It’s not like the vast majority of these columns aren’t self-indulgent. My creative process for this thing typically goes something like: Wake up on Tuesday. Drink stupid amount of coffee. Finger-vomit onto computer. Collect monthly entertainment bill.
This one, however, is going to be particularly so, as I’m facing an existential mini-crisis and, like all sociopaths, editorials (with simultaneous out-loud commentary directed at my cats) are how I deal with it from time to time.
I’m reading some poetry, my poetry, this weekend at a small event here in Madison. It’s called Poetry n’ Pints, and is organized by a local homebrew shop. I, and about a half dozen other writers, will get up and read for 15 minutes each at a public park while the audience is plied with local homebrew, soda, wine and, since Madison, Wisconsin, is basically a liberal pillow-fort, a bunch of snacks that have all been, like, really responsibly made. This is not a big deal, and I am terrified.
The last time I read in front of any kind of audience was at a small bookstore event a couple of years ago. It was fine; I did fine. We had just moved to Madison, and I was just beginning to get my feet up under me, trying to get involved in the literary scene here. At that point, I think, I had just missed out on getting a University of Wisconsin poetry fellowship, and was disappointed, but still motivated. We were poor, and I had a lot of time on my hands.
Fast forward three years or so. We’re a little more comfortable, work and home life are both chock-full, so most down-time is reserved for decompression — which poetry is not. It’s a craft and, while finishing a poem always gave me a small thrill and sense of accomplishment, the actual writing process is stressful, exasperating and just a general pain in the ass. You sit down with a notebook and a pen, stare at it for 10 minutes, say “F***” and go from there.
I haven’t read in front of an audience in over two years so, okay, this is going to be weird and probably a little uncomfortable at first. Really though, that’s not what I’m most worried about. See, I also haven’t finished a poem in about a year, and this event is a stark reminder of that. Not because I don’t have enough material; I do, about six years’ or two hours’ worth, depending on the context. But I’ll know full well, as I read each piece, that it dates back to at least one year ago, and I should find that unacceptable. The problem is, I don’t know if I will. And that prospect is sobering to almost a depressing and bewildering degree.
Because writing is different than, say, running, which is how I’ve filled most of my free time in the last couple of years. My wife and I are both — on the amateur level, duh — endurance athletes: she does triathlons, I run long-distance. And we’re good at it. The training, the racing, the effort, it takes initiative and commitment, the same way that creative writing does, but the results are physical, tactile.
On top of that, whether it’s an actual race or just a training run, we generally go by distance; we have the benefit of knowing when the task is done. Deciding when a poem is finished? Impossible. You simply decide to stop editing.
It’s that uncertainty, maybe, that keeps me away; or maybe that’s just what I tell myself. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself gravitating towards actions that have tangible, foreseeable goals, something concrete to accomplish: a house, a better job, tomato plants. My life is finally taking shape, and it’s hard to make room for ephemera.
This weekend may end up being just a pleasant outing, a worthwhile community activity. Who knows. If it ends up being a test, however, it is not a measure of passion, but one of priority.