One of the (ironically self-referential) insights that I’ve finally acquired is that life tends to keep re-presenting the same lessons until you – uh, you know – learn them. (Examples that spring to mind? That finishing the whole family-size bag of crisps is rarely so gratifying in aftermath as it is in prospect. That if you’re vaguely unhappy today, then you’ll almost certainly be vaguely unhappy tomorrow unless you DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT, FFS! That waiting to see who cracks first and actually cleans the bathroom generally results in a very dirty bathroom. Etc, etc, etc.) There are days, however, when I wonder if I’ve actually managed to learn this meta-lesson after all.
Something I’ve often spoken about when I’m teaching or giving a talk is my transformation from a self-declared “slow writer” to a productive one; I mention it, just for example, in this Scottish Poetry Library podcast from 2009. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is, of course, how? Simple: take one unproductive poet, commit that poet to a publicly-accessible Poem Of The Week blog, and lo – one productive poet results. [That'll be sixty-four thousand dollars, please. Ed.]
Given a deadline (however arbitrary and self-imposed) and an outsourced conscience (“the world at large”, who could see the blog and thus catch me shirking), I found that all my excuses for not writing were suddenly stripped away. I made the time to do it every day, because I’d committed to finishing something at the end of the week, and each week, I put in the hours until it was done. ( To a novelist, this making-the-time must seem obvious to the point of imminent brain-death, but we poets do have a terrible tendency to see ourselves as “inspiration-driven” and then bemoan the vile intermittency of our output…)
After more than three years of weekly poems (a creative abundance which at first I found astonishing, but soon came to see as pretty normal – for humans, not just for me), I decided to make my Poem Of The Week blog a private one. I’m abashed to admit that my motivation was mainly pecuniary: it’s bloody difficult to make a living as a poet, and precluding yourself from being able to enter the higher-value poetry competitions by publishing all your work online is a fairly obvious Bad Economic Plan. Nonetheless, I was keeping up the output behind the scenes – until, fool that I am, I cut myself too much slack.
We were away for a couple of weeks at Christmas for a family holiday, and I thought (reasonably enough) that I’d give myself that time off. When I got back, I was deluged by catch-up – so I extended the break. Then life got silly with travelling, events, business admin and other commitments, and I extended it again. The unsurprising outcome? I’ve written almost nothing since last December, and I’m suitably demoralised – and, I hope, suitably chastened.
Discovering that I could write a poem every week, via the simple mind-hack of setting a weekly deadline, was not just a life-lesson – it was a revelation, and a gift. The past few months have reminded me that Not Writing makes me miserable. Fortunately, I know what to do – even if I’ve had to learn that damn lesson all over again.