Mastery comes at a price

I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Though I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s many books, I figure someone as prolific as he must have something interesting to say about writing. I’m about eight pages in and I know I’ve made an excellent choice.

So far, King hasn’t said much about the craft itself. The author says this book is his curriculum vitae, or “my attempt to show how one writer was formed.” As I’m only eight pages in, King has thus far written only about his boyhood and certain events that were significant in his early years. Notably, there was injury, illness, and pain, as well as several trips to the doctor. King writes about this not to elicit sympathy, rather these anecdotes serve as an explanation about how he was “formed.” One anecdote describes a procedure a doctor performed on him on three separate occasions to cure him of ear infections brought on by strep throat. King describes the pain as the most acute pain he’s ever felt–and that includes much later being hit by a car! As the nurse and his mother held him down, the doctor inserted a long needle into his ear drum. King writes, “I screamed so long and so loud that I can still hear it. In fact, I think that in some deep valley of my head that last scream is still echoing.”

With that last chilling sentence, I understand King almost completely. I understand why horror is his genre. Eighteen words. Well, to be fair, they followed a long anecdote. Nonetheless, the entire time that anecdote was leading up to that last sentence. One long, lingering scream of pain. No doubt that scream can be heard throughout his many books. Masterful.

This experience alone doesn’t explain how King came to be a writer. Were he of a different temperament perhaps he would’ve become a serial killer. He hasn’t yet revealed a deep, abiding love for the English language, though my guess is at some point he might. But the story does offer a window into his psyche. What does one do with this echoing scream of pain? Most therapists would say, “Write it down.” Write it down, so it doesn’t haunt you. Perhaps, in spite of his best efforts, the scream haunts him anyway.

A Lesson in “The Way”

I usually don’t have too much to say about the subject of love. I have not had that many romantic relationships. The few that I have had have been brief. The longest lasted less than a year. I loved him — and I’d like to believe he loved me — but he left me without so much as a goodbye. It’s been ten years and my heart is still recovering from the sting of that one.

Now, for the first time in ten years, my heart wants to heal — and I long to be in the arms of another man. Only time will tell if this feeling will last but in the meantime, I have more to say about the subject of love.

“The Way” by Robert Creeley begins, “My love’s manners in bed / are not to be discussed by me…” Immediately, the word “honorable” comes to mind. I don’t “kiss and tell.” I expect the same from my lovers. Also, I don’t make love with men I don’t trust. This seems like a no-brainer, right? But there are plenty of foolish people in the world – women and men alike – who give themselves up entirely to the wrong people. Trust comes from an innate sense of wrong and right — that is, what is wrong or right for you. Knowing oneself is the key here. Knowing what you value and can tolerate in another person, which virtues and flaws, allows you to make a judgment on whether you should invite them into your heart and into your bed. I believe I am a good judge of character.

Creeley finishes that initial thought with: “…as mine by her / I would not credit comment upon gracefully.” I believe he is being modest here. Perhaps he feels he is a clumsy or ungraceful lover and that this is what his love would reveal, were she to “kiss and tell.”

The second stanza makes a subtle allusion to chivalrous imagery: woods, a lake, a castle and strongholds. Creeley writes, “…and [I] have a small boy’s notion of doing good.” Small boys are often fascinated by tales of knights. Chivalry still lives within the hearts of small boys. Perhaps this idea is where the title comes from–chivalry, courtly love, etc.

Creeley brings us back to the twentieth century by beginning the third and final stanza with “Oh well…” He ends the poem with a wish for his fellow chivalrous knights:

Oh well, I will say here,
knowing each man,
let you find a good wife too,
and love her as hard as you can.

I like the idea of loving someone “hard” — with all one’s heart and all one’s might. There is something divine about it. Anything less would not be worthy of the word “love.”


May 1 poem on May 2

While it is still dark here on the West Coast, I wish to write about a poem from the book Poem For the Day, edited by Nicholas Albery. I opened to the May 1 poem (thinking it was still the first of May), which is a poem by John Dryden entitled “Happy the Man”.

