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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Poetry Is the Blood-Jet
monsters
catvalente
That used to be my favorite way to describe my writing. It's a line from Sylvia Plath. I felt it encapsulated everything. I just cut my veins open and bled onto a page. And it was true. I didn't think about technique or structure or anything like that. I did it all by instinct, wheeling through by the set of my pants--really, as though some long silver line was attached to my waistband, holding me up so that I could barely touch the earth with my toes, dragging me along so fast I could barely keep up. It made me happy to write like that. It felt honest and visceral. It felt bloody and raw and real.

Trouble with writing like that, though, is that eventually, you bleed out.

My early career, which was not a career at all, but a lot of me not understanding why dinky college mags didn't want to publish my poetry, was entirely wrapped up in confessional poetry. I had a lot to confess. The blood-technique worked for me--especially since I was mainly writing when I was feeling sanguine. A terrible relationship that became a worse marriage, a comically awful childhood, and various traumas fueled my work, and pretty often, that work was pretty good.

But there's really no way for a working writer to go around with their veins open all the time. There is simply too much work. Eventually, you run out of confessional. A couple of armfuls of books are as good as decades of therapy. Of course, new trauma comes along, but once you get to a certain point, there is no way to re-traumatize yourself and drag up the same hurts every day to pour onto the page--firstly, it means spending all your time in a state of emotional exhaustion, and second, it just won't be as good anymore. Like drugs, you need more to get to the same place, after awhile. You can't rise to the same heights as the first time you wrote about your stepmother cracking your head against the wall, or your girlfriend leaving you for a man. It won't be as raw, it will even start to feel tired. Even the most horrific of experiences can become pedestrian after being evoked over and over. Ask an actor--the sense memory that could reliably make them cry on command at twenty just doesn't have the same punch at forty.

On top of that, anthologies and magazines will be so very rude--they'll ask for stories on the topics they're covering, not my personal grief. And my workload these days is several stories a month, even before getting to the novels.

So where does that leave me? Because I also don't believe in writing hacky stories about the news item of the week just to sell it/make wordcount/have a publication this month. I've been feeling odd about this lately, as I've had a rash of very specific story requests: New Weird, please! Fairy tale villain! Science fiction space opera! Pulpy steampunk! YA vampire story! How do I take those and make them real and emotionally honest, how do I make them cut close to the bone when my private travails just don't translate so well to contemporary lesbian werewolf tales? I feel guilty, that I can't always find a real-life experience to lay on top of the genre shiny and make with the mythpunk every single time. I remember when poetry was the blood jet. Was I better then, purer?

I don't think I was. I think we all evolve. And sooner or later, one way or another, I was going to have to find another way.

I thought about this a lot while writing the pulp steampunk story. Because damn did I not have any deep-seated emotional horror to exorcise that would swash its clockwork buckle.

But I did have a lot of feelings about steampunk. Bitterness and frustration, for one. Admiration, lust and disappointment, for others. They were deep, complex feelings. And I could make a story out of that. Brain is just as valid as blood, as heart. In every assignment, I have to find the thing that makes my pulse quicken--and it isn't always expunging some past pain any more. Short stories are for me much more often than not assignments, though novels are the unconstrained, freedom-loving hippies of my eternal colony. They answer to nobody but themselves.

Of course, sometimes it is. One of my poems up for the Rhysling this year is anguish in a column.

Ten years ago I would have been horrified to hear myself say these things--writing is only valid if it is the blood-jet, right? There is definitely a school of thought that that's the case. Of course, people have been telling me I can't write well if I write fast, or while being young, or while bleeding in that very fashion. It's amazing how often I used to hear about the ironclad rules of being a writer. Part of me hates even writing this post. It's taken me hours. But I think part of growing up as a writer is learning to use your whole body, all your tools, learning how to start with bleeding on the page, but not end there, to shape and craft that flow into something more complex than pure miasma. And sometimes learning how to start with something other than your own personal history, how to tell other people's stories. How to expand your capabilities beyond the confessional. I think this is especially important when it comes to creating characters who are more than an obvious mirror of the author. I think I'm a better writer for these things--certainly one more able to make deadlines. I don't think I've lost anything--I've gained, if anything, a measure of control I didn't have before.

Though most, I think, would say that it's a cut-brakeline on a race car kind of control, even now.

