It all started with two remarks, one by a friend, the other by a stranger at work.
The friend’s first. I’d been whingeing, as I do, about the tiniest possibility that I appeared not to have achieved the level of world domination that my boundless talent merited.
My friend looked at me. She said, ‘So if I Googled you looking for your books and your poems, how would I find them?’
‘You do know about them,’ I said.
‘But people don’t. Where will they look?’
‘But people should already know about them,’ I said.
‘But let’s say they didn’t. Where would they look?’
I could feel sweat starting to form on my top lip.
‘Well, there’s that Poetry Society page…somewhere, I think, in the education bit, actually I’m not sure where it is, anyway, the Poetry Society, there, that’s one page, er, and the Poetry Archive has something…I think…’
‘You don’t even know.’ She looked at me.
‘No. I don’t. I don’t even know.’
‘You could make your own website you know. It’s quite easy. And free, most of the time.’
‘But I don’t know how to.’
‘You could learn. You’re not stupid.’
‘But what would I say?’
‘You’ll think of something,’ she said.
Second, the remark by a stranger.
I was at a thing. A work thing. A work thing about writing. Research writing. Academic writing. A thing about that.
The entertaining and lovely man speaking to us said lots of things, all of them useful, but nothing had the impact of this.
He said: ‘Everyone here who has a blog, put up your hand.’
There was a silence.
Everyone looked around at each other not putting their hand up. More silence. He watched us looking at each other.
‘So, if I’ve read this correctly,’ he said, ‘I am in the company of some of the best researchers in your field in the land, and not one of you thinks it necessary to share your ideas with the outside world.’
Someone cleared their throat. Then they said: ‘But people read our work in journals. Isn’t that enough?’
The man smiled. ‘No. It’s not enough, no. Not any more. Four people, four people are reading your work in journals. But everyone reads the internet. You should all go out and start a blog this evening, sharing your work, giving it away, telling your stories. There is a teacher in India who wants to read it, but she isn’t going to find it if all you do is put in the British Journal of Blah. No offence to the British Journal of Blah. You need to be both/and, not either/or.’ He smiled again.
Those two conversations fundamentally changed the way I think about what I do and what I make.
Be found. And when you are found, give your work away. Don’t worry, you’ll think of something to say. (You’re not stupid.) Years later I read the same premise in The War of Art and The Icarus Deception. I thought: it must be true.
Now that I have finally taken the advice of my friend and that smiling stranger I feel another confession is in order.
I have no idea what I am doing. None. Guesswork. All of it.
From how the widget thingys work to getting your Follow button in a promising place on the front page; from understanding my sharing buttons to what, exactly, is ‘About.me’: I am making it up as I go along.
This applies to the writing, too. ‘Oh, but it’s fine for you…’ −
NO. The plan is, there is no plan. (There certainly isn’t a Plan B, either.)
I didn’t know I was going to start writing posts beginning with ‘I am at a thing…’ until I began writing them. I didn’t plan to write about my cancer nearly eight years later. I didn’t even know Lifesaving Poems existed until I’d done about twenty of them.
The writing takes over (the poem always wins).
When Seth Godin said ‘This might not work’, it was the inside of my head he was talking about. It might not.
The point is, we all have a thing. As Jack Palance said to Billy Crystal in City Slickers: ‘One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.’
Or, as Thomas Lux says:
You need to love the thing you do – birdhouse building,
painting tulips exclusively, whatever – and then
you do it
so consciously driven
by your unconscious
that the thing becomes a wedge
that splits a stone and between the halves
the wedge then grows, i.e., the thing
is solid but with a soul,
a life of its own. Inspiration, the donnée,
the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Grow up! Give me, please, a break!
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded
toward the earth’s core.
And with that your heart on a beam burns
through the ionosphere.
And with that you go to work.