I’ve been rewatching Mad Men recently and during season one, my feminist rage at the overt misogyny took a break during the scene when Don Draper accompanies his girlfriend, Midge, to an open mic night in the village. A young woman gets up on stage and recites a poem she wrote about how she had a dream that she had sex with Fidel Castro in the Waldorf Astoria. The first time I watched this scene, I pretty much ignored it. Now, watching it again twelve years later, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Not because I’ve watched this show before, but because I’ve been to that same reading–over and over again.
Have you ever noticed that when poets read their work aloud, they all have the same poetic rhythm when they speak? It’s a lilting ebb and flow of sound, rolling like waves in a way that can be so seductive, but lately it’s begun to feel canned and unoriginal. It’s as if everyone, upon writing their first poem, was sent a guide on how to properly read your work in public.
I don’t read my work like that. I don’t mean that to say that I think my style is better; frankly, I’d probably be better off with some coaching. One of my therapists once recommended I join a local Toastmasters group to prepare for readings. It’s good advice, but I haven’t followed his suggestion as of yet. I don’t have a good excuse, I just haven’t done it. But this post isn’t about the ways in which I self-sabotage.
So what is this post about? I think what I’m getting at is I feel disenchanted with the literary scene. That isn’t to say that I don’t go to readings and feel inspired, because I do. I’m fortunate to live in a very creative town and I know some incredibly talented individuals who, if they are reading somewhere, I will rearrange my entire schedule to hear them talk for ten minutes. But other times, I do feel like I’m going to the same readings over and over and over again. I thought it was just because I’ve been in the same town for too long, but watching Mad Men reinforced that it’s not just my own swimming pool–the whole fucking ocean is like this.
I don’t want to shit on people who are brave enough to read their work in public. It’s terrifying and it takes more courage than I usually have. But I do sometimes feel like I’m listening to the same pieces on a loop. Everyone wants to express themselves but not everyone knows how to do it without falling back on canned phrasing. I also can’t stop thinking about a line from David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day: “She mistakenly though that because her pain was significant, her writing was also significant.” I fall victim to that all the time, and then I remember that quote and I feel like quitting writing altogether.
How do I move past this? How do I shake the feeling that I’ve heard every poem before? The authors I hear today might not be reading about dreaming they’re fucking Fidel Castro in the Waldorf Astoria, but there are always attempts at being provocative. White boys are always writing about cigarettes and broken women who don’t love them and we still praise them like they’ve created something revolutionary. Someone is always taking a poet by surprise, getting under their skin, setting them on fire, making them feel things they can’t express any other way, but in tired language that leaves me exhausted and ordering another beer because I fear I sound the same.
I do sound the same.
I’ve tried to break out of my rut so many times that I feel like my rut breaking is in a rut. It doesn’t help that it feels like every story has already been told. At their core, there’s only one story: the hero’s journey. Sometimes the hero is an anti-hero, but they’re still the hero of their own story. I psych myself out and I freeze up and do nothing. People ask me what I’m writing these days, and I have to admit that I’m not working on anything. Then I go to readings and I hear the poetic rhythm and the same, tired phrasing, and I get wrongfully annoyed with these poets because they’ve managed to create something, regardless of my preference for it, and I’ve created nothing. Instead, I sit at the bar and drink another beer like that will fix anything as I continue to not write, terrified by my own inadequacies.
So instead I’m blogging. I’m hoping that honesty will earn me some kind of credibility, but even my ramblings are starting to sound like something I’ve heard before. I think I put too much pressure on myself to create something new and innovative, when instead I should just write something. Anything. Maybe those white boys and their cigarettes are on to something. They might be producing the same poem over and over, but it’s new to them. The core language and phrasing is the same, but no one has ever put the words in the exact same order that they have. At some point, I think I have to get over my fear of moving forward and write the poem about fucking Fidel Castro in the Waldorf Astoria and the broken women with the cigarettes who will never love me back.
At least I could say I’d made something instead of watching Mad Men until my brain caves in on itself.
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