On Robert’s Frost’s 80th birthday, he was honored at a dinner at Amherst College. When he spoke, he responded to the often-quoted line; “poets die young” by saying that they die in many ways: “not just into the grave, but into businessmen, into critics or into philosophers.”
He was unsettled that so many of his friends had used the word “great” in talking about him. “People say you’re this and you’re that and you wonder if you’re anything. All I wanted to do is to write a few little poems it’d be hard to get rid of. That’s all I ask.”
By all accounts, the ambitious Frost was not a humble man, so his quote is filled with many of same ironic twists that occupy his poems. But knowing his life and his poetry, I believe that at its core, it was genuinely felt.
“…it’d be hard to get rid of.”
That’s an elegant and worthy aspiration for any writer.
To create a story, a poem or an article that lingers in another’s mind is one of the great blessings of being a writer.
So how do you write well enough so “it’d be hard to get rid of?”
If anyone knew the answer, they probably wouldn’t share until their eightieth birthday.
I can give you two insights – one from Anne Lamott whose gem of a book, Bird by Bird, writes, “ That thing you had to force yourself to do— the actual act of writing— turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
The other is a lesson from a lifetime of writing. It is ultimately about seeing writing as a relationship and not an act.
The art of writing is becoming conscious of making hundreds of tiny decisions and then becoming unconsciously aware of how well you’re making those decisions.
For example, let’s take a simple sentence: The path wound along the riverside. (Admittedly, this is a very basic and mundane line.) Now, a writer who is conscious may intentionally use “wound” not simply as a variation of “winding” but also to evoke the noun wound. (Injury).
Consciousness is the awareness of possibilities within the essence of that sentence.
What kind of path? Dirt? Well-trodden? Was it filled with impressions of a child’s stroller? Or perhaps was it more like Robert Frost’s description of one of his roads. “Because it was grassy and wanted wear.”
Want kind of river are we talking about? Fast flowing? Murky? Polluted? Frozen?
And that is merely description. What about context? Imagine a person who is fearful of water. This turns the path into an antagonist. Or maybe the path is a means of escape. The path itself becomes a character.
Sometimes a path is just a path.
So what about the unconscious part? It is a version of what Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. It’s what happens when the nouns, adjectives and adverbs flow through your mind and onto the page as effortlessly as breathing.
The great writers welcome flow but they don’t rely on it. It’s simply too fickle.
Mark Twain would often write pages and pages that flowed effortlessly (usually sitting in his favorite chair at Quarry Farm in Elmira New York) and then a few days later he would put the pages in a drawer and not look at them for years.
Writing isn’t a noun, it’s a relationship.
It is often a demanding, uncompromising one. It is also a deeply rewarding one. The ability to breathe life into a character and to allow that character to roam freely on the page with his or her unique voice is a joy.
So like Frost, if you want to write something “it’d be hard to get rid of,” then you need to be willing to begin and nurture a relationship.