Poetry-Phobia: A Battle Between Narcissism and Insecurity

Most people loathe going to the doctor.  My father intentionally chose an elderly physician so that when he died, he was left doctor-less; no more making up excuses to avoid appointments, no more irritated receptionists leaving messages when he “forgot” his yearly physical.  It’s odd that I, as his first born, the child with whom he shares the most similarities anticipates going to the doctor with as much enthusiasm as I show for kittens and my birthday.

I sit down on the paper covered aqua cushion, bouncing my legs in anticipation as I await the nurse.  She slides back the door and pulls out my chart.  “I’m going to have to ask you a couple of questions.”

I respond cheerfully, even though I’m disappointed that there will only be “a couple” questions. A hundred, a ton, or even several would have been a more satisfactory quantifier for the word questions.  The nurse allows me an opportunity to speak shamelessly and extensively about the only subject I can claim to be on expert, myself.  Regular doctor visits are decent, but specialists are better. (They have to take a whole family history, which generally takes a while).  The dentist is no good because my mouth is housing the fingers of the brutish dental hygienist, and I won’t even get started on the gynecologist.

My enjoyment of discussing myself has unfortunately become a detriment to my writing. I continually find myself inserting myself in places I don’t belong, usually making a grand appearance wearing parentheses and dripping in sarcasm and drama.  Sometimes I find ways to include myself a bit more subtly, thinly veiling myself in a character name, or sneaking into the story as an extra.  But the question is why? I’m certain a psychologist would have a few things to say about it, (another doctor to ask me questions) however because, as I stated as before, I am the authority on—well me, I think I should be able to answer my own question through examination of the very thing that this narcissism most obviously and destructively affects: my writing.

There is a comfort in non-fiction. The responsibility of creating intricate settings and complex characters is alleviated.  The writer’s job is not to create, but to record with his or her own distinctive voice and style.  A bit of the “blank page anxiety” is lessened. Perhaps my love of writing personal stories is a safe choice.  It is in my comfort zone. No one can discredit me because there are no sources to help him or her fact-check my life.  However, I think within that comfort zone, there is a tendency for me to create more easily and more beautifully.  More of my energy can go into making each sentence “sing” than into research and creating.  Within those constraints, my creativity flows freely, unburdened by stress or anxiety. And yet, limiting my focus to one specific genre has stunted my growth as a writer; fear of failure has prevented me from experimenting with other forms.

The form that scares me the most is certainly poetry, that indefinable, mysterious form that twists the mind of prose writers to no end. I had avoided poetry throughout my university creative writing career, taking Prose 1, and Creative Non-Fiction. Do I like reading poetry? Yes. But when it comes to writing it, I am lost. When I saw I had to write not one, but two poems for my second creative writing assignment my stomach dropped in horror. Two poems? To be graded?

My poetry-phobia is a relatively recent development. In fact, the first things I ever wrote voluntarily and seriously were poems. The summer I turned fourteen; read The Bell Jar, and discovered Sylvia Plath, I was inspired to start writing.

I devoured Sylvia Plath. After The Bell Jar I began reading her collections of poetry including The Colossus, Ariel, and The Collected Poems.  The latter especially appealed to me. The handsome brown leather cover with the gold embossed writing on the spine, and the slightly musty smell that lingered on all of the pages made me feel scholarly and important. I read it in an armchair wearing loafers and glasses, drinking a cup of tea without milk or sugar because I thought it was more literary that way. By the end of that summer I had read her complete works.

Sylvia Plath is a dangerous author for a fourteen-year-old girl to read.  Every word she wrote echoed the experiences I had everyday. Sylvia felt alone and so did I. She wasn’t sure of herself and neither was I. She suffered from clinical depression and so did I. The difference was she had written beautiful poems and novels out of her dark feelings, while I just lived in my angsty world, suffering and producing nothing.

It was then that I decided to write my feelings down into a tangible form. That tangible form was bad poetry, usually written in my chemistry notebook during class, but I was writing, and it was easy.

It’s so fascinating to me that I could be so insecure; yet write so freely and without care. Somewhere along the way, I grew up and became more confident, but while I was more assured in myself, I became afraid of my writing. At a reading of Danielle Evans’ work, the author made a very astute observation, one that could explain one facet of my addictive self-insertion and my simultaneous fear of writing.  She said that most writers have a bi-polar personality, switching from thinking they are God’s gift to the written world and thinking that they have written nothing of value. I insert myself, not only to hide my insecurities, but because I have the pure nerve of thinking I know what I’m talking about. I should not need myself on the page as a crutch, weighed down by the weight of my insecurities.  I need to trust that my words hold meaning and truth without putting myself on the page to advocate for them. The bipolar nature of my writer personality does not have to be in opposition.  Danielle Evans stated that there was a state between the manic and depressive ones.  In this state I can make the most progress in both writing and editing. Writing takes both ego and self-consciousness.  By learning to control my emotions surrounding my own work, I could avoid writing solely about myself.  By gaining confidence in my ability to learn and write about other things, perhaps my egotistical writing will subside along with my fear of literary failure.

Poetry is the genre that is the easiest to write absolute crap and have it look inspired by a layman. However, the experts know how to weed out those poems. There is a lot more to poetry than writing down emotional words. You have to worry about syntax, rhythm, syllables, and then there’s the actual words themselves; they still have to mean something. Possibly because I have personally written bad poetry, I am wary of writing more. But this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like anything, writing takes practice. If I always live in fear of setting pen to paper, I will never improve. I will have to churn out several if not hundreds of bad poems to write one good one.

The one good thing about assignments is that you do inevitably have to finish them. Unlike recreational writing, you can’t just shelve them away when the going gets tough and words stop flowing so easily. I had to write two poems, and no amount of fear or reluctance could stop me.

Were these poems the best ones I’ll ever write? No. But I wrote them, I practiced and that is a start.

I plan to force myself into more dangerous terrain experimenting in genres besides memoir, maybe even delving into poetry? Though I adore writing memoir and personal essay, I may be stuck in a rut. My comfort lies in these two genres, keeping me from expanding and refining my writing.  Practicing other forms can only improve my writing.

Babies are self-centered and disregard others and in some ways I am still an infantile writer. Luckily babies mature and grow; this gives me hope for my writing. Without proper nourishment, encouragement, and a certain amount of willpower, babies will not develop properly. Similarly, I must continue nourish myself by reading the writing of others, following the instruction and encouragement of my teachers, and devoting myself to improving and developing my writing.  Simply allowing myself a place to write without my own judgment gives me a safe place to practice and fall without consequences. It is perhaps in my failures that I will learn the most about writing.

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