Gay-Man #16: Creative Inspiration, Perspiration, and Integration
Thus far, I’ve mostly used this column to talk about comic books. When doing so, I’ve framed myself as a reader of art, rather than a creator. This week, however, I’m switching gears in both my topic and approach. National Poetry Month just wrapped up, and I’d like to take some time to reflect on my experiences as a poet—the good, the bad, and the nonsensical.
My academic background is a bit different from a lot of other poets. I do not have an MFA. Nor have I taken part in such a program and later dropped out. While I have taken creative writing classes, I don’t have a degree that is centered around writing. I have no negative opinion or wishes toward anyone who has taken that path; I simply have not embarked on it personally.
With that said, I have studied writing academically. I was enrolled in my high school’s creative writing class for three years in a row, and as an undergraduate I minored in creative writing. I wasn’t an English major, though—my degree was in psychology. This put me in a unique position in the creative writing department. I was not exclusively a student of literature like many of my peers were. In my major coursework, I studied classifications of mental disorders, functions of different brain parts, experimental design, the history of psychology as a discipline, and how psychological principles apply to a variety of different fields. I designed and conducted experiments regarding societal perceptions of gay men and lesbians, and analyzed my findings using statistical tests. I took classes in statistics—hardly the kind of thing that comes to mind when one imagines a working writer.
With all that said, I also took part in workshops. I studied poetry, had my work critiqued, critiqued others’ work, and engaged in conversations about the state of poetry today. During my time as an undergraduate, I met some of the most talented writers I know. I also took several classes with a specific poetry professor who became one of my greatest mentors and friends during college. I still keep in touch with him and some of my former classmates, and am grateful for my experiences. My time in that department was a positive one, and I’m happy to say that my classmates and professors never made me feel out of place. They never singled me out negatively for coming from a different academic (or sexual) background—they respected differences amongst writers, and that’s very important.
I am not, however, sad that my time in academia has come to an end. I have considered taking part in an MFA program, and have applied to a handful, but have yet to attend one. I have mixed feelings on the idea of attending one. I believe that the quality of a writing program is heavily dependent on the mindset of its participants—both students and faculty. I think workshops can be a helpful place to get other people’s insights about your work, and to be exposed to different styles and ways of thinking. I also believe that it takes a certain type of open-mindedness to achieve this. If you find yourself in a program where everyone else’s stylistic preferences are dramatically different from yours, and rather than being open-minded, your peers commit to an attitude of “if I don’t like it, then that means it isn’t true art or poetry”, then something has gone terribly wrong.
To be honest, besides potentially growing artistically from being exposed to other people, my main goal in an MFA program would likely be to gain teaching experience and furthering my career goals. I don’t feel a need to go to an MFA program as a means of proving my talent or worth as a writer. You don’t have to come from any specific academic background to be a good artist. You don’t even need to be formally educated to be a good artist. That’s not to say that academic art programs are inherently bad, just that they are not the be-all, end-all of art. I gained a lot of helpful advice in my undergraduate days, but I’ve reached a point where I don’t feel like a classroom setting would be very conducive to advancing my artistic goals. I’ve developed and discovered enough about my personal artistic preferences and goals, as well as gained enough experience and friendships in non-academic writing communities, that returning to academia wouldn’t inherently provide me with anything I don’t already have.
When I was a student, I thought about artistic validation in terms of classmates’ approval and gaining publication credits. I felt like I had to prove something, like I had to get an undetermined amount of curriculum vitae-esque accomplishments to be taken seriously as a writer. It’s been about a year and a half since I graduated from college, and I’ve achieved a lot. I’ve had poems published in roughly two dozen magazines, had a chapbook published, signed the contract for my forthcoming second chapbook, and even branched off into writing other things such as book reviews and this very column.
As a novice writer, each poem acceptance was like a stamp of approval. It helped my build up my confidence that my writing could be enjoyed by other people. Over time, however, I’ve stopped looking at acceptances as a matter of validation. I’ve learned that healthy confidence should be drawn from oneself. I think it is important to analyze what one’s goals for their art are. It is beneficial to think about your stylistic preferences, the reasons why you have those preferences, and what methods you can utilize to achieve your creative goals. There’s nothing wrong with trying to gain the approval of an audience—that’s a large part of the point of most art. Art gets shared, and makes an impact on other people. You should not, however, take a rejection letter as a sign that your art is worthless. You should not take one negative opinion as a factual statement about your quality as an artist, much less as a person.
There is value in listening to the opinions of those who critique you and who disagree with you. It can open your mind to new ideas, and there’s a lot to be said for that process. The thing to be said, however, is not that you should always make major changes to your approach or attitude just to meet the expectations of any specific person or school of artistic thought. When you develop your own thought processes about art, you can still feel the joy of a work being accepted, and appreciated. I think it’s much healthier to look at acceptance of your work as a sign that that you are succeeding in what you set out to do, and that you have positively impacted another person, rather than as a sign that you may be a valid human being. You are already a valid human being; whether your art is wonderful or god-awful does not determine if you have inner worth.
