I was rummaging through some old notebooks today, trying to find the lyrics to a song we loved as kids–”If everybody had a tail and chose its shape and size“… What I found instead was a pair of pages written about a decade ago, reflecting on the different personalities with which I seemed to write in different genres.
I was enrolled at the time as a “Creative Writing poetry” student in a Master’s program, but had just discovered the joys of “Creative Non-Fiction“… It’s a fitting retrospective for me to come across this week, just as I’ve been contemplating the idea that my “Calling” is probably to writing non-fiction. (And I’ve learned to pay attention whenever God nudges me with a bit of serendipitous synchronicity.) It’s not what I would write now–especially since The Blogger and The Freelancer hadn’t yet made their appearance (and “Tea-Party” didn’t yet have political connotations), but it’s an interesting way of looking at the writing process. With that bit of introduction, I’ll hand this post over to Myself of Ten Years Ago–in all her variations…
The Poet has difficulty writing, has to drag herself to it. She writes with black ballpoint pen on a yellow legal pad, which she discards when it gets too thin and feels less satisfying. She writes sitting up in bed, or at the kitchen counter, or occasionally at the roll-top oak desk given to her “because she’s a writer”–the place where she’s meant to write but often feels too panicky, afraid she won’t write well. She has published a double handful of times and appeared once in the city’s newspaper, but she knows poetry doesn’t pay, and she knows she’s small time. She builds a protection out of that knowledge–she doesn’t plan to make it big, or even make a living, and that frees her (she insists to herself) simply to write. (Except at the desk.) And see what happens.
The Poet writes small snapshots of experience–places, people’s words or gestures, moments of meaning. The “poetry” file on her hard drive reads like a scrapbook of life-minutes. Like when she was in the ER miscarrying, and the cupboard under the sink had a label on it saying “nothing stored here,” and how prophetically ironic that felt. Or when her Filipina aunt-in-law took her to her local market, a jumble of unfamiliar vegetables and meat parts and dark people, and men followed her around staring at her pale eyes and pale hands and making crude jokes in Tagalog which the aunt glossed over in her gracious manner, calling her “a novelty.” The Big Events she doesn’t cover. There was no wedding poem. She wrote instead about trying on dresses with her mother. She wrote about the clerk at the county courthouse insisting that her husband couldn’t write “Filipino” on the marriage license because his “proper race” was Asian. Though her world trembled when she met her son, there’s no childbirth poem. She wrote how her infant, with a vocabulary of 45 signed words, refused to sign “Mama,” would only sign “milk.” Not the Big Moments. She may be afraid of getting sentimental. Kiss of death in the ass-kick, that-sucks world of Poetry Workshops.
The Poet already knows, when she begins to write, what she’s writing about. She knows she will throw away at least a page of writing by the time she hits a line she might keep. She despises small “useless” words–prepositions, articles, possessives–doesn’t like to waste syllables or space on words that carry so little meaning, but sometimes she has to put them back because no one could understand what she was trying to write.
The Poet sends out her poems regularly, periodically sees one printed in a publication no one ever heard of. She emails every poem to her mother, who collects them in a notebook and photocopies them to give to people–her law clients, karate classmates, flyfishing pals–and the Poet gets surprise-comments from readers she doesn’t know. This, though entirely without prestige, is her favorite publishing forum.
On about the fourth draft of a piece, The Poet types it into her word processor to see it take shape as a printed page, but she continues her revisions by hand, on hard copies printed out. She revises mercilessly on her own, cutting and paring and trimming to the core of the experience, to the most powerful of words, but acts on workshop advice less than half the time. Poems are intensely hers, and she’d rather have them the way she wants them than have them appeal to anyone else, in cases where those two things are incompatible.
She lights lilac candles and plays soothing music without discernible words. Drinks coffee with heavy cream. Meditates. Trying to write.
