I am not much of a believer in inspiration. Well, no, that’s not true: Good writing needs a little lightning, which only strikes unbidden, coursing through it. But waiting to write until one is inspired is like waiting to have a drink of water until it rains. I cannot survive that way. I am the kind of writer who needs to write every day. And while I do take some pride in that, I have to admit I do it more out of a compulsion than out of any kind of purposeful commitment. Nobody wants to be around me on a day I don’t find a few minutes to write—least of all my wife and my kids. If I can’t do a little bit of writing, my brain is all mushy and grouchy, and I just don’t have much to offer anyone else.
But I’m also not the kind of writer who needs two hours of complete silence to get some words down. I often write on my phone, and if I can get a couple of lines out during a smoke break at work—I work a nine-to-five, running the web operations of a magazine—then I’m good. I think of writing as a practice, like going to the gym a few times a week or doing whatever it is baseball players do on a regular basis to be able to play the game. (Do they play catch and maybe run a lot?) Out of hundreds of fifteen-minute practice sessions over several years, a book is born.
The crucial skill to this way of writing, the skill I am proudest of, is the ability to write badly. This was the hardest thing to learn, and it took some doing.
I once took a writing class with Mary Karr, and for me the most important thing she said, a sentence I think of every day, went something like this: “I am not a great writer, but I am a great reviser.” That simple admission has given me permission, in a very profound way, over and over, to do the central act of writing: putting words on paper.
Writing, for me, as far as I can tell, is revision. On any given day, even at my most inspired and lucid, I don’t think I’m that clever. But ten of me, fifteen of me, fifty of me over many days: That’s a team capable of writing one hell of a poem. Almost everything I ultimately publish is the product of the best of my mind arguing with its past selves over many months. For every book I publish, I scrap two more books worth of poetry—this is my practice, the stretching and muscle development I do every day to be a writer.
So what’s my great piece of advice? Teach yourself how, without judging yourself, to write badly. How do you do this? One possible path is through timed writing exercises. I learned about this idea through the classic writing book by Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala, 1986).
Goldberg, a Zen Buddhist, applied the principles of meditation to writing: Basically, she said, set a period of time, say, ten minutes, and keep your pen moving constantly for that whole period of time. Just write anything, whether or not it makes sense. Eventually, this practice can help break down the mind’s habitual judging of what it thinks and writes.
I was fifteen when I first read this book, looking avidly for spiritual paths and ways out of my own teenage murk, and so very susceptible to Goldberg’s brand of New Agey encouragement. If I reread the book now, I think I might find it a bit hokey. But I filled notebook after notebook with the (dubious) products of these writing practice sessions, and I have them to thank for my ability to generate the material I need now in my adult writing.
If you’ve never tried it, I encourage you to give timed writing a go, at least for a few weeks. But if that’s not for you, there are other ways to think about this. Try writing a poem a day (or a character sketch or a description of a room or landscape) that you have no intention of showing to anyone. Just write, and then turn the page and write more. Maybe go back and reread them in a week or a month or two—maybe you’ll find a keeper.
If you want a more exalted method, try reading. I recommend falling in love with a minor writer, or with the minor works of a major one. Look for somebody who seems to have conquered his or her inner censor. My current obsession in this vein is the Scottish writer Norman MacCaig, who lived from 1910 to 1996; he wrote a lot and once told an interviewer who asked him how long it took him to write a poem that it took two cigarettes. Around the time he felt he’d found his mature style, he began numbering his poems, arriving, by the end, at poem No. 3,897. Almost six hundred pages of these poems—mostly short, profound lyrics that meditate on landscape, love, and the passage of time—are available in The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon, 2005), which is easy to buy online.
The wonderful contemporary Scottish poet Don Paterson, in his anthology 101 Sonnets (Faber & Faber, 1999), in which I first encountered MacCaig’s work, says that MacCaig has been called a major poet who only wrote minor poems. Maybe. But so many of them are so, so good (though few are perfect, a fact that is evidence to me of, among other things, MacCaig’s lack of inhibition and self-censorship). Take this one, which I found by opening the book to a random page:
Everything’s different now from what
everything was. Good.
But I like it too when I look
at a thing I’ve known for years,
like a landscape, and you, and think
they’re just the same,
they haven’t changed a bit.
I know that’s nonsense.
Do you hear my voice faltering?
Do you see the moistness in my eyes?
Time loves one child—difference,
and kills another—sameness,
and torments us all
who love both.
This is a good, deep, wise, honest poem. Its language is casual and uninhibited, the product of a mind adept at not getting in its own way. In its easygoing manner it gets at a profound sense of our conflicted experience of time, how we both love things to stay the same and crave change. I’m smitten with the line “Do you hear my voice faltering?” MacCaig is calling out to us, and to a beloved, drawing attention to the poem’s improvisatory nature. It’s lovely. And yet, the next line contains a real clunker of a word—moistness, a word it’s probably best to avoid. But MacCaig (who, alas, was not much of a reviser, I don’t think) wasn’t going to stop himself, interrupt the unfolding of the poem, to correct it. He trusts his mind, thankfully, because it led him to the transcendent final stanza.
Now I’m not advocating an end to revision—as I mentioned, I think it’s central to writing. But MacCaig is a useful inspiration for me. I go to him lately when I need to be reminded to trust my mind to generate the clay for my poetry. MacCaig certainly seems to have trusted his. Writing is a habit like anything else, and it comes with certain reflexes, one of which is self-censorship, which can prevent you from getting your words down, from generating your material. The ego wants to be the best at everything, but in my experience at least, the best writing comes much less frequently than the desire to write. Like athletes, we need to keep our writing muscles in shape. If we can allow ourselves to write badly, to keep our pens moving, the chances are high that they’ll be moving when our great writing is ready to come out.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the editor of Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz (New Directions, 2016) and the author of The Trembling Answers, forthcoming from BOA Editions in April.