This Saturday, I was thrilled to do a two poem set at our local poetry night. One, because I have made my first focused commitment as a writer, to dedicate an entire chapbook to the life, friendship and loss of my best friend Katy Koch to complications from congenital heart disease. My first long-term writing commitment, and my first ‘big project’ as a writer, I couldn’t wait to share the news with my community.
Two, I was excited because I was reading two poems about two people I adore– my late best friend Katy and my writing partner-in-crime Genevra MacPhail. When I got there, I felt relieved. The thing about being around other writers is the comfort you feel while in a room with a group of people who what you go through– the bursts of inspiration, the creative droughts, the never ending drag that is the revision process. Then there’s the social isolation, the uncertainty, the insecurity, and most of all, the extremely hard work of creating time to write in a culture that expects you to treat your work like a hobby. In light of all this, every poem, every line, every edit feels like a miracle that I can’t wait to share.
So, after I read my two poems last night, I was hopeful when an older poet crooked two fingers, beckoning me over. Maybe he was going to say something about my set! Maybe he was going to give me advice about my longer work? I leaned in close so he could whisper because another poet was at the mic performing. My hands were on my knees, my ear inches away from his face, and he said:
“You’re too cute for your own good.”
Too cute? Not only did the comment have nothing to do with my work, he couldn’t even be bothered to remove himself from his seat to tell me. Instead, he summoned me over, like a waiter, not to tell me I’m talented, not to wish me luck on my upcoming book, not even to say a generic “good job,” but to tell me I was “too cute.” It felt dismissive. It felt condescending. I felt like he thought I was a joke. I could be taking this whole ten second exchange too seriously. It’s possible. But, here’s something else I take seriously, and I do mean way too seriously: my work.
I don’t stand up and read out of my hand-written journal (see Caveat 1). I agonize over line breaks. I look at the alliteration, “where stitch meets surgeon’s slice.” Is it too on the nose? It sounds right. It feels right. But, is it indulgent? I’ve struck out and replaced a word sixteen times in one location before. Then I look at the entire work. Is it too heavy handed? Too light—too sentimental and fluffy? Conjunctions, pronouns, modifiers–are they all clear? Are they even necessary? Real estate in poetry is precious. Am I making the best use of it? The two poems I performed last night were on their third and fourth stage of revision. I asked for feedback from fellow writers twice on both poems and revised accordingly.
Then, there is honoring the subject matter. Did I walk my reader or listener through the experience I’m trying to convey? Will they understand the burden my best friend Katy bore? The burden of being a congenitally “sick” person in an able-bodied world? Ironically, the poem I read was about an entitled male coming across Katy’s many surgical scars. How the able-bodied expect those who have come close to death to understand the mysteries of life, what a heavy weight that was on the shoulders of my friend who, at 19, just wanted to belong, just wanted to be loved, just wanted to feel normal. Have I made it clear? Have I “shown” instead of “told” that when my friend Genevra was reciting a beautiful old poem filled with gloom, doom, and apocalyptic views of the future, I realized this wise friend of mine was going to be a mother? Did my readers get that this remarkable woman bringing a child into the world filled me with hope and optimism about the future in general? Did I do that through imagery instead of analysis? Will the reader or listener experience that same joy I did in that moment?
Most important, when I write poems about people I know, I want the reader, need the listener, to understand that these people are remarkable. I have bowed my head and thanked G-d for putting them in my life. These two poems, to my best friend Katy and my dear friend Genevra are my monuments to them. Every time I write a poem about a real person, I’m filled with a crushing fear that when I read those poems out loud, I will inadvertently stumble, and knock over the monument I was building.
When I’m waiting to read, my revised papers bounce on restless knees. I try to strike a balance. I want to hear what everyone else has to say. After all, I came to be inspired and to enjoy myself. I came with the same amount of desire to hear as to be heard. But I also worry about my own pending reading, something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to remind myself to pay attention. Half a second for line breaks. A full second for periods. Where exactly should I breathe? Where should I power though to create a sense of urgency? And despite all of this preparation, every single time my name is called, I stand with nervous energy. I feel awkward, like I don’t really belong. My voice shakes when I read. It goes much better than when I don’t prepare at all. But, I never walk back to my seat feeling “awesome” about my set.
In short, for every three minutes set I do, there’s been a lot of preparation. A lot of second guessing. In light of that, a comment about, my looks? My mannerisms? Whatever being “too cute for my own good means,” it doesn’t mean my writing was good. It’s something I have no control over. And so, it didn’t feel like a compliment. It felt devastating.
I’m sure if I approached the man who said this to me, he would be confused and defensive, ‘I mean, what the hell? It was supposed to be a compliment. Don’t worry, I’ll never compliment you on anything again.’ Fair enough. And in another setting, sure what he said might have felt like a compliment. But I didn’t enter a beauty contest last night. We weren’t at a bar flirting for twenty minutes or any other situation that said I might be interested in his thoughts about my attractiveness. I prepared for a poetry reading. And, though I’m sure I should be thrilled this man thought I nailed Miss Congeniality, I was hoping to be the best writer I could possibly be.
Like all writers I know, what I want to be is a great writer. I know I’m not there yet; but, dammit, I’m trying. I’m putting in the hours. So, instead of the compliment he intended, when he said, “You’re too cute for your own good.” I felt punched in the guts, deflated, even a bit sick.
I wanted to respond to his comment by being petty–to roll my eyes and walk away. Instead, I told him “Thanks,” because that’s how I was taught to respond when people are trying to compliment me (even if they do so poorly). I also told him that I really enjoyed his reading–because, it was true. He did give a good reading. In fact, I found his delivery, his air of authority, quite enviable.
No matter how much I can’t stand a person as a human being, I can’t dismiss his or her work outright. I mean, for goodness sakes, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen may be rapists, but I won’t say they are talentless because it simply isn’t true. To deny their talent, their vision at the height of their popularity, or their lasting influence would take a lot of cognitive dissonance. Being a good writer or performer doesn’t mean you will be a good human being. And you can still be good at your job and be a rotten person (see Caveat 2). I think most of us can agree on that (see Caveat 3).
That being said, while we may be able to separate abhorrent, even criminal behavior from a person’s body of work, I fear that my audience will never be able to peel apart my looks and personal charisma from my work. And, I think, this is why the man who said I was, “…too cute,” probably felt the need to say this to me–why he thought I would appreciate the words. I will always be a female writer, not just a writer (one of the many wonders of being female). My “likeability” will always come into play, which can mean any combination of things— attractiveness, stylishness, pleasing mannerisms, and if I don’t have any of those things, I’d better be a damned good sport. It shouldn’t be the case. But, sometimes, I fear it’s a truth that is never going to change. For female writers, likability is a huge issue.
I remember an author, one who I look up to very much, explaining success in the literary world. She said, “Of course it helps if you’re young, you’re cute and you have a story.” Guess I nailed the cute part—though, I can’t say it makes me feel like a better writer. Not even a little bit.
- Although, I realize many like to read their work when it’s raw, fresh and emotive, and watch their audience’s reaction as a form of feedback, that is just not who I am as a writer. I have zero intention of making my audience sit through my “rehearsal.” Though, I enjoy hearing a fresh, bleeding work from time to time, I don’t do it myself.
- I am aware in certain jobs, ethics are central to good work performance —nursing, police work, and, say, working around large sums of money, for example. But, writing (as long as you aren’t teaching) isn’t one of them.
- I’m meeting more and more young people who disagree with that statement. Although their arguments are passionate and full of a lot of sound points, I’ve yet to be fully swayed. I think bad behavior, even criminal behavior and job performance can be peeled apart.