Nothing seems quite complete, quite itself, until I’ve written about it, nor do I usually begin to understand things until after I’ve put them into words. I’m not alone in this. Everyone knows writers are self-absorbed and that writing is one step away from solipsism, and perhaps even its cure. It seems like such a childish thing to do, which it is. In first grade, Miss McClain told us to go to the blackboard and draw something that would suggest to the class our choice of future occupation. No words, just pictures. I drew a pencil.
The poet Alfred Nicol is new to me. I’ve read only a handful of his poems (here, here), all online. Here he is in an interview:
“I knew very early on that I wanted to be a writer. I mean very early on, before I could read. A neighbor sat in her front yard reading a picture book of Moby Dick to her son, and I looked over her shoulder . . . I never forgot the experience. I began trying to teach myself to read by saying the letters of a word so quickly that they began to slur . . . The point is that my earliest literary experience was not in the least abstract; it was altogether physical.”
And then a remarkable thing happened: the mind (intellect, memory, imagination, the whole package) followed the body. Nicol’s experience confirms my own: “If I’d had a teacher to show me the right way to go about it, I’d have missed out on that intense physical encounter with the written word. That’s poet’s work.”
The recent vogue for neuroscience leaves me snoring, but the late Oliver Sacks in “The Creative Self” (terrible title), an essay in The River of Consciousness (2017), defines creativity as “that state when ideas seem to organize themselves into a swift, tightly woven flow, with a feeling of gorgeous clarity and meaning emerging.” But it’s important not to stop at that point. It’s easy to mistake gush for glory. The analytical mind must have its turn.
As the end of his interview Nicol is asked, “What advice do you have for young poets?” He answers: “Read deeply.” That goes for all writers. We’re idiots until our forebears show us the way.