Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Carrion Comfort: An Essay on Doubt

By Melanie Figg, who leads an Introduction to Poetry workshop, which begins February 2nd.

Confession: I haven’t written a poem in over a year. I’ve taught writing for over 20 years, and been a writer longer than that. In the past year, I’ve moved across country, gotten married, grappled with DC’s astounding pollen count, become a stepmother to two small boys. You could say I’m busy adjusting, or still in shock, or lousy with a schedule, but whatever: I haven’t been writing. And a writer who doesn’t write becomes pretty cranky, and doubtful. 

Trained as a writer, I started this article by researching what other writers say about doubt to steal what they said—since I’m not writing. I stole this article’s title from one of the greatest poems about despair by Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Carrion Comfort” starts out gorgeously defiant (“Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee…”) and continues to stutter and rage as the poet doubts himself and his God. Ultimately, of course, any struggle with doubt is evidence of faith. And faith is something that every writer needs to cultivate, insist upon, fight for—faith in oneself, faith in routine, faith in the fickle habits of The Imagination, faith in the redemptive power of poetry. 

I haven’t been writing, so, as a poet who makes meaning out of nothing, I’ve been doubting myself and the entire enterprise (like Hopkins!): why is writer’s block not like other dry spells? When you’re going through long stretches of celibacy (of your own volition or otherwise), you rarely doubt your sexuality—you still know whether you’re straight or gay. Content doesn’t trump form. And yet, how hard it’s been for me to not be writing. This lack of task has called my entire identity of “poet” into question. I can’t easily sit with this conclusion, so, since I haven’t been writing, I look up more inspirational quotes. Blah, blah, blah until finally something clicks: “In writing, there is first a creating stage—a time you look for ideas, you explore, you cast around for what you want to say. Like the first phase of building, this creating stage is full of possibilities.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, that giant American, comforts me with The Long View, and like any good teacher, dissolves doubt and inspires action. 

Doubt takes over when writer’s block becomes the norm, when practice is discarded for bad insights. Writer’s block is constant and relentless (the ocean vs. your sand castle) and is beaten back only by a writer’s tenacity, commitment to routine, and surrender to the dull drudgery of sitting down and writing no matter how awful the results. It’s the nature of the beast, I tell my students—writer’s block is no biggie, just something to acknowledge but not feed, ignore but not resist. Or else it grows and takes over, moves from a bad habit to a mindset (Doubt)—with only one cure: write.

Melanie Figg recently moved from the Twin Cities, where she taught creative writing at the Loft Literary Center and worked at Graywolf Press. She now lives in Silver Spring and works at The Theatre Lab in DC. She has won many awards and fellowships for her poetry, and been published in The Iowa Review, LIT, MARGIE, Colorado Review and other journals. Her first manuscript, “Monarch,” has been a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, the Tupelo Prize, and three other national competitions, and her work has won numerous fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Jerome Foundation, and others. Melanie has a poem about faith (and doubt) that will appear in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Poet Lore. She is excited to begin teaching at The Writer’s Center and her upcoming classes are Introduction to Poetry (Feb. 2 – March 23) and Writing from the Visual Arts (April 5 – May 24). Sign up and have fun!

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