Read this article. Rewrite it. Throw out your draft and write something else. Throw that out, too.
T.S. Eliot early in his career wrote to one of his Harvard professors, “My reputation in London is built upon one small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year. The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”
Jack Kerouac wrote one novel and collaborated with William S. Burroughs on another before he published his first novel, The Town and the City.
Elizabeth Bishop published 101 poems in her lifetime. When Farrar Straus Giroux in 2006 published Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, a collection of her unpublished poetry and drafts, some critics averred the volume violated the author’s wishes; Bishop elected not to publish those poems for a reason.
Serious writers know the work that sees publication is only part of the equation. There are the wastebasket and the delete key, too. Every poet, novelist, short story writer and essayist has the writing exercises; the unfinished paragraphs; the work abandoned because it, well, didn’t work; the notebooks of ideas that remain ideas; and drafts one, two, three … and 12.
Lucy Ives drives the point home in her book-length poem Anamnesis, which won the 2009 Slope Editions Book Prize and was released by that press. Two directives appear multiple times on almost every page: the lofty “Write” and the more taxing “Cross this out.”
Ives assumes the lion’s share of the burden, instructing the reader/writer on what to write. She begins demurely on page 1:
Suppose we write the sentence, “Paul had a very good mind”
Later we can return, strike through the word “mind” and write “brain”
Later we might add, before the word “had,” the words, “the owner of the restaurant”
We might add, “whose sign is the shape of a sleeping deer”
We could strike this sentence out entire
Note the use of the words “suppose,” “might” and “could.”
It doesn’t take long for Ives to dispense with the formalities and adopt a more peremptory tone. Here’s page 8 in full:
Write, “Here everything is going to be permitted”
Cross this out
Write, “One day I’ll look back with love on dinner parties with my parents”
Write, “For each thing I understood, something else had to be taken away”
Cross out “had to be”
Write, “That man was saying how all games are alike”
One could assemble a poem of one’s own comprising some of the lines that Ives so generously proffers throughout Anamnesis:
What you fear is near to you
What you fear is far away
And never came near, this long decade
I could not stop yelling
But if one is going to appropriate Ives’ lines, it’s only fair that one adheres to the instruction that possesses the pages like an implacable conscience: Cross this out.
The writing game has an air of Sisyphus about it. It’s not all about reaching the finish line. It’s about starting over and over and over and …