Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Obsessive Compulsive Writing Disorder

I was thinking about poetry the other day, though not in a particularly pleasant way. I was recalling my first day in English 101 and how I argued (long and somewhat loudly) with the assistant professor over the interpretation of a poem. Made for a very interesting start to a very long year, to say the least.
To put myself in a better mood, I shifted my thinking to love poems. Well, it is the season, isn't it? I remember doing research on ancient flood stories and coming across what is supposed to be the first love poem, written some four thousand years ago in a region of southern Mesopotamia known as Sumer. The poem has the oh, so romantic title of Istanbul #2461 and the opening verse as translated by Samuel Noah Kramer goes:
"Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet."
According to Kramer, the poem was recited annually by the brides of King Shu-Sin, a kind of Valentine's Day wish long before there was even a St. Valentine. The poem raises all sorts of interesting and complicated questions about the Sumerian civilization, the standing and treatment of women in that culture, and of the powerful Shu-Sin, especially after reading this line from the second verse: "Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber"). But I also enjoyed the poems straightforward simplicity and easy flow. It has a way of drawing the reader along in a seductive way, something I'm sure Shu-Sin happily approved of year after year.
Not many people know that I began my writing career as a poet way, way back when I was twelve. And, yes, I wrote love poems. I did them for classmates who wanted to impress a girl and I "charged" one Lionel train car per work (guaranteeing that the poem was original, but not that it would win over the girl's heart). I went on to write serious poems in high school and was reasonably good at immitating the styles of a number of famous poets, male and female, though I gave up writing poetry in college when I realized that an aweful lot of poets committed suicide. Writing poetry can be very intense.
Still, it's hard to completely give up the habits I developed over those years while writing and reworking and sweating over every line, every word, every change of beat. I still go through a similar process today when I do my nonfiction books. I see my text as a kind of flowing piece of music where the sound of every word matters and where a hiccup in a sentence distracts me and drives me crazy. I can't tell you how many times I've made a simple change on, say, p. 55, then gone back to reread the text from the start to make sure the alteration fits in seamlessly. It's an annoying obsession, driven by the fear that a clunky section, a single repetition, unclear thought -- whatever! -- will jar a reader enough to pull them out of the text. It's absolutely impossible to win this sort of mind game/torture, but it's a habit I just can't break. As painful as this is, hopefully it makes the writing a little bit better.
Since I began this with a love poem, I'll end it with one as well. I wrote this for my wife, Alison, several years ago using those refrigerator magnets made up of individual letters, brief combinations of letters, and a few complete words. It's called Sweet Dreams and was meant to be fun, though our fifteen-year-old son, Ben, was very serious when he said it needed a stronger ending. The last line is his and I think it is perfect.
My feet sigh,
My blood screams,
My shadow weeps,
Thinking of you --
and chocolate.
Happy Valentine's Day everyone.


Vicki Cobb said...

Thanks for that wonderful post, Jim. I, too, am a closet poet. Poetry is about expressing the essence of concepts and I long ago realized that my job in writing about complex ideas for the uninitiated was a process of distillation, not amplification. Your Valentine to Alison is a perfect example.

Susan Kuklin said...

This is so nice, Jim. Happy Valentine's Day to you!