I cannot recommend enough the Ted Kooser The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Adice for Beginning Poets. So far as I’ve read, it could be called simply The Handbook on Writing. In the early pages he talks about getting ideas and about revision.
In an appearance at Chatham a year ago, Lois Lowry said that she didn’t believe in “writers’ block.” She went on, “Is their dentists’ block?”
Novocain, I’d suggest. I respectfully disagree with Lois, at least about writers’ block. Last Monday night during the Drew-Heinz lecture, Roxanne Gay, Difficult Women, also disagreed. I definitely think many of us get “stuck” or empty of ideas.
Kooser addresses that beautifully and inspirationally, I think. He spoke of William Stafford who said getting ideas was like fishing. You just toss in your line and sit.
Kafka addressed the process somewhat differently. To paraphrase, he said, “you just sit and listen. Well, don’t listen, just sit and wait. Well, don’t wait, just sit. Ideas will roll in…” His advice is to do this every day. This is the writer’s work, to show up at the computer.
I share this, knowing that life interferes with that dictum of showing up every day. Illness, and, well, work (I almost said “real work” which is as bad as the person who asked me once if the book I had coming out was a real book or another children’s book) And our children always come first, and our families, our dogs…all meaningful relationships. But please don’t wait till you have the idea before writing. Sit, and ideas will come, at least according to Stafford and Kafka. Personally, I can’t promise. But I do think to sit regularly and welcome ideas is worth a try.
On revision, Kooser says most people see it as the worst kind of drudgery. I have to disagree, again. Cleaning, cooking, laundering—for me, these trump revision flat. Kooser says that he has revised most of his poems of only 20 lines forty and fifty times, looking for clarity and freshness. I say I’m on a third rewrite of my guide dog story, but that doesn’t include the endless revisions plus tinkerings of chapters. It doesn’t take into account that I’ve written this story as a fictional series, as a lengthy memoir about blindness framed by my dogs. Trying to write about my guide dogs has been something I’ve been doing for years now.
And although, like most of us, I’m crazy to publish a book, and revision seems to stall that process, I’ve grown to love the tweaking and detailing and deepening of a project. Tweaks that might have to be trimmed or abandoned altogether are fun. Oscar Wilde supposedly told someone about his writing one day. Paraphrasing, it went something like this:
“Well, I spent all morning and put in a comma.”
“And what did you do in the afternoon of this exhaustive work?” the woman asked.
“Oh, I took out that comma.”
So please don’t feel pressure from me about getting to that computer more often. Life offers enough pressures. But please don’t postpone sitting at the computer because you don’t have an idea. And don’t postpone sitting down to revise, because the work needs to be turned on its head altogether. Just think, one comma at a time.