So I was out at Bookmarks Book Festival in Winston-Salem this morning, which was awesome–if you ever get a chance to visit, or better yet, be an author there, they take excellent care of you, can’t recommend ‘em highly enough, had a great time speaking, and hopefully the people who came out to see the Ursula & Her Amazing Rambling Diatribe Show were not terribly disappointed. Great to meet some fans and peeps, glad you all could come out, very glad I did not have swine flu this year!
The highlight for me, however, was a chance to see Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate, speak, and to give you some indication of how much I love Billy Collins, I got up at 6 AM to drive there so as to make his presentation on time. There are few poets I really love, and Collins is the only one who has not been dead for more than a century.
And it was indeed awesome to hear him read his poems, he was a hysterically funny speaker, but the best bit for me was during the Q & A, when he uttered two great truths, one of which I have known for some time, and the other one of which was wonderful and I had not considered in such a light before.
The question asked was “How do you know if a poem is any good or not?”
And the answer, quite unexpected, was to reference another poet, (the name has of course escaped me) who had just written one of his best-known poems, and read it over, and realized that good or not, for better or for worse, it was a poem that only he could have written.
And that’s the important bit.
Well. There ya go, then. I would have been happy with just hearing him read “Hangover” and “Litany” but this particular statement rocked my world and made me laugh because it was so obviously true. (Of course, as Thomas Huxley supposedly said upon hearing the theory of natural selection, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” Some of the best truths are blatantly obvious once somebody points them out.)
This, I think, can be applied to art or writing or frankly any of the other creative pursuits–perhaps the point is not necessarily that you create the most brilliant work the world has ever seen, but simply that you create the works that only you can create.
Certainly it’s the reason I stopped reading cookie-cutter fantasy…there are so many books that it seems anybody could have written, given Generic Fantasy Template #8 and a can of spray-glitter. But I’ll still lay out money for hardcovers from any number of writers, flawed and angry or grim and frustrating as they occasionally are–Sheri Tepper, Robin Hobb, Stephen Grundy, I’m lookin’ in your direction!–because for better or worse, they’re the only ones that can write those books, and you know when you’ve finished who you just read.
I’ve often said that you can only do what you can do–usually when the dog has crapped on the floor and the cat is throwing up and the toilet is overflowing and all of my bras are currently in the dryer and somebody wants to know why I have not done X in my copious spare time–but I had not previously framed it in my head as “and you should only do what you can do.”
And of course this could be a bit of a trap, as one obsesses neurotically about one’s own originality and finding one’s voice and all these sources of creative panic, but then came the follow-up question–”So how do you find that original voice?”
And here is where Collins uttered the second great truth, which is one that I actually knew, because artists say it to each other all the time, and occasionally we even listen to ourselves when we talk.
When we talk about finding ones voice, or pursuing one’s original vision or any of the other obtuse verbage you hang about the question of “What do I sound like?” and “What story am I telling?” and “How do I say this so anyone cares?”, it sounds remarkably self-involved, as if you go into deep meditation and navel gazing and sink a bore-hole into some personal creative well and possibly the serpent Kundalini rises up your spine bearing a small, exquisitely monogrammed invitation from your creative self.
Of course, this is a load of crap.
Originality is not something you get from within. You actually beg, borrow and steal it, generally from other people, frequently motivated by being gnawingly jealous of how much better they are than you.*
If you’re a poet, says Collins, you read all the poets on the shelf and I would extend it to say that if you’re an artist, you look at as much other art as you can cram in your eyeballs and if you’re a writer you read. A lot.
Then you shove every influence into a blender and hit puree.
The point is not that you are the only cook who has ever used these ingredients, it is that nobody has ever combined them quite like you. “What is that?” they say, sampling your stew, “I can’t quite place the flavor…” and of course it’ s the saffron you nicked from Rumi and the splash of brandy from Georgette Heyer and Lovecraft’s cryptic and ill-omened root vegetable and the single perfect quail egg you swiped from one of Basho’s poems. “How original!” they say, right before the laudanum from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle takes effect and then you go through their pockets and drag them out of the room by the heels.
Ahem. That metaphor kinda got away from me there. Still, you get the point. Nobody wastes time genetically engineering their own spices, they find novel ways to combine them. Or they just do it better or richer or stronger or with more heavy cream or Guinness reduction glaze.
…and now I’m hungry, and I just ate. Anyway. Two great truths. And if those don’t work for you, just go read some Billy Collins poetry, and we’ll call it good enough.
*I didn’t say this was a pretty truth.