There’s nothing like a high-five from a published poet, especially if it’s the gifted Clare Shaw, to help you get over yourself.
So, I’ve written this poem, I tell Clare and Jim Friel and the other writers gathered in the porch beneath the stars at the writers’ retreat where I work.
Yes? Clare says.
I’m not sure if it’s any good…I trail off to look at the moon, tugging my scarf a little tighter around my neck.
We’d been talking earlier about the value of feedback – how validating it can be; even the negative stuff. On a recent Arvon course, my tutor Jonathan Lee told me three things about my novel: he didn’t like it when the writing became over-earnest, or when I strayed from the specific into making general observations, but he loved the wry voice.
It was hard for me to judge, with this poem (because I’ve hardly written anything that resembles poetry), which side of wry, earnest and general I had fallen. But when Clare asked me what I was worried about I couldn’t articulate a response.
I think I used the word ‘dickwad’, which is what I thought people would think about me when they read it.
Get over it, she told me, before adding that she would read it.
I looked around at everyone sitting out, some of them smoking, some of them just here to join the conversation, and suggested I read it to them all.
When they nodded I hurried across the driveway into the darkness towards my house so that I could fetch my notebook. Behind me someone said: she’s skipping.
I was. I knew I was about to pass from that point of not knowing anything about my work to knowing something.
As I read, I felt which two words could become one, which sentence didn’t belong and where I could say more. And when I was brave enough to glimpse up at my unexpected audience I met with the radiance of Clare Shaw. She was listening. No, more than that – she was with me.
Afterwards she leant over and we high-fived.
Wait, Jim Friel said – Jim Friel genius novelist – let me take a photo.
You’re a wry poet, Clare told me.
Very specific, Jim added.
And not over-earnest, I asked.
No matter how much of a role discipline plays in my work, settling at my desk each day and making sure I write something, it’s always important to have some validation along the way: even if it’s just to remind me to get over myself. Friends can tell you that what you have written is really good. But when you are encouraged from the mouths of experts in their field, there’s nothing better.
Clare’s poems in Head On are superbly specific, so that even though the experiences within them may not be yours, they become yours. Her titles draw you in, so that you are immersed in the poem before you have a chance to feel nervous that ‘this is poetry’ ‘it might be over my head’. And the reading experience is interactive. She will draw an image, but leave a part of it out of sight so that your imagination does the rest. Clever. Powerful.
And Jim – although he has written a handful of novels – is a poet in his writing. His novel A Posthumous Affair is a world of his own making, where language is formed about under new rules, his rules. Often, if I read a work where the words are profuse I get a sense of a writer, trying to be a writer. But Jim doesn’t have to try. He has created a world where words are everything, so each sentence is part of that lush creation: abundant, necessary. Every sense is pulled in. I found myself giggling at times at the brilliance.
If you haven’t read either of them, you must. Order their books, go down to the bookshop tomorrow, but in the meantime you can read my poem!
Whenever I come to do yoga I never want to
There’s always an excuse.
I feel too stiff.
Like a car wreck,
But like I don’t want to do much,
Other than lie around.
I’m doing yoga in bed today.
I’ll follow my breath.
I’ll see I’m taut.
Like a muscle in an arm-wrestle,
But like a contraction of the lungs
When you suck out of surprise,
And hold for what comes next.
I see I need to relax,
Which is tricky:
An achiever telling an achiever to relax.
‘Relax!’ I say.
Excuses are mud patties in the hand, behind my back.
But who, or what, are they for?
Loved this post – it really resonates. I’m fortunate in having one friend who won’t tell me what she thinks I want to hear but tells it how it is for her. Invaluable…and keeps the ego at bay. Your poem absolutely worked for me partly because I can so relate to your thoughts. I do yoga…but never want to and, like you I can come up with a bucketful of reasons why not. Thank you for sharing.
I’m so glad you found some of yourself in the poem. That’s good for you, and for me!! And lucky you for having someone to give you the right kind of feedback!
I find that with poetry, I barely ever write any, but when I do I tend to have absolutely no sense of whether it’s any good. With other writing I do, I generally have an opinion about whether I’ve written something good or not, it might not be the same opinion as other people have of it, but it’s an opinion, but with poems I write I generally can’t even get to that point of an opinion about it, I totally need input from others, and yet when I read other people’s poems, I don’t usually have a problem formulating an opinion, or if not an opinion that I can articulate, I at least get a feeling from it, you know? Strange. Also this comment I’ve just written, my opinion is that I worded it all very clumsily, but someone else might think it’s a brilliant piece of writing 🙂
I always know that at some point as I read your comments I am going to laugh. You never fail me! As for what you say, which I did think was quite brilliant, I think (and I can only speak for myself) that I don’t know about my poems because I hardly ever write them. With prose, I know what it feels like to be authentic, so I know if I’ve felt that while writing. With poems, I have not idea about what it feels like because I just don’t write them that much.
I’ve never had anything to do with writers groups although I think it would be nice to be with other people who wrestle with the same creative problems as you, but I don’t think there is one near me, and I don’t have a car or bicycle. What I would say is your posts are always thought provoking and always make me think about the craft so thank you for that 🙂
Thanks Peter. I do recommend getting together with other writers. Why not think about an Arvon course? We have just finished a week of short stories at the centre here, with an amazing group of people who all left on a high, ready to charge on with their work.
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OMG dickwad is an expression of mine, so when I read that I snorted.
Another interesting post Gabs, yes we all need validation of how we write, no matter the genre. I must admit I worried so much when I first dipped my toes into the poetry pool, gradually like with any writer, I think I found my feet. There are those who sometimes don’t understand what I have written, but that’s okay, as we know readers draw their own conclusion and interpretations. I smiled at your poem and I saw the achiever trying to relax…breathe…breathe 🙂 ❤
Aw, thanks, Jen. I should have known (you being such a kindred spirit) that dickwad would be in your repertoire!
I remember that moment when I first sent off my writing for some independent feedback – that anxious, excited feeling and then the wonder when someone said it was actually good. I particularly love that line in the poem about the achiever trying to get the achiever to relax 🙂
Ha! That line is my life!!
every moment is my guru – chogyam trungpa rinpoche.
. every mud pie is a yoga. in the moment of no separation we find yoga, guru, life.
thank you for the inspiration.
Thank you for your awesome comment! You are right in that ‘no separation’.
I think those mud pies are for that other Self you have hovering around you, perhaps made of mud, herself – all dark, damp, and dripping with dirty self-loathing – that nibbles at the edges of your flame-red confidence, trying to drown it out with doubt. More mud pies to that, I say! Your words always give the reader something to think on, Gabriela. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂
ooh, Mayumi, I like it! ‘Flame-red confidence’! Thanks so much for finding time for this.
I loved this; the story and poem. Also what you said about feedback being helpful whether it is positive or negative is so true. All feedback helps.
Thank you for sharing and writing.
It’s a pleasure to share when I get such lovely feedback!
It’s certainly Is hard to be vulnerable and put your work out there, especially in front of successful professionals. Your writing always holds my interest; you paint pictures with your words and it makes it easy for me to visualize the story you are telling. I enjoyed the poem…it seems as though you approach yoga the way I sometimes do writing! 🙂
Shirley, thanks so much for your comment – such compliments! I definitely see a lot of parallels between my yoga and my writing practice. The most common one is that even though I may not feel like doing it, I always feel better when I do.