Monthly Archives: August 2012

Writing Heroes Part 1: Donald Hall

I recently read a biographical note on Bram Stoker that described him as “prone to hero-worship.”  I was overjoyed!  I too am hopelessly prone to hero-worship, and some people think that’s a bad thing.  Bram Stoker and I beg to differ.

My literary heroes are many and varied.  I could fill an entire post simply with their names.  However, in the interest of readability, I’ve decided to focus on a choice few.  For the next few weeks, I’ll be paying homage five of the writers who have  impacted my own creative life.  Some of these individuals are poets, some are novelists, and one is a musician and playwright.  Since most stories start at the beginning, I’d like to focus on my earliest influence first.

The first time I heard Donald Hall (former New Hampshire and national poet laureate) read, I was seven years old and he wasn’t reading poetry (for which he is perhaps best known).  My parents had taken me to a rural town in New Hampshire to hear him read from Ox-Cart Man, a children’s book he’d adapted from one of his poems.  At the time, I had no understanding of his literary significance, but I hugged my well-loved copy of his book to my chest after he’d signed it.

For years after that, Donald Hall slipped into the recesses of my brain, lying dormant until my first semester of college at Plymouth State University.  One of my first Intro. to Lit. assignments was to read a collection of Hall’s poetry, Without.  I read the book cover to cover right in the library, sitting in a green upholstered easy chair.  I had known that the book focused on his wife’s untimely death, but I hadn’t realized how deeply the poems would affect me.  I cried through the whole thing, right in the middle of the university library.  To express that kind of grief so exquisitely is a gift.  To write a poem that will make someone cry is a truly admirable accomplishment.  Already a poet myself, I decided then that I wanted my poetry to affect others the way Donald Hall’s had affected me.  He not only influenced my writing but also, unwittingly, challenged me to stamp down my boundaries.

As an adult poet, I differ stylistically from Hall more often than not.  I am a slam poet as well as a page poet, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m trying to straddle an electric fence.  I have met slam poets who don’t understand my admiration of Donald Hall, and it’s true that Hall has occasionally expressed his disdain for slam poetry.  I feel sometimes that there is this manufactured war between page poetry and slam poetry, but it’s a battle I want no part of.  I love Donald Hall for the writing he has given to the world and the inspiration he has given to me.

In the summer of 2008, I was asked to be one of three openers for Mr. Hall at , an annual arts celebration in Portsmouth, NH.  On the night of the performance, I sat in the green room at the Portsmouth Music Hall trying not to chew my freshly painted nails.  When Donald Hall arrived, the event organizer (who happened to be privy to my adoration) seated him (and his entourage) next to me.  Surprisingly, I was able to participate in a normal conversation about rural New Hampshire without passing out or vomiting.  Eventually, I worked up the nerve to ask Mr. Hall if he would again sign my copy of Ox-Cart Man, the same one he’d signed when I was seven.  He graciously agreed to do so.  I was truly elated.  That night, I performed as though it was my last hour on earth.

I truly believe that artists we admire can be instrumental in producing growth in our own work.  As a writer, I am a perpetual student.  From Donald Hall, I have learned how to grab my reader by the heart.  I have learned that there is a time for simplicity and quiet detail.  I won’t go on, but mind you, I could.  In the end, Donald Hall may not be the kind of hero that saves lives.  Instead, he’s the kind of hero that makes life, particularly a writer’s life, seem worth living.

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Thoughts on Writing Every Day

Well, it appears that I fell off the edge of the blogosphere for a couple of weeks.  My apologies.  I don’t even have a valid excuse: I was distracted by a week of birthday shenanigans followed by a week of vacation.  That being said, I thought this week might be a good time to discuss how everyday things like laundry and Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathons can serious derail my writing.

When I was a younger writer, I would constantly be waiting for inspiration.  My little college self would sit on a stone bench in the quad like a lightning rod, waiting to be struck with a story or a poem.  I was convinced that if I forced myself to write when uninspired, that what I produced would be utter excrement.  Needless to say, I discovered that mindset to be almost entirely based on delusion.  I began to sit longer with my blank pages, give my ideas more time to develop.  What prompted this evolution in my writing process?  A number of things; As a student of writers, I was becoming a better writer myself, and I was also growing up.

While working toward my undergraduate degree, one of my writing courses listed Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, as required reading.  The chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts” was a turning point for me.  It felt like some writing god was giving me permission from on high to write terrible stories and poems.  Well, sort of.  It’s not like I was trying to write poorly on purpose. I just felt like I could  forgive myself when the earth shattering poem I thought I’d written sounded more like a whiny emo song when I looked at it the following day.

As I grew older, I definitely wrote more, but I don’t think that I ever wrote every day.  I would have liked to.  When I was eighteen, I imagined that my life would consist of writing poetry and novels in a gothic castle off the coast of Maine.  Unfortunately, life is not like that unless your are very talented, very lucky, or independently wealthy.

After shelving my sea-castle retreat fantasy, I enrolled in the MFA Program in Fiction and Nonfiction at Southern New Hampshire University.  I did this for several reasons, but the one that’s most relevant here is the fact that I wanted to write a book and my  MFA thesis would be just that: a polished, book-length manuscript.  I had never made a serious attempt at writing a novel, and it was terrifying.  However, it was also incredibly exciting.  The poet was evolving into a novelist ( who was also still a poet, but that’s beside the point.)

Each month I was enrolled in the program, I was required to submit thirty pages of revised manuscript to the professor I was working with.  Thirty pages, and they were supposed to be halfway decent!  I’ll admit I was intimidated.  I wasn’t sure that I could do it, but I was absolutely unwilling to fail.

Amidst this first week of MFA acclimation, I heard the same piece of advice from multiple professors, multiple times.  It essentially boiled down to this: “If you want to succeed in this program, you HAVE TO WRITE EVERY DAY!”  So I did.  Eventually, I settled into a comfortable routine:  Go to work, go for a run, sit at my computer for an hour or two, watch Star Trek (The Original Series).  I would generally spend the first fifteen to twenty days generating the thirty required pages, and then use the last ten to revise.  I had never been a more productive writer, and it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought.

Three years out of the program, I no longer adhere to such a strict writing schedule.  However, I do try to write something  every day, whether it be a poem, a novel page, or a revision.  It’s not a perfect system.  Most weeks I hit five out of seven days.  Still, it beats waiting for inspiration to strike.  Instead, I go out in search of it.  Sometimes I fail, but whatever I write is better than a blank page.  The best part is, the more frequently I write, the more inspired I become.  It also becomes difficult for everyday life to become an obstacle when my writing  has been integrated into said everyday life.

Does this work for everyone?  Who knows?  I will say I’ve seen it work for many.  If you are a writer with a Spartan will who already keeps a rigorous writing schedule seven days a week, I bow down.  I would like to make an action figure of you to keep at my desk for motivational purposes.  However, if you’re not, give it a try for a while.  Just write something–every day.  I double-dog dare you.

 

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