Here’s a little thing I was asked to write for a residency I recently did for a lovely project called Word In The West.
I hope it isn’t too prescriptive, its just a list of things I like to remind myself of occassionally, as a writer.
Being able to support yourself with your art form does NOT validate your art. Emily Dickinson never made a penny from her work. If you can make yourself sit down and start writing a brilliant poem, still wearing your uniform, just after getting home from a ten hour shift in the pub / care home / office where you work, it is still a brilliant poem, and writing it is a worthwhile pursuit, even if no one ever pays you for it.
Having said that- the first time you DO get paid for a performance, commission etc, it will feel really great and that’s completely fine. The fact that doing something you love is earning you a little financial gain is of course really something to be excited about, it’s just not the be all and end all. Write anyway!
I want to make a distinction here between the importance of keeping on writing- experimenting, editing, trying new things artistically- regardless of financial reward, and the importance of not working for free. Performing, running workshops, writing commissions- that is working, and you must try to at least make sure your expenses are covered if you are going to work. Otherwise you are undermining yourself and the artistic community.
I guess this applies particularly to poets who are keen to be involved in the world of performance. There are all different kinds of performers- big, loud, dramatic ones, funny ones, intense and confident ones, theatrical ones… and all these kinds can be brilliant. But what I want to say is- if you are none of these things, if you are not funny or flamboyant or intense, it does not mean that you can’t be a great performer. Poetry also sometimes needs performance that is understated or serious or warm or friendly in a quieter or more gentle way! You can bring these things to the stage and they can be valuable, but you must be clear and confident in your delivery. Your audience must be able hear your words or it is pointless saying them out loud! So, learn them. Say them clearly and honestly. Give them the reverence they deserve.
You can’t – CAN’T – write well unless you read. And that’s not elitist, reading is free. And it doesn’t matter what you read, or what you like, but you’ve got to read in order to decide what you like, and what kind of writer you want to be!
If you find that are struggling to write anything good, put away your note books, get a stack of poetry books from the library and spend a few days reading and ENJOYING them! Think of it as putting petrol in the tank. Writing, and creating in general, is a process that requires you to choose to take part in it. Don’t wait for the muse to come and visit you. Be pro-active in trying things, experimenting, and improving your craft. On days when I feel like I am a terrible writer, I am comforted by the thought that there are almost endless things to read, study, and try out in order to improve my writing, and no limit to how much better I can potentially become with hard work, persistence and a love of words.