Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How do you balance your ruthlessness?

Composition theorist Peter Elbow has this theory about pedagogy: that helping students write is about liking their writing. Actively liking it. He points out that most of us are best able to make progress in our own writing when we start from a point of liking what we are doing.

At the same time, I've noticed that in some of my more successful poems I've been able to make giant changes from the original draft, changes that came from places the original draft did not even indicate. (One fun project is taking poems that don't seem to have similarities and seeing what they do when formed together--but that's a digression). One of the ways I do this is by keeping a copious pile of notes and constantly applying them, another is by consciously taking the risks that aren't yet working if I think there's something there, past those failures. Another still is in cutting everything that doesn't for sure belong in the poem.

So I like my poems, but when I'm really ruthless with them, I get to a point sometimes where no matter where I take the poem it's a failure (even if it's a pretty failure), and at those times I've tried to be even more ruthless--to discard the poem until a much later date.

Today was one of those days when I went mining old drafts for notes, and found some poems were in better shape than I thought (or only needed a few shots in the arm), and I realized that I liked these poems again. I spent a good amount of time fixing these up and then I realized, they're still not very good, I'm just being more honest with myself about the fact that I do like them, even though they are not really successful.

I am of course assuming that most poets aren't writing with an eye to future publications (seeing as how there's no money in it), but that doesn't mean we're not interested in how people receive our work (even if its not so many people). Fictioners, you might have a slightly different view, although I doubt its philosophically removed...

But what I'm really wondering about is: how do you balance your liking and your ruthlessness?


  1. Ugh...I'm learning to do this now, I think. I have a tendency to become attached to certain lines in my poems (and in other people's poems in workshop lol). I'll love that line so much that it's hard to see that sometimes it may not belong in the poem. Like, I do not want to hear that I can't use that line right now! lol Also, I'm learning to end the poem without a resolution. Which sometimes (okay, often) means my last stanza or amazing last line must go. This is hard. So I guess I'm saying that I haven't found a balance yet, but I'm learning.

    Oh, and as far as writing with an eye toward future publication, even though it doesn't pay, I think I always write with that in mind. I definitely write for an audience. My first collection and how it might be structured is always looming in my mind. I think this mindset helps me to be more open to criticism since what other people think of my work really does matter to me. Though I have to put that thought out of my head at times just to get some crap down on the page so I can start to work with it.

  2. Excellent post. I think one of the best rejections (although it initially felt very hurtful) was from an editor who noted - these poems may be only for personal enjoyment versus publication - and i realized the editor was right!

    sometimes we right poems (stories, essays etc) and we may like them but that does not mean they are necessarily publishable. i think learning that is a huge step forward :)

  3. Whoops, I should have been more clear: not "only/mostly" writing with an eye to future publication. I think all of us want to be able to get our work out there for people to read. (If we're gonna "kill our darlings", we should at least be able to eat/sell the darlings once they're dead...)

    Jessie, agreed completely!

    JayTee, that's interesting, that your thinking in terms of structuring your first book allows you to be more open to criticism. Seems like the best way to approach that.

  4. I definitely have some poems I actively *like* but don't think will ever be publishable. On the other hand, much of what I'm writing this semester is explicitly intended to fit into a publishable collection.

    So, maybe I can do both, just with different poems. I think there's a value in writing that is personal as well as writing that is published/publishable.

  5. I think the line between what is personal and public is very narrow if nonexistent for me. Part of that has to do with my tendency to write "I" poems that always have a "you" subject...writing in this way naturally forces me to communicate emotions, ideas, etc. in a way that wouldn't if it were all self-contained cogitation. I've had a couple workshops were my darlings were killed right in front of me, and it was traumatic. However, the poems emerged better for it. Much better. I am pretty ruthless when it comes down to it, but part of being a good writer is learning how to keep the things you like even if it means changing everything else(in some instances anyway). At this early stage in the game, I am not thinking much about my first book, mostly because my work is changing a lot. However, reading for a prize has helped to illuminate some ideas for presentation and structure when it comes time. This was an interesting post!


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