Methods & Muses Vol. 11
“Let me guess,” said my teacher-mentor, Nickole, “you live in your imagination, don’t you? You like to be inside the music, the sound of poetry. Am I right?”
Nickole knew me instantly. After I confirmed that she was correct, she went on to say, “Ok, that’s great, but remember, not everyone will know what you’re talking about. Sometimes you need to say it plain, Michelle. Say it plain.”
I loved her for this advice. It squared my shoulders, gave me the spine I needed to leave my safe place, my imagine-nation, and remember who was out there, my reader.
It’s scary to leave safe places. For me, poetry is home. All other kinds of writing, especially business-type, meta writing, feel unfamiliar. I’m not alone. Many artists dread meta writing–the cover letter, the artist bio, resume or CV, synopsis of a project, Instagram tag, Twitter pitch. Writing about yourself, your creative work can be dreadful, and when you’re a poet, writing about writing has an extra layer of challenge. Both use the same tools, words, but the process is different.
When I compose poems, it’s a lovely, welcoming, float-of-a-feeling. I get beautifully lost, no destination, no inhibitions. It’s like when a baby sees herself in the mirror and laughs delighted. She dances, makes funny faces, kisses her reflection. Giggling or sighing (depending on her mood) are the only sounds she makes. She is mostly quiet, so with her, with poetry, I can hear myself.
When I sit down to meta write, at first, I feel pressure on the side of my head. My temples throb, and I think, “Ah, hello, Ms. Meta from the right side of my brain, my problem-solver, want-to-be-formal, slightly removed voice. How are you, dear?” I have to greet her like this, because she is important, a performer before a show. She’s got her lines memorized. Amped up, eager to face her audience, she knows she will be seen, heard, read.
To release the pressure and work with Ms. Meta, I take a deep breath. She is an extrovert, so she’s going to talk. I let her lead. She needs space and time to get her energy out, as I wait for my moment. She talks a lot. She is prose, zig-zagging, horizontal. I let her go on and on and on. I try to hear her ‘blah- blah- blah’ like the fun, silly notes of a children’s song, but I would never tell her this.
Then, there’s the moment when she pauses. Before she can look back at her lines, I steal the script. Now, she has to improvise. With the expected words, the practiced voice gone, Meta is at first confused, maybe even a little pissy, but eventually, she finds delight. She starts to laugh at herself, just like that baby. She’s having fun.
Yes, it’s about joy.
I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating: Joy is vital, for our artistry and our mental health, and obviously, joy is one of the magic tricks I use to fuse the creative process with any meta task.
When I was a teacher, I worked with a lot of people who were afraid of writing, especially when they had to write something like an essay, a resume or a research paper. My students fidgeted, shook with frustration and sometimes cried. I’m not making this up. Writing was traumatic for them. My professional opinion was that there was a moment in their educations when writing became synonymous with separate, far away from their more natural speaking voices. I do not and would never blame a colleague for this disconnect. As a teacher working within systems (and I worked for many–public, private, magnet, community college, etc.), I was often bound to outdated curricula and conventional, dusty old forms (like the 5-paragraph essay). But when we cling to tradition, and this standard makes us think we need to sound unlike ourselves, we lose clarity, we lose ourselves.
So again, like a poet sitting down to write a query letter, tension has to break.
Joy needs to surface.
I used to make my students laugh by poking fun at the forms they were tasked to write. I’d take a supposedly brilliant piece of writing and perform it, reading aloud with a grinding nasal tone, a snooty accent, or what my students called my “airplane voice” which was dramatically, unrealistically calm. Yes, all of this was immature, but I didn’t care. My students loved it and laughed, and once they laughed, they released some of their fear. They took a breath, and then there was room in their brains for me to suggest a few ways to write more naturally. I’d say:
1. Jot your first thoughts. Listen. Write down any voices in your head. Be bonkers.
2. Flow like a stream of consciousness. Don’t self-edit as you go. Take your time.
3. If you’re blocking, for Goddess-sake, stop. No one is going to give you a prize for for martyring your way to the finish line. This is nonsense– literally not about your senses.
4. Take a break. Come back and hug all of your senses. Have a little fun. Get surreal…
5. Ask things like: If my life story were a beverage, what would it taste like? How would I describe my personality or my work in terms of texture or sound?
Hat tip here to my former professor, Jeff Abell, and his assignment to create an autobiography through sound. My project featured: a pencil scratching, which when recorded, sounded like breathing; the sound of me snapping my fingers as I recited a poem in English and sang a little in Spanish; field recordings of Chicago’s buses and trains; some of Benjamin’s favorite ambient musicians and my students talking about love in Spanish, Japanese, Turkish and Thai. So fun! Thank you, Jeff!
6. Remember, you can write your way into who you really are, and feel less anxious, by inviting joy to your meta party.
7. In a word, Play.
Right now, my bandmates and I are in the middle of some meta-cadabra work. We have written Half Wild’s artist bio and the synopsis for our album, Give Them Archer. We’re playing with band photos, designing our website and figuring out how best to reach listeners. It’s work, and we honor that it is work by taking our time, giving it breath. Half Wild is practicing what I’m preaching here, we’re making it fun.
Readers, thank you for skimming this shorter post. It’s summer. Benjamin and I are finally vaccinated, and we’ve begun feeling like we can actually venture out a bit. We’re readjusting slowly, and it’s lovely to take breaks by walking through our neighborhood. Enjoy the bat box photo, praise bee all the pollinators and see you next month!