My main memory of watching The West Wing is the way Martin Sheen would wrap up discussions with his staff by asking ‘What’s next?’ I loved the energy of this, the sense the script gave you that there was no time to lose in facing the new challenges ahead.
I have often wondered if the same can be applied to poetry.
Many is the time I have heard poets say (and I include myself in this) ‘I cannot send you a poem/contribute/take part because I have just finished a book/sequence of work/commission and I am in a creative drought/down-cycle/fallow period and am exhausted/not working/unable to produce anything/resting.’
I used to take people at their word. As I get older, I am not so sure.
I am sure my own sense of a lack of time and concomitant urgency to move on to the next thing can be explained, in part, by my personal experience of serious illness. Of late I have also been influenced by Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, and Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art and Do the Work. (There are a million blog posts already about these books (as well as the authors’ own), so I won’t spend too much time rehashing what they say here.)
At the risk of being reductive, they essentially tell us (and by ‘us’ I mean anyone with a laptop or smartphone and half an idea to their name) not to wait to get picked but to get on and do the work we have been given to do, whatever the risk of failure, and to do it repeatedly: ‘You don’t need a guru; you need experience, the best kind of experience, the experience of repeated failure’ [Seth Godin].
This might be setting up that poetry blog, festival on a chicken farm (ChickenStock, geddit?), experimental poetry group, or beginning that commission on a subject you know nothing about (going out of your comfort zone, how exciting!). The list goes on.
In a similar vein, creativity theorists talk about the ‘over-inclusive’ thinking that is demonstrated by artists, makers and entrepreneurs, both at the point at which they make their work, and that can be seen when looking at their work as a whole [insert your favourite novelist/poet/band/artist/inventor here]. This goes against the ‘less is more’ approach we are often told is the real secret of creativity. Refinement, editing and killing your darlings can always come later.
As I get older the artists whose work I am increasingly drawn to are the ones who make and made lots of stuff, lots and lots of it. Some of it great, some of it not so great, some of it self-indulgent and sprawling, but all of it theirs, alive and kicking. They didn’t rest between poems, or books. They said ‘What’s next?’ then did it.
The problem with What next? is that poets are frequently thought to be only as good as their next poem! If you haven’t been visited by your muse for an extended period of time, that makes you feel like a sort of ‘concluded’ poet, doesn’t it? Philip Larkin, for one, complained bitterly at the perpetual droughts that overtook his inspiration. Work is not necessarily the answer to this dilemma, though I have found that crisis, or sudden illness often can be! But the ‘urge’ ( the word itself derives from urgency!) to write (a peculiar phenomenon in itself!), I have discovered, just cannot be commanded. I am with that severely underrated poet, F. Scott Fitzgerald, when he concludes The Great Gatsby with the stunning :
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.:
This is probably the best we can, any of us, ever manage.
Thanks so much for this.
I am never visited by the muse. But I do bash down her (?) door down occasionally. Sometimes carrying flowers and sometimes a power drill.
It depends on what needs to get done.
I’m so pleased you saw this
I too have been through the serious, possibly life-ending, cancer experience and wish to endorse what you say. ‘What next?’ Get on and do it! There may not be a tomorrow, and if there is then that’s a bonus, a huge one. Illness makes you understand how precious life really is and how little time we truly have. It makes you the oppposite of idle! Although sometimes I’d like to be….
I agree and I don’t agree. I am facing in two separate directions. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Never have. There’s always something to learn, something to write, something to be made. But I DO believe in waiting (rather than resting), in the same sense as listening rather than talking. (I say this as an arrant and irrepressible talker, of course). Sometimes I think people rush on, propelled by ‘what’s next’, instead of working through what’s happening now, until now is fully realised.
But I don’t think there are any rules. And this whole thing may change for people at different stages and ages, too. I used to write a great deal of poetry. Now I write a great deal less. I used to worry about that a bit, but I’m not worried now. I guess I think ‘what’s next’ as the product of curiosity and enquiry is great, but ‘what’s next’ as a product of a need to be doing something continuously — I’m not so sure about that. I think reflection IS a kind of doing. And stopping is also a kind of doing. For me, the key is to keep learning, and because I love writing, I want to keep learning about writing. So much to learn. So many ways to learn it.
And I don’t mind artists (or poets) writing lots and lots and lots of stuff, I just wish they wouldn’t publish all of it. 🙂
Since it’s pretty much impossible to face in two separate directions, I think the signposts must just be wrong, and these are stops on the same trip. And there better be coffee at each one of them.
An excellent post, Neil. I especially agree with your statement :
I think reflection IS a kind of doing.
It puts me in mind of those theoretical mathematicians and cosmologists whose entire job it is to sit and think (OK, a bit caricatural, put like this!) This kind of thinking never really stops for the writer, does it, whatever external events appear to be compelling our absolute attention! And when the time is ripe (‘ripeness is all’!) out bursts the creative response, more or less independently of our conscious volition. That’s how the stuff I write ‘springs into being’, and a very peculiar-but-satisfying experience it can be, too!
The Romans cooked up a god who looked two ways -Janus. I think we all do this a bit more than we like to admit.
Like the teachers (whose views I research) who say they want to do poetry but are secretly scared of it.
I agree and don’t agree with you!
Wonderful stuff as ever