Friday, April 15, 2016

On Writing #91 : A.J. Levin

The Curse of Writing Poetry
A. J. Levin

Sane people don’t choose to write: especially poems.

Think about it. Why would well-adjusted people write about something when they could be doing it?

And why, of anything, poetry, with its total lack of commercial appeal?

Sure, it’s popular to want to be a writer. People are seduced perhaps by romantic images of authors as wealthy flâneurs, or freewheeling unconventional partiers à la Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But then, Mr. Thompson blew his own head off.

The Muse is not a friend who comes over for coffee and leaves once you start dropping hints.

The Muse is a poltergeist who appears unbidden, and who stays for unpredictable lengths of time, lumbering you with conditions. And then, after the inspiration, the work: editing, pruning, shaping, massaging.

Yes, the impulse to write is an unwanted guest, very much like prophecy was to Jonah.

To extend the “unwanted guest” metaphor, you could say the urge to write is a mental disease akin to depression (or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia, or ADHD, or all those).

You heard me right. This isn’t news—it’s something you can find in scientific journals,* as well as in the Elizabethan English poet Michael Drayton’s description of Christopher Marlowe:

            …that fine madness still he did retain
            Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.

Given the difficulty of harnessing a Muse who is, after all, a sort of psychiatric disorder, it’s a wonder writers actually make money. It was hard enough for a poet to make money in the time of William Blake, who claimed to have seen God peeking into his window. 

*See for example S. Kiyaga et al., “Mental Illness, Suicide, and Creativity: Forty-Year Prospective Total Population Study,” Journal of Psychiatric Research online (Nov. 2012), Elsevier; and A.M. Ludwig, “Mental Illness and Creative Activity in Female Writers,”.American Journal of Psychiatry 151.11 (Nov. 1994), 1650-56.

It’s even harder now, in an age where no two children have the same cultural references, even Shakespeare and the Bible cannot be referenced without fears of a blank stare, and the average person is more likely than not to think Yeats is a brand of handbag.

So why write?

There’s just one good answer—because you have no choice

A.J. Levin is the author of Monks' Fruit (Nightwood, 2004) and a freelance writer in Winnipeg. He is currently working on a non-fiction book about his family tree.

No comments: