Praying for Permission from the God of Writing

A few weeks back, I wrote about How to Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule and that post almost immediately became the most popular thing ever written for this website. Recently, Elisabeth de Mariaffi (author of the most recent addition to my to-read list, The Devil You Know) mentioned that post on her website. In her article, de Mariaffi notes a sign on her office door that simply says “NO” to ward off interruptions. Inside, also pinned to the door, is a second sign, one “that tells the writer YES.”

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I don’t have an office door, so I don’t have a sign (my headphones are my “NO”). But I do something similar to de Mariaffi’s “YES” — I pray to the God of Writing.

The God of Writing

The God of Writing is a beat-up index card with the words “The God of Writing” scrawled on it. I stamped some Canadian maple leaves on there too, on a lark.

What does the God of Writing do? Like any good God, it answers prayers. I pray, then I flip the card over for the answer to my prayer. Here’s how it works.

Dear God of Writing, I despair, for the kitchen is a mess. This office is a mess. My whole life is a mess. I should clean up these messes, but I would like to work on a poem about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. God of Writing, would you please grant me permission to ignore this mess and write a sonnet about Leatherface instead?

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Asking Permission

I created the God of Writing in response to my Catholic guilt. Although I identify as an atheist, it is more correct to say that I am a lapsed Catholic, since I was once confirmed in the Church and have not been excommunicated. More importantly, I suffer as much as any good Catholic from good ol’ Catholic guilt.

Those unfamiliar with Catholic guilt find the concept bizarre, so let me universalize it for you. The best parallel is the guilt that you feel when you are enjoying something. Not guilty because it is bad for you — not a guilty pleasure — but guilty whether or not it is good or bad for you. You feel guilty because of your enjoyment, and the thing you’re enjoying is irrelevant. So, when writing, I feel guilty for writing. I feel like there is something else I should be doing instead.

But there isn’t! Does this feeling go away just because you are a writer, and in fact your actual JOB is to write things? Nope. It gets worse, actually. In fact, if I don’t write then I feel guilty for not writing. Then when I start writing, I feel guilty for writing.

That’s right — Catholicism perfected guilt.

What’s the solution? My solution is the God of Writing. I literally go through an idiotic ritual requesting permission from God to write, even though I do not believe in God. The mockery of the ritual, which I built into the ritual itself, helps salvage my dignity.

I don’t pray to the God of Writing often, but I do when I need to. Just like I imagine de Mariaffi takes the signs seriously only on her bad days.

Giving Yourself Permission

Whether you post a sign on your door, or pray to the God of Writing, you need to give yourself permission to write. Sometimes, you need to give yourself permission to write badly, just to get the bad writing out of the way and relieve yourself of the anxiety that so often attends writing.

If you are a writer, and see writing as your career or your hoped-for career, the need to write should be obvious. Yet it is not always easy to write, because so often you will work on a project that has no definite deadline or even any definite future. You want to write a novel, but nobody has asked you to write a novel, nobody seems interested in your novel, there is no guarantee that anybody will want to publish your novel, or read your novel, and maybe when it’s done not even you will want to see the novel published or read. There is often no definite deadline associated with a large project like a novel, and definitely not any assurance of money or fame.

As difficult as it is in a circumstance like this, you need to give yourself permission to write. Nothing you do is as important as actually sitting down and writing, if you are a writer. (When it comes to working, at least. Probably a lot of other things in your life, non-work things, are far more important.)

This is an especially difficult thing to remember and keep focused on when you are successful as a writer. Success of any sort, major or minor, brings with it a lot of work. Work that isn’t writing. When you’re filling out forms and replying to emails, and drowning in writing-related work, it is difficult to remember that writing-related is NOT writing and therefore you need to force yourself to pull away from that thing that is almost due and focus on that thing that will NEVER be due.

The problem is compounded if you do not see writing as your career. I talk to a lot of people who write on the side, while focused on some other career, and I notice that they have the largest problem with this, because of course they see writing as a distraction from their career. They want to write, but they feel like they can’t spare the time, they can’t justify writing just because they enjoy it.

What I try to explain to them is that writing is the thing that will make their career. They want to be an accountant — well, every other accountant is an accountant. How can they set themselves apart? By being the accountant that writes. They can build an entire side business this way, or just build a reputation this way. Their writing has incredible potential to advance them in their non-writing career.

Even if their writing seems totally disconnected from their non-writing career, they would do well to connect the two. Maybe you’re an accountant that writes fantasy novels. Great! Start building a client list of fantasy novelists! Write a book called Write Off That Cool Sword: Accounting for Fantasy Novelists and hit the convention circuit. Write off your travel! You’ll be drowning in business.

Money, Writing, and Magic

I could (and might) write a whole book about money and writing, so I will just say a few quick things in summary. Money and writing connect over this issue of permission because so often we neglect writing because the time spent seems like a bad investment.

People say that it is impossible to make money writing. That’s not true. What’s true is this: It is very easy to make a little money writing. It’s very hard to make a lot of money writing. What is impossible is making a “regular” amount — making the same money, with the same regularity, that you would make working at McDonald’s.

But so what? Let’s put aside the important, idealistic reasons you might want to write. Let’s focus on the narrow band of practical, careerist reasons you might write — since these are the kinds of reasons you will find to not write.

Writing is not a great way to make money — it’s a great way to create opportunities. (Sometimes these lead to money in roundabout ways, sometimes not.) Being able to write is like having a magical power that makes everything in your life easier and provides you a shortcut to accomplishing anything. But you need to learn how to wield the power, which isn’t easy. And the power demands a price: time and blood. And if you underestimate your power, it will leave you.

You need to give yourself permission to not make money writing, and then write anyway, and trust in the God of Writing. Then pay attention, and thank the God of Writing when its blessings rain down.

A few comments from Ryan Fitzpatrick on Why Poetry Sucks

Here is a snippet from Ryan Fitzpatrick (my co-editor), recorded for a talk I gave at the University of Winnipeg on Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Poetry.

Ryan refers to a few things here:

Here are a handful of my own remarks from the talk. They are disjointed and undeveloped because I was extemporizing, and also reading poems and excerpts from the introduction, and of course playing the video, but they provide a bit more context. Of course, the anthology is where the beef is at, if you were wondering where’s the beef.

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One of Ryan’s own poems (“Watch for Exploding Cells” from Fake Math) first brought me to the basic idea for this anthology. I had become annoyed with the constant complaints I would hear about experimental poetry — especially about poetry by women writers — and I started to feel that there was an oppressive quality to the complaints, a power dynamic beneath their expression.

The litany of complaints often boiled down to two basic assaults, which were that (1) the poets were just fooling around and not being serious enough, or (2) the poets were being too serious and had no sense of humour but were just straining to make political or theoretical points. I thought it funny that these contradictory attacks would often be made about the same poets, and that often the really nasty reviews of experimental work were made by people who clearly had no idea how to read the work (never mind notice when somebody was making a joke). In other words, they just didn’t get it, and so isolated its humour (or perceived lack of humour) as its weak point, the way to crush it.

At the end of Ryan’s poem, he writes:

A new weapon in the war against explosions:
EXPLOSIONS! Hearing aids may explode!

It is easy to read into the double meaning of the word “cells” as terrorist cells — and also, of course, as prison cells, which is something the poem itself clearly demands given an earlier line about “Brazil’s exploding prisons!” — and so this line seems clearly to resonate as a critique of the war on terror. Yet even a simple reading like this is often beyond critics of this kind of poem, and so the use of a comedic technique often gets used as a reason to dismiss such poems — but then when comedy is missing, the poems are dismissed as too “arch.”

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One specific inclusion in Why Poetry Sucks is “Chapter U” from Christian Bök’s Eunoia, a prose poem in which Bok only uses the vowel U. Much of Eunoia, including a line from this chapter, was dismissed by Carmine Starnino, and here is the most puzzling of his complaints: “These sentences — tonally trapped between Dr. Seuss and the Jabberwocky — come off a little silly” (A Lover’s Quarrel 130).

To me that is a stunning complaint, if only for negative comparisons to Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll. Yet elsewhere, Starnino complains that “humourlessness is the most galling failure of our current crop of experimental phonems” (Lazy Bastardism 165).

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When this book came out, Michael Lista gave it a negative review in the National Post — a review that, funnily enough, we had anticipated and parodied before it existed — we filed our own negative review of the book (called “Why Why Poetry Sucks Sucks”) with The Winnipeg Review before Lista had published his.

I appreciate Lista taking the book seriously (I’m serious!) and reviewing it, and felt that his review was everything I wanted it to be, in a way. (Although I like Lista’s poetry, I find his reviews too conservative.)

He complains that the poems aren’t funny enough, even though our introduction makes it clear that we don’t really care how funny the poems are — we care about how a comedic technique is being utilized in the poems for an experimental purpose, usually a political purpose, and therefore claim that there is something very serious about the jokes of these poets but also something very funny about the moments when they are being serious. Lista fails to see, or just doesn’t care, that our focus is on how both experimental poetry and comedy use similar techniques to unveil power relations.

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So why does poetry suck? What interests me most, in poetry or fiction, are texts that demand reader participation but then structure or reflect on that participation as a traumatic or terrible thing. So what most interests me in poetry are what Gregory Betts calls “post-avant” poets, who often use poetry to advance social critiques of power relations, but at the same time self-critique the value of offering these social critiques in poetry.

The world sucks because of power, but poetry sucks for not being powerful.

SALE on The Politics of Knives

Throughout February, I’m selling The Politics of Knives — my only award-winning book! — for a mere $7.

“The Politics of Knives marks Jonathan Ball as a talent already here in a big way. Read it.” — Douglas Barbour

“If Jonathan Ball’s previous book of poems Clockfire was a book about the horrors of the theatre, The Politics of Knives, his most recent, is about the horrors of film. Using the cut as an organizing device, Ball interrogates the way we organize our everyday (and not so everyday) narratives: how we surveil and are surveilled, what we include and exclude from our cinematic and psychological frames, and what it means to wait for the next reel to start. Caught between filmic edit and horrific cuts in reality, Ball asks whether the imagined film of our lives isn’t already a scary one.” — Ryan Fitzpatrick

“The violence in The Politics of Knives is often directed at the text itself. Many passages exploit a syntactical ambiguity to set up one meaning while at the same time subverting another, so the reader never knows which word might turn traitor.” — Jeremy Colangelo

Steven W. Beattie on The Politics of Knives

That Shakespearean Rag
11 April 2013

An extremely adept reading of The Politics of Knives by Steven W. Beattie has appeared on his site, That Shakespearean Rag.

He does an especially nice job of contextualizing the poem “Psycho” both within a history of film analyses and according to the avant-garde techniques I mimic. I am an oddity as a writer in that I often mimic avant-garde techniques (in this case, the “cut-up” technique) rather than actually executing them. I also tend to be densely allusive, and Beattie does a good job of teasing out some of the instances when I allude within and across the text, which other reviewers have overlooked (or at least not written about).

All Lit Up recommends The Politics of Knives

All Lit Up
20 February 2015

All Lit Up put “a spotlight on the form of erasure poetry: a means of loosening or reassigning the grip of authorship on a text by erasing some combination of words, sentences, or even entire paragraphs; refining or subverting its original meaning.”

Their two picks were The Politics of Knives and Don’t Let it End Like This Tell Them I Said Something, an excellent collection by Paul Vermeersch.

Alien Erotica

The Toast
2 April 2014

As an exercise in description and imagery, I invite students to describe some everyday event in the strangest possible way, as if an alien observer that didn’t understand the interaction was forced to describe its process. Here’s the ultimate endgame of that exercise: erotica written by an alien horrified by the human body.