For the past fifteen years, during my morning appointment with the muse (I’ve shown up most days, even if she hasn’t), I play a game. I pretend that language is older than life on this planet, older than life on any planet, the planets themselves, stars—even this universe. I assume that language is built into the fabric of reality itself and, therefore, due to both its age and experience, has something to teach me. Thus, I come to language every morning in order to discover myself, rather than to express myself. This difference involves more than semantics; it is as important a distinction as can exist for writers, dividing them and their work into two camps with, I believe, two entirely different results.
1. Writing as expression tends to be predictable; writing as discovery tends to subvert the reader’s expectations. We’ve all heard the maxim “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Writing to express means that the writer already “knows” (on some level) what’s going to be written before it comes out. Writing to discover oneself means that there is an open-endedness to the drafting of each line or sentence that always leaves room for lightning to strike.
How often in a workshop have you heard a writer defend a particular word or phrase against a suggested change with “but that’s not the way it happened!”? I love Dorianne Laux’s response: “We love you, but we really don’t care”—meaning that what’s important is the poem, the story, the end result, not that you are faithful in providing a precise chronicle of events or expressing your particular take on them. In poetry—Laux’s and my genre—language trumps the writer’s experiences, opinions, and beliefs every time because, as Lewis Turco points out in The Book of Forms (University Press of New England, 2000), “poetry is the art of language.” But even in other genres, it is the emotional truth conveyed in a fresh way, rather than mere historical facts, that maintains the reader’s interest.
2. Writing as expression tends to deplete a writer; writing as discovery tends to enrich a writer with even greater potential for creating new work. From Larry Levis, in “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage,” we learn that one characteristic of a voice so absorbed in self-expression that it diminishes into silence is its increasing lack of particularity:
Like the voice that went on whispering ceaselessly its dry rage
Without listeners. He said that even if anyone heard it,
They could not have recognized the dialect
As anything human . . .
. . . he began to lose interest in stories, & to speak
Only in abstractions, to speak only of theories,
Never of things.
Then he began to come in less frequently, and when he did,
He no longer spoke at all.
Then near the close of the poem, Levis gives us these astonishing lines:
What do you do when nothing calls you anymore?
When you turn & there is only the light filling the empty window?
When the Angel fasting inside you has grown so thin it flies
Out of you a last time without your
knowing it, & the water dries up in its thimble . . .
. . . I’m going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this desk
I’m bent over until it’s infinite,
I’m going to make it talk, I’m going to make it
The it in these last lines is literally the wood in the poet’s desk, but metaphorically it is the page and the language of specificity that fills it when the poet writes. This process of listening to one’s own writing until it “confesses every thing” is what achieves the quality of poems Levis wrote; expressing one’s abstract thoughts about it leads to a drought of words—“the water dry[ing] up in its thimble.”
3. Writing as expression is like breathing out without breathing in—try that for a minute or so and see what happens. Writing as discovery is inhaling the words of great writers and watching that language evolve into something new that you exhale into the world. This is a corollary to number 2 above. I’ve long held to the idea that writer’s block is really only reader’s block in disguise. When writers come to me for help, one of the first questions I ask them is what they are reading. Most of the time they’re not reading anything. When I’m in a slump, I read those writers whose language speaks to me (like Levis). Or—here’s the open-ended aspect again—I read against my own grain—writers I don’t particularly like, to see what their language has to say to me.
Then I go to sleep, and wake up in time once again for my appointment with the muse of language, and see if she has anything to say.
Terry Lucas won the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His most recent chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the Copperdome Award from Southeast Missouri State University Press, and his full-length collection of poems, In This Room, is forthcoming from CW Books in February of 2016. Terry is Associate Editor of Trio House Press, and a freelance poetry consultant at www.terrylucas.com.