to facing what I’d made and talking about it with friend—did everything to change my relationship to that body of work. It also affirmed my belief that we all need at least one ally who gets what we’re doing, gives some sort of a damn, and can talk to us about it.
I say this with new conviction, even as I am known to quote William Stafford’s poem, “Nobody Cares,” which I happen to see as both hard truth, and a form of fundamental freedom. (In other words, if no one cares, I can carry on without worrying about what anyone else thinks, especially during the generative phase.)
Eventually, though, it turns out that I do need someone else to care, and so I’ve worked to cultivate a few people who want to have these sorts of conversations with me: about my work, about theirs, and about the other work that matters to us. All kinds of work—not just poems.
Now, when I finish something, I say “This is what I made.” It’s a way of honoring my effort, as well as my limits. It’s what I did, not what I could have done, or might prefer to have done. This idea has lead to a series of conversations with other artists and I’m looking forward to publishing some of those in a series for Culture Keeper . These ideas also inform my approach to mentorship and shape the material we cover in my apprenticeship program.