The Essayist is lazy, but not worried. Essays are not intensely intimidating, though she lacks the discipline to sit down and do it as often as she means to. She writes (when she writes) at the computer. She types 100 words per minute when she’s in full swing, and drinks soda or lemonade but never coffee while she’s writing. A hot drink would get cold before she took her hands off the keyboard. She writes long emails to family and friends (essays disguised as “updates”) about whatever is surprising or humorous at home.
She’s comfortable at the computer, teaches high school online, researches ideas, plays music, edits digital video, builds websites, plays Freecell while she brainstorms. For her few writing jobs away from the computer, she chooses from her collection of fountain pens (given to her “because she’s a writer”) which she uses to write letters (essays disguised as mail) and journals (essays disguised as record-keeping).
The Essayist composes in small fragments–a couple dozen disconnected paragraphs, beginnings of ideas–which she will not throw away. She will try to weave them together by adding connective tissue later. She often thinks she’s writing one essay and ends up with a different one altogether–sits down to write about beer and turns out four pages about her sister instead–but she doesn’t fight these changes-of-course, enjoys where the process takes her. Enjoys the humor in her own ability to surprise herself.
The Essayist feels fairly comfortable workshopping beginnings, when she hasn’t managed to pull together a finished sort of piece. She might wish she had gotten farther on her own, but the workshop is a useful tool that launches her to the next step of revision. Revision, for the Essayist, usually consists of writing more. She hasn’t managed to connect her pieces, or she hasn’t treated her subject as thoughtfully, yet, as she should. Workshop advice usually boils down to the message: you’re still being lazy with this piece. She knows this already, but it’s how she’s being lazy that her classmates are able to point out, and that she needs to hear. Workshop advice re-energizes her, and she writes more.
She writes Big-Picture stuff. Not Big Picture like world politics, but a big picture of her connected experiences. An essay might touch on half a dozen stories, and the ways they connect. She can’t hide in an essay; she tells too much.
I dug up the Poet’s self-assessment of ten years ago–before the appearance of the Essayist–and found the details similar to today’s. I sit in my blue chair, write on yellow legal pads (not too thin) or on white paper (with colored ink), drink coffee, listen to Enya. But the whole report seems less fraught with anxiety–more excited about the process and less fearful about the results–than today’s Poet. The Poet now is not a particularly comfortable person, I realize. But she still writes poetry that pleases me. And my mother. (Who still has an instinct for who else might be pleased, and acts accordingly.) And the occasional editor. I wouldn’t wish away The Poet, but I’m glad to have the Essayist Tail in my closet as well.
My mother taught us a song when we were young, about wishing for a tail. “If everybody had a tail and chose it’s shape and size, would you prefer a tufted one to swat at passing flies?” It went on to list a variety of options one might choose, and even suggested one might change one’s tail “for parties or for tea.” I was so enamored of this last idea that I constructed a wardrobe of different tails for myself, to fasten to the back of my pants. I was a Tail-Monster, and I could change my identity at will.
Apparently the idea still appeals. I am not distressed by the schizophrenic discovery of my different writing selves. I am pleased. I wonder if there might be more of me. I wonder which of these personalities might perform functions outside of my writing life—the Poet with her attention to small detail, and the Essayist with her free-form bigger picture… I imagine that the Poet drives my minivan–cautiously!–when my son is onboard. The Poet plans travel and vacations, with an eye toward the snapshot-experience. She probably pays the bills as well. The Essayist is the reader, enjoying connections between the page and her life, scanning across the big picture. The Essayist chairs an English department, and argues with her bosses about tax issues, and prepares lesson plans; The Poet grades papers and keeps her schedule detailed on the Palm Pilot. The Poet has painted the interior of her house in various greens, and sewed curtains. The Essayist enjoys films, and acts in community-theatre musicals. It’s the Poet who visits the Bath & Body shop, carefully selecting scents of hand-lotion and bubble bath for private thinking. It’s the Essayist who laughs, and hosts fondue dinner parties or barbeques that fill the back patio with friends, and wears the tea-party tail.