More on the dangers of writing about now

It’s a thing I often have to put the kibosh on in intro poetry classes. I tell them, if you’re writing this for eventual publication then it’s inadvisable to try to write about “capital-I IMPORTANT” things as they are happening. The worst poetry on 9/11 happened right after 9/11. It’s a great document of how people were feeling at the time, but mostly doesn’t make for good poetry except when it is allusive and oblique. If you NEED to write about whatever’s happening to process your feelings, just keep a journal. Let it eat those sins. Then in a few years, when your brain and heart have had time to process the whole thing, go back and mine that journal for ideas and write something of value. More such advice below.

Don’t feel as though you need to write about COVID-19. Not directly, not yet. Neither you, nor me, nor any of us have perspective on this thing—the crisis and the feelings around it are only just beginning to crawl down the well of our subconscious. Once they’re settled, clacking in the dark there, they will be a part of the water when we pull buckets up for years to come. We’ll set out, 20 years from now, to write a book about model trains and we’ll drink from that well and wind up writing about the feeling we have this afternoon. Art does not traffic in straight lines. Instant gratification is anathema. Art is done in the dark.

The best writing is not a reaction to each day’s news as it happens (what ages faster than front-page stories?). The best writing is the stuff we haul up in that bucket, years and perhaps decades later, mixed with all the pre- and post-crisis moments in our life, all the anxiety and relief, not segregated by timeframe or motif, the way childhood merges with the day before yesterday in dreams. Folks these days are sharing Katherine Ann Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a story of the 1918 pandemic. What’s shared less often is the date of the story’s composition: 1939, 20 years after the pandemic had passed. Twenty years it took that crisis to settle deep enough in Porter’s mind that the particulars of her lived experience could be stripped off or alloyed with other impressions, people she met later, the weather.

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