Thinking we know everything on a topic is a pretty sure sign that we don’t
Much of this content was originally posted on my other blog on October 19, 2009.
This post was inspired by the newest follower of the Marcie Brock blog, a gal named Erin who writes a blog called A Poet’s Heart. In seeing the name of her blog, I almost immediately thought, “I wonder if she’ll get anything out of my posts because I don’t really know very much about marketing poetry.” Perhaps I have bought into the idea that poetry is difficult to market, and because I’m not a poet, I don’t know anything about it. Will have to ponder that one a bit – because I’m willing to bet I can come up