Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Needed in a Hatestack

It seemed like a pretty straightforward question: "Daddy? Have you ever written something you kinda hated, that wasn't really any good, but you couldn't bring yourself to through it away?"

Well, of course. That was easy.

That was Monday. Since then, I've been asking myself why I would be hanging onto something I hate. It seemed so obvious to me that I wouldn't throw away something I'd written, but I couldn't articulate why. I mean, don't we all hang onto every word we apply to the page? But why?

I think there are a few reasons I keep the words. Not only the raw efforts in my notebook or on my microcassettes, where deleting is actually more work than keeping, but also the hardcopies of the distilled drafts that failed in the middle of the seventh line. First, there's plain stubbornness: I started this, I can finish it. This is thought is usually wrong, but even knowing that, it's hard to overcome it once it has occurred to me.

Sometimes I've grown attached to a line or phrase and really want to make it work. Or salvage it from the dullness to which I've anchored it and build a new poem around it.

But most frequently, I think, I'm enamored with the character I've created. I'm primarily a purveyor of narrative, and when I create a narrator I feel an emotional need to let that narrator find his or her own way out of the poem. This fails when I've stuck them in the wrong poem.

I explained this to my daughter with the example from my poem "Legacies" (Outerbridge, 1994). It started as a solemn story about a man at his father's wake - first telling stories, then recollecting in silence, then interacting with sisters. Each time the piece died (no pun intended) early on, long before I'd started to see where I wanted to go. In a later rewriting, though, (5th or 6th as I recall) I twisted it into something a little more lighthearted, and then the idea had legs enough to ride to completion. I don't recall if the twist was a conscious rework or a spontaneous reimagining, but the piece worked well enough, whichever it was.

Do you hang onto your failures? How do you break them open to find the spec of gemstone within?

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