The Bard Was Right. To Thine Own Self…

by Ron Hayes

Weird year so far.

As a poet, I’m deeply affected by the things that go on around me. As a teacher, there always seems to be a lot going on. Typically, these goings-on find their way into the poems I put on the page, but this year has been unusually distracting. With so much happening, with so much to think about and weigh as input for my work, the resultant output has slowed to a thin trickle. And I’ve been beating myself up about it.

In part, that’s why I’ve been dreading this post. After taking on some extra responsibilities at work last February, I had no choice but to spend more time reading student work and less time reading for pleasure. It’s been a vicious cycle ever since—self-flagellation over not reading, self-loathing over not writing, and weeks of rationalizing and justifying and waiting for just the right time, just the right conditions for sitting down to put words on paper. Of course, that time never came. I wouldn’t let it. I’d convinced myself that ten minutes here and a half-hour there would never do my writing justice, or rather, I could never do justice to my writing given such small time parameters. In short, I’ve been writing even less than I’ve been reading.

Then, about a month ago, an old article from The Atlantic bubbled up on my Facebook feed with a headline that teased me with some degree of salvation. “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators” by Megan McArdle is the First Best Thing I’ve read in 2016. It’s subtitle perfectly explains why it came as such a welcome discovery: “The psychological origins of waiting (… and waiting, and waiting) to work.” In reading this I learned that I’m not a defective, that I shouldn’t burden myself with so much damned guilt, and that procrastination is not only normal, but well-intentioned, if not necessarily healthy. Perhaps the best thing about the article was that it taught me something about myself, something that, quite honestly, helped heal all the guilt I’d been laying on myself for months. I learned that procrastination is less an issue of laziness (as I’d always mistakenly believed) and more an issue of caring. In essence, writers procrastinate because they “seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn’t very good,” the article said, which is exactly true in my case. I would, by far, much rather release nothing into the world than something that I view as inferior to what I see as companion writing or competition. I’ve (wrongly) convinced myself that if I can’t sit down and crank out something good, I just shouldn’t sit down to write at all. Sound at all familiar?

Just before I stumbled across the piece in The Atlantic, I was reminded that I had forgotten to purchase a chapbook an old friend of mine had released about a year ago. I contacted his wife, made amends, and received the book promptly two days later. It’s a delight. Weird Vocation by Art Zilleruelo is Number Two among the Best Things I’ve read in 2016. Available from Kattywompus Press (www.kattywompuspress.com), Weird Vocation is so good because it is so true to Art. The words are smart and deep and moving and as sharp as a shiny new blade—just as I remember Art being. It’s got more than a few moments in which I stop reading and say, “Damn. I wish I’d written that.” But that isn’t its most important quality. Art’s book taught me something about truth and the self that carries me forward to the Third Best Thing I’ve read in 2016.

Katherine Langrish completed this three-segmented epiphany for me in her article, “Faerie-led: Thoughts on Writing Meaningful Fantasy” available at tor.com. In it she asserts that we writers “need technique, patience, persistence and the ability to learn from criticism. This applies no matter what type of fiction you happen to have fallen in love with.” It’s the latter half of the quote that switched on a whole bank of light bulbs above my head: “no matter what type of fiction you happen to have fallen in love with,” she said. In an article about writing Fantasy.

I like Fantasy. Hell, I LOVE Fantasy. But as a writer, I’ve never felt free enough to admit that. Maybe it was the goth girl in my first creative writing class in college, and workshopping her pre-Twilight vampire poems that elicited not only a roomful of eye rolling, but also, in my own mind, a misplaced sense of derision for any genre short of “literary fiction.” Maybe it was the fact that I fell in love with Ernest Hemingway’s short stories in my first college English class. Maybe it was my foolish, youthful angst at not wanting to be labeled or laughed at, or a likely combination of all three, but Langrish’s article opened my eyes to the fact that I’m 47 years old and I’ve never been comfortable admitting that what REALLY made me fall in love with writing was Ms. DeFazio, a student teacher at JoAnna Connell Elementary school who in 1976 read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to her class of second graders, thus instilling in me an abiding passion for magic and mythology, swords and the supernatural.

The sum of these three mini-epiphanies equals, quite simply, liberation. In coming to terms with the fact that fantasy is a part of me that I should explore in my writing, in realizing that I CAN write poems true to who I am and get published, and letting go of the idea that whatever I write MUST be of literary quality will no doubt grease the skids of my production moving forward. It helps, of course, that I’ve got a little more time now with summer upon us. But the more important lesson is that, at 47, I am only beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin as a writer, which easily is the Best Thing I’ve Learned in 2016.

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