When I was in tenth grade at ol’ Downey High School, Ms. Hanson taught us about English literature. We learned about Shakespeare, Jonson, Dryden, and Milton. In my memory of these poets, I have confused their eras. Apparently, Shakespeare and Jonson were contemporaries as were Milton and Dryden (albeit if Dryden was significantly younger than Milton). All this is to say–the first time I heard about Dryden was in Ms. Hanson’s class in tenth grade.

“Happy the Man” by Dryden strikes me as an interesting poem because it strikes me as quite “Seize the Day” in tone but also it is meditative. It’s not merely a “Carpe Diem”-type poem. It does not implore us to merely seek pleasure. The poem implores us to be grateful and to say, “I have lived. Nothing can take that away from me.”

Happy the Man

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine,
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

According to the poetry collection, Dryden died on May 1, 1700.

Oh! I see what’s going on here. The poem is a translation of Horace (Odes, Book III, xxix). I understand now why I was so confused at first. This is not an original poem but rather a translation (which is an art in its own right)! The theme of the poem does seem rather Carpe Diem, and it probably was in the original Latin. Regardless, I love the tone of the poem and Dryden’s interpretation. It resonates with me on this early morning.

The Daemon in the Corner

When I think about writing, I always tend to think that I should strive for perfection—that every sentence must be perfect! Really, I know this is an unrealistic expectation and, truly, in this realm as we know it, there is no such thing as perfection. But I continue to write anyway, hoping for a glimmer of something magical, if not divine.

Elizabeth Gilbert gave an amazing TED talk about the subject of creative genius. She describes the notion of the Greek “daemon,” or the Roman “genius,” as a disembodied spirit that provides inspiration. Only during the Renaissance did people begin to describe individuals as “geniuses,” Gilbert says. The notion that the daemon or genius is separate from the creative person is liberating, especially for Gilbert whose success is almost immeasurable. But it’s also liberating for creatives who toil in anonymity. If the sentences I write are not perfect, it’s not entirely my fault! The daemon didn’t show up, I can say.

But what if I do not show up?

I have been living through a period of creative doubt. It has lasted almost a decade, I would say. For nearly ten years, I have doubted my own creativity and abilities as a writer. But for much of that time, my creative voice has merely been silent. It has not produced anything great nor has it produced anything horrid. It simply has not produced. That will change this year.

Of course, I will strive to produce the best work I possibly can, and I realize that after nearly ten years of silence, my creative voice might be a bit rusty. But with proper use and exercise, I might get to a place where it’s at least not too bad. What I must remember is that showing up is half the battle. If this is the work I was born to do–and I believe it is–I must do it. I must also remind myself that it is, indeed, work, that inspiration is fleeting, that the daemon itself is fickle. Life is too short to put writing off for another day—because for all I know, I might not get another day. Take nothing for granted, I should tell myself.

The work I used to do was poetry. Over the last year, I had many false starts in prose. I often tell myself that prose, specifically fiction, is likely to be more profitable. This might very well be the case—however if I don’t regularly write then I cannot produce anything period, never mind it being profitable. Maybe I will give poetry writing another shot. I used to believe that poetry in particular required the presence of the Muse. I don’t know why I believed that. Everywhere I looked (when I was younger) I found inspiration. It’s a matter of seeing—what do you see when you look? For nearly a decade, I have only been looking not seeing. In other words, I have not been paying attention. The nine-to-five workday makes everything feel mundane and not special. But even in the workplace one can find inspiration, I suppose. When I think of the zany things my coworkers do and say, I find that I can be amused and even inspired. I do not wish to write about work, though. At least not now.

But what to write about, especially if I am to write poetry?

I will think of something. Until I have some poetry to share, I will just continue to maintain this blog and talk about writing, creativity, and inspiration. That should be enough to at least show the daemon in the corner that I’m serious.

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