It was such an astonishing story--this whale roaming the world searching for another who speaks its language--that I kept repeating it as an anecdote to whomever would listen. Somewhere along the way I realized there was more here than just a story about the literal whale; this was a story about all of us.
I have to work diligently. I started writing poetry in 1968, I’m now 70 years of age.
Here I was trying to juggle that which I had to do (the money jobs) to survive, and the creative work that gave me life and made the blood run wildly through my veins, but I was miserable.
The art has become a commodity; why is your voice any better (or different) than that writer’s? How do you get heard amid the roar? How do you keep your spirits up when everything tells you it doesn’t really matter if you keep on or quit writing?
Here’s the thing: if you have to keep yourself doing something, than you probably shouldn’t be doing whatever it is. Writing, painting, driving a bus, teaching, practicing law, being a stay at home mother, if you have to keep yourself doing that ‘thing’—and by keep I mean force—than a change needs to happen. I always want to write.
See, I didn’t grow up reading. Books, words, punctuation; no thank you. English was my least favorite subject, Language Arts nothing short of a torture session. All through grade school, junior high, and high school, English annoyed me. I am a man of math and science (still am). Numbers, equations, variables and graphs, calculus . . . I loved it all. By my Senior year, I was taking Physics, AP Chemistry, and had already completed AP Calculus. I also had only read three books: Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, and The Things They Carried. As a man and an English major, I can with pride say that I loathed Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye.
When I was five or six, my best friend’s mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up; I answered, without thinking, “a writer.” There is some deep compulsion in me to write, some need that exceeds all practical considerations (about money, for instance, or talent). Freud says that every dream has its navel: a point beyond which interpretation simply cannot pass. This compulsion is the navel of my life: something so fundamental that I can’t think through it.
My approach to writing very short prose is varied. Sometimes it’s a matter of distilling a much longer story into one substantially shorter in length than the original, through a process of culling and refinement again and again until I’m satisfied that the story can’t be any further pared away at without consequence. I enjoy that challenge of crystallization, which involves thinking deeply about the reader, imagining what she may fill in with her intelligence, intuition, and empathic imagination and invention.
Poetry filled the pages as if it was my first tongue or a primitive utterance that just came out when my censors were “off.” The early me was quantity over quality and that mountain of poems was angsty and terrible, of course. But you could say the form “grew” up with me, and poetry was ever present. Like a shadow. Training wheels. A body cast. The cocoon from which I would eventually emerge.
I once counted over three hundred rejection slips and notes in the box where I kept them until I had become reasonably “established” and burned the lot in a fireplace while I sipped a snifter of Cognac. I guess the process was, keep trying. When a poem came back, I’d revise it again and send it somewhere else.