Don't get me wrong--I write pretty nakedly most of the time and always have. Always will. It wasn't so long ago I wrote this, and I still agree with every word of it. I'm never going to stop being myself. I think if you know me well enough, you can trace the parts of my real life that flicker and stretch through all my fiction. Even the occasional story about winemaking still comes from my obsessions, my need to create complex systems. But I'm not just writing out my innards anymore, without a care for anything beyond pretty words and private flagellation. Writing about pulpy steampunk from a totally different perspective than I'm used to, having to go to another place to fulfill my obligation to the publication, made me realize how far I've come, how different my process is now--like making lace instead of just knitting and purling. I think, now, I'm a laboratory desgined to channel and transmogrify the blood-jet, to extend a metaphor. I've got a lot further to go--at best I'm in my second stage as a writer. I can't say what the next step is, the next iteration.

But if I weren't fascinated by my own evolution, I wouldn't be a writer at all.


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ooh, nicely written, mind if I link to it?

"...if I weren't fascinated by my own evolution, I wouldn't be a writer at all."

Nicely and very succinctly put. I don't much like going back over old stuff (it's time I'd rather spend moving forward), but do it every now and then and it can be instructive. That and you sometimes forget what territory you already covered....

That last line is totally what writing/arting is all about. I always say if I can't look back on my work from two years ago and say "Wow, look how much I've changed!" then I've stopped getting better, and if I stop getting better, it's time to hang up the pencils and become an accountant or something.

Just as an F.Y.I....

I convinced two random people in a park reading Kindles to buy/download Palimpsest, and possibly the Orphan's tales while I was talking with them. :-)

Their one suggestion would be to have one of your books, or a short story available for free/$0.99 if possible. They said they will more often then not get hooked on an author and buy their other books when looking for quick/cheap reading. Not sure how much control you have over the pricing and release on the Kindle/ebooks right now.

But after reading the sample from Palimpsest, they were hooked :-)

There are several free short stories up on my site--I have no control over Amazon's price scale.

But yay for converting newbies!

But I think part of growing up as a writer is learning to use your whole body, all your tools, learning how to start with bleeding on the page, but not end there, to shape and craft that flow into something more complex than pure miasma.

Yes.

your whole body, indeed. You are your own best magickal tool, all the shapes and flavors of you. I agree. Keep learning and living, brave girl. I love you and I love your spicy brains.

I'm hardly a writer on a massive scale--rather, I tend to have tons of ideas and I keep abandoning each one because they all seem subtly broken in ways that I don't know how to fix. But after going through so many, I did come to see that I was essentially using a set of conceptual Tangrams. Maybe it would be invisible to any other eye, but each idea was made out of the same cluster of concepts that had just been cleverly rearranged and painted over in each new form. It's frustrating, because I would really like to be able to create truly original things (in the sense of not accidentally repeating myself all the time), and I hope that I can someday get to that point where I can create something unique intellectually and then be able to animate it with emotion that isn't necessarily mine. It feels comforting to write about things that are deeply meaningful to me, so maybe it's an issue of me having to step outside my Warm-Fuzzy box. :/

Thanks for the post; it made me think. :)

--R.

I write about things that are deeply meaningful to me--what I have to watch out for is that Tangram effect. Repeating what was once vivid because it's easy, whether or not it's vivid now.

Tori Amos said something like that about the transition from Little Earthquakes to Under the Pink.

As far as I can tell there is only one ironbound rule of being a profiessional writer, the rest are just guideline or suggestions. Following the "rules" can make it easier to get published, but the only real rule "Get paid" everything else is negotiable.

Thank you for this post. I find that I tend to bleed in different ways in my writing, not all of which (hopefully) will be apparent to the reader who does not know me, or even to those who do. I'm not making my living writing like you are (being an MFA student is not a career), but I feel compelled to keep producing, to keep making work that someone will want to publish. You are absolutely right about the burn-out part; too much spilt blood, and the well of creativity will run dry. I do think, though, that there is a balance one can strike between purely "bleeding" and "crafting" -- this has always been my philosophy. Just bleeding onto the page will usually not produce anything worthy of keeping, I've found, though it may be a necessary activity to engage in from time to time. I have no problem with "killing my children" if they are stillborn to begin with.

~m

This is powerful.

Wow.

