I don’t think many writers would suggest this is a profession for the timid. We’ve got to set up sentences and stand by them. We may look as if we’re the sort of people who can’t be pushed around, but we have to be off the ground before we find sure footing, maybe off track to appreciate the one we finally make. Inspiration makes as many traps as footholds. While I shuttle between excitement and fear about a new path, my muse gets distracted, craving too much salt or sugar. It’s hard to settle down.
In The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugowrites, “To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance – not in real life I hope. In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write. By arrogance I mean that when you are writing you must assume that the next word you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because you put it there.” We follow the mind’s inclinations, even when they first seem random, trust change to reveal connections that seem permanent.
While a sentence may look like it stood as long as a mountain, and never have been written any other way, we can remember the sprawling or skimpy strands of words, the rehearsals with syntax, that went into its making. A sentence may look as inevitable as the shape of a life does when looking back, but look deeper, and we recall the mire of opportunities, setbacks, decisions, and whims that went into its making. We take one sure step, the next tentative, but within that hesitation we may find our best prizes. We first imagine, then impose.
Maybe we look particularly arrogant when we slip through the details of history to bring back a voice from the past. I do such work with what I consider humility, feeling respect for what I find and a sense that this work carries a great chance of error. But when has it not been so? I loved reading this from poet Eleanor: “I am in the habit of saying, when people wonder about the chutzpah of revising biblical stories, that they should imagine the chutzpah it took to write them in the first place.” Before paper and screens, stories were passed along by mouths, and literary sorts would step in with their own renditions of, say, a girl who lost her glass slipper or animals lining up two by two before an ark. Sources that seem certain to some are a puzzle to others. Scholars still unwind strands of what has been published as the Bible, the Torah, the Old Testament and other titles, trying to figure out who first wrote down what from a panoply of sources. Stories about Adam, Eve, Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, and others have long inspired poets and fiction writers, including those in the present day such as Sena Naslund, Anita Diamant, and Alicia Ostriker. Some see ancient stories as invitations, not lectures, a beginning and a place to stand together, not an end or spot to sit alone. And for me, history holds a similar poetry, presenting holes and questions as much as facts. History bends, depending on where one stands when looking. I try to leave pictures of how something once leaned toward me or whispered, what was pure chance, a narrow escape, a glance at just the right time, and make a frame with a hint that it could crack.