Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Writing is Making Choices
I was trying, basically, to give them permission. Permission to write about embarrassing and difficult things. Permission to write about their bodies, and the bodies of others. Permission to write about sex. Permission to write about death. I was trying to show them that poetry could be not only intellectually satisfying and not only aesthetically pleasing, but shocking, powerful, immediate, beautiful. What I quickly realized once the discussion started was that they weren't quite ready to hear this message -- that they had been told the opposite for too long. Presented with something that was actually interesting and immediately readable, they rejected it, almost violently, asking, first and foremost, "Why would you write something like this?"
This was actually the right question, the one I wanted them to ask, but they meant it in the wrong way. I was home schooled all the way up to college and I only read, past a certain age, what I wanted to read, so I forget sometimes how high school seems to educate students about reading, especially where poetry is concerned. Which is to say, they ate taught to read it like A) historians and B) English majors. Which is to say, they are taught to find absolutely every last thing other than pleasure in a text. Political arguments, religious ideas, metaphysics, philosophy, responses to culture, examples of historical moments or trends, hallmarks of literary genres, anything and everything but enjoyment. Which, you know, rather misses the point. Especially if you want to make actual readers and writers, who will necessarily need a little pleasure to get them through their days.
We spent a long time, for instance, discussing why you would write a poem featuring cannibalism and one's mother's menstruating vagina. What I tried to do was to talk about how electrifying it could be to read something like that -- something shameful, something that made uncomfortable connections, something that suggested some underlying feeling or impulse shared by mothering and cannibalism, by giving birth and devouring one's child. What they wanted, I think, what they had been trained to do, was to understand the poem as a dead thing, as something someone had written a long time ago -- something they had perfected, then abandoned, like a sculpture, or buried, like a diamond. A text handed down from on high for them to interpret. But while this is sometimes a satisfying way to read, it is perhaps never a satisfying way to read as a writer. A creative writing class should ideally demystify texts, should bring them back to life, reveal them as contingent, as the imperfect results of a series of decisions that might have been made differently. To understand a Sharon Olds poem, you may have to imagine yourself writing a Sharon Olds poem. You may in fact have to do this with any poem, any art, any thing.