A friend of mine who has published a couple of books of memoir is frequently asked whether she intends to write another. Her usual answer is, "I really hope not! I don't want my life to include anything else eventful enough to make another memoir!!" She still writes stories, and teaches, but she has run out of blood for the page. And as much as she loves writing, and as hard as the transition sometimes is for her, she's really quite glad to have a life which no longer contains anything exciting enough for publication, at least without being transformed into the bones of fiction first.

As a writer who is for the most part without great traumas (except for that whole born/live/love/die thing), I found it very interesting to hear from someone who is moving from therapeutic writing to well, whatever this place is that I write from. I agree that it is extremely unhealthy to depend on great emotional scars for your writing ability, because no writer needs to stay in a bad space simply because there is more writing potential there.


I remember reading an interview of David Lynch where he said he'd refused to go into therapy for fear it would ruin him creatively.

I think all kinds of strategies change as we get older and our relationship to writing changes. If you hold on to the things that worked when you were just starting out, I think you wind up like the middle-aged guy who still acts like he's an undergrad. Maybe there was a time when my muse wanted to get drunk and screw in a nightclub bathroom. But dude, I'm pushing forty. Writing the way I did when I was 20 would be undignified.

Lovely, lovely, lovely. And very mature. Sometimes raw oomph can carry you through, but sometimes you just need skill to make it that extra mile.

I always thought it interesting, in Roald Dahl's book My Uncle Oswald, where they con sperm out of artists and royalty for fertility treatments, that they mostly skipped over writers. Uncle Oswald felt that good writers are born from experience, not DNA. I don't know if I agree a hundred percent with that, but I know life experience, especially the... traumatic experiences, influenced my relationship with words, and, it seems, yours. It can be a powerful drive, but like any fuel, burns out after so long. I think that may be behind a few literary and musical one-hit wonders, so to speak. Some bands are notorious for having a killer debut album, but losing the intensity in rounds 2 and 3.

The question is, where do you go from there? And I guess, like you say, we all have to figure out our own answers.

Yeah, ask me sometime how I triggered chronic illness by working too hard to scrape things out of my head. Were I not so dumb, etc.

Most literary rules are better off bent, and combining the ritualistic self-flagellation of confessional poetry with genre tropes makes a much more delicious cocktail than either the bucket of emo-blood or elven mead alone.


Heh. That is a brilliant way of putting it.

A poetry professor had said something to this effect to my class in college. It really helped. I am still sometimes bleeding out and sometimes in small spurts. I haven't written enough of anything yet to be really and truly tired of it.

I always thought I would need to bleed out, to write everything in my soul. And while I would never claim to be anywhere as good, I find myself more like Austen. That I want to write a happy ending. And for me, right now, that's enough. It's what I need for myself.

Thank you for writing this.

It explains/describes to me where I am with my writing (poetry and prose) and why I have not written much for so many years. I am no longer an angsty teenager with loads of baggage pulling me apart at the seams. I am now a better balanced 40+ with loads of baggage that is, these days, teaching me many life lessons every day.

I used to write by stream-of-conciousness and to never/rarely edit. Maybe the way I now am and my learned day to day self-editing means that I need to learn/practice writing in a more considered manner. With editing! ;-p

Thank you again.

thank you for posting this. it puts some things into greater perspective for me. i tend to write from the visceral spilled subconscious and had been stuck on the idea of keeping what i penned down to be left in a more purist fashion. kind of similar to what i'd heard once in an oil painting class- mix as few different shades together, for when that is done there is a translucent and vivid under-luster-tone that remains. it glows. i tended to think when i began editing some pieces freshly written that the result was segmentation. seeing it become more filled in by reality. it seemed to be like leaving the water more toward the shore. where there was less mystery in daydreaming and all the emotions that ring around that. but i also had kept in mind the notion of writing from a mirrored, flagellating, self-exhibitionist point of view as a shedding of skin. the kind like where they say you should write the letter but never send it to someone. complete self-indulgence forgetting the rest of the world exists. and in this i took what you'd said regarding being a writer that can tell others' stories to heart. i don't know if i've ever been able to successfully crawl into another's skin to be able to write from beyond the eyes they see out of before. i always write from flashes of visions or emotions that conjure them up and so have never been able to write anything lengthy, just short stories, poetry, and ideas for little films. i felt like creating an entire world in novel form is something that takes far more skill and patience, a larger world than a flash could hold. so i found it interesting that you spoke of writing a novel as something freeing. it gives me some inspiration to peel apart that vein that has never been opened.

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