An epiphany — no, let’s just call it a moment. I had a moment recently (yesterday) where every poem I’d written looked, well, wrong. Not one — not even the one nominated for the Pushcart Prize — appealed to me. I would open one file, move some words around, then close it in disgust.
I wasn’t feeling it. Any of it.
Luckily, I’d gone off to writer’s group last night. My friends said in essence, you’re wrong. Your poems are good.
It happens, doesn’t it? You get yourself most of the way down a new path, and the excitement that propelled you wanes a little. Now you’re staring at a blank page with no luck. Then you try revising. That’s worse because now you’re not seeing anything you want to see. It’s a point where a lot of writers might give up.
Author Tess Gerritsen once revealed (maybe ten years ago) on her blog how she would get about 3/4 of the way through her manuscript and then doubt would creep in. I believe she mentioned calling or writing her agent or publisher about it, who’d mentioned she had doubts at the same spot in each book (sorry — I couldn’t find the exact post, so the facts are paraphrased).
All these years later, that one post came back to me as I struggled with my own doubt. And thanks to that post, I pressed on.
Each time I pick up a new book of poetry, I see amazing, beautiful, wickedly talented writing. I want to write like that. Then I make the mistake of looking back. What I see are poems that aren’t anything like the stuff churned out by Nick Flynn, Tony Hoagland, Franz Wright, Ada Limón….
Nor should they be. That may be the toughest lesson emerging poets learn. We can emulate until the chickens come home to roost. We can’t BE any other voice beyond our own. And that’s okay. No, that’s great. For as much as I love the beauty of Frank O’Hara, I couldn’t live without the grab-you-by-the-throat brilliance of Mary Karr. And my life would not be complete without Maya Angelou’s liquid vocabulary or Billy Collins’ simple, gripping style.
Each of us has a message. It will sound different, resonate in new ways, and be its own force. It may have elements of those poets who have influenced us, but still us.
My current crisis is already starting to subside. I know what I have to write, what I have written, is good. It’s not comparable to any other poet, nor should it be. I’m still mucking it out to get my name out there in poetry (in insurance writing, I’m already there). Slow and steady, Lori.
Poets and writers, when did you have your sink-or-swim moment?
How did you overcome it?
What do you do when facing that “Nothing is working” feeling?