Last month, I confessed to having started a novel–something I’d not seriously considered since the 8th grade. It didn’t take long for me to begin experiencing the thing I feared most: the crippling friction between the needs of a long story, with a vast word count, and the slow, perfectionist tendencies I possess as a poet.
I have avoided writing fiction for two reasons:
- I’m bad at making things up.
- I’m a painfully slow writer.
I have a poet brain. I carefully contemplate (obsess over?) each word choice, metaphor, and image. This is par for the course among poets. “I’ve been working on this poem for twenty years” is common parlance in my usual circles. But in prose, that level of attention is debilitating.
I thought, when I started writing a little over a month ago, that I had somehow found the story that would bypass the poet brain. I wrote something like 10,000 words the first week, 45,000 in a month. It was magic; I was magic. All 45,000 of those words might be garbage, I thought, but they were written, and that was something special.
Lately, though, my process is anything but special. When I sit to write, that slow, analytical poet brain takes over, pushing my speedy fingered novelist aside so she can rework every freaking phrase. It’s maddening. I have a sense of where things should go, but I keep getting stuck. Is that really how you want to say it? Poet asks. Novelista replies, Shut up. We can smooth it out later. Poet relents, but a few minutes later she’s back; she just can’t let it go. Give me just five minutes, she says. I’m just going to fix that one adjective. By the way, stop with all the adjectives, would ya. An hour later, I’ve rewritten the same paragraph five times.
This is my worst nightmare. Actually, no. It’s not. This is a nightmare I have predicted and, thus, actively avoided. The way one might avoid rollercoasters, or clowns, or shellfish. You say to yourself, This isn’t going to end well, and you stay away. Only, this time, it’s like I’ve gotten halfway through the lobster roll, thought, Wow, this is delicious! I must have somehow cleared that nasty anaphylaxis-inducing allergy, before suddenly my throat starts to swell.
That is poet brain: the choking reminder that I was never meant to start a novel, and my only remaining option is to drop dead with this pathetic, half-finished thing in my hands.
Poet brain sees the world in just few lines. She has just enough spontaneity to finish 12, 20, maybe 40 lines, before her perfectionism kicks in. She doesn’t think in increments of more than 100 words or two pages. She certainly does not think in terms of scenes or chapters. So, she doesn’t understand the havoc she wreaks by interrupting.
To her credit, though, she wants every paragraph, every sentence, every phrase to be the tightest it can be. Poet brain is an attentive reader, a careful re-reader. And as critical as she is, she’s also an enthusiastic admirer. Often times, we get stuck because she wants to revisit a section that she is especially fond of. Then when we’re in there she wants to fine tune it, just the tiniest bit. And there is a certain kind of magic in that.
It’s not the same as the euphoric rush that comes from writing thousands of words in one sitting, that feeling of being an unstoppable, god-like creator. On the other hand, there is something to be said about poet brain’s staying power, her unconditional commitment. She’s the one that keeps caring about the same piece for 20 years, or more—long after the Novelista has moved on to her next idea. Novelista cuts and pastes and recklessly deletes. Poets says, Hey wait! Save this. Just put it someplace else, in case you want it later. She is an editor, but she is also a conscience, a protector.
And when I think about it that way, she’s a bit easier to tolerate, maybe even embrace. Sure, she’s a pain in the ass, but hopefully, she’s a pain in the ass who will help this thing turn out the best it possibly can. No matter how long it takes.