With that said, I still question myself artistically. I deal with anxieties about my work and my talent. After my first book was released, I felt ecstatic. After a while, though, I also began to feel a heavy pressure. Response to my book was very positive, and I was scared to let people down in future work. What if I, somehow, “forgot how to write”? What if I never wrote anything good again?
The short answer is that I would not have been worth any less as a person. The artistically determined and motivated question is that one can get rusty at writing, but not straight-up forget everything they’ve ever done. If you hit a slump and don’t like what you’re writing, so what? Every artist who ever tries produces some really shitty art. No one has a life’s body of work that every other person is going to love every piece of. And that’s okay. As an artist (and I use that term broadly, to reference makers of any type of art or creative endeavor), it is important not to let fear of failure paralyze oneself.
It’s also important not to beat oneself up if it does paralyze you from time to time. We all go through stages of doubt. If you never do, you either have an incredible amount of healthy confidence that I envy, or you may just be a stuck-up asshole. Point being, it’s okay to question. It’s okay to doubt. It is okay, believe it or not, to have days where you don’t write. Forget anything you’ve ever heard about how wannabe writers have to sit down at their typewriter, desk, or computer every day and scribble something out. That works for some people, but it doesn’t mean everyone has to do that all the time. Practice is important, but don’t beat yourself up for taking a day (or longer) off. I think that sometimes writing communities romanticize different parts of the writing process while failing to acknowledge gaps between periods of creation and productivity.
One of my biggest anxieties in my writing is if my work is too one-note. At times I find myself wondering if I just write about the same things all the time. The answer is yes and no. A majority of my published work has described, in one way or another, being gay. I’ve written about homophobia—from outside sources and in the context of internalized shame. I’ve written about growing up gay, childhood memories, and how being gay affects everyday events in my present. I’ve written about how being gay colors society’s views of my sex life, as well as how it affects my thought process when I’m standing in line at a grocery store.
My point here is that what seems like one topic can have a variety of subtopics, and returning to a general concept frequently doesn’t mean that one only writes about one thing. A poem about a memory of homophobia in a school cafeteria is not the same poem as a poem about how you relate to a famous gay figure in history. If you find yourself being continually drawn to the same topic in your writing, then chances are that there is still fresh ground to uncover there. It’s okay if you sometimes need a break before you come back and determine what that fresh ground actually is. It’s okay to branch out to different topics—right not I’m working on a chapbook manuscript that is very different from my first two, both thematically and stylistically. It is okay to keep some things the same while changing others. Don’t let yourself stop writing about a topic that interests you just because you’ve already talked about it in the past.
On the topic of topics, don’t be afraid to bring in outside references and viewpoints. Regardless of what clichés may imply, no one eats, drinks, and sleeps nothing but their art form of choice. Everyone has some sort of variety in their interests. Those interests don’t have to seem strongly related to impact each other, either. I mentioned previously that my main academic studies were in psychology. This impacts the way I view the world, and thus, naturally, impacts my writing. Sometimes I explicitly reference psychological concepts and figures in my work, and other times it is simply an influence in that it has shaped the way I think about the world.
Being a writer doesn’t mean that you can (or should) only study literature or only use literary references. I love poems that reference visual art, mathematics, biology, Buddhism, philosophy. Every person’s worldview is shaped by the way they interact with a variety of disciplines, and I think there’s a lot to be found in the way these different fields and schools of thought can be compared. Why should poetry be static, and never allowed to take cues from visual art or from music? Why should we continue to pretend that there is never any common ground between literature and statistics? It is perfectly okay to like one and not the other. It is also okay, however, to love both. I highly recommend thinking about your interests outside of your art form of choice, and thinking about the different ways you can marry your various influences. People are complex; art can be the same (and yes, it can do so while still being accessible to others).
I write because I love to do it. I have my times where I feel major artistic fatigue from writing a lot in a short amount of time. I hit what feel like dead-ends, where I’m not sure what else I can say about a topic, or how I can marry disparate interests into a complete whole. I write a lot, and I also take breaks. The most repeated writing advice ever is to read a lot and write a lot. That much is obvious. My advice is to think about your inspirations, and try not to tell yourself that you can’t make interesting art out of the topics that interest you, even if you’ve already dealt with them frequently. Try not to let metaphorical perspiration—stress, fatigue, doubt—from being mean to yourself and believing you’re incapable of making anything worthwhile. Integrate your different influences; you are multi-faceted, and your art, that comes from you, can be as well.
That’s all for now, folks. I’ll see you again in two weeks, probably to talk about comics some more. Or maybe poetry? We’ll see!
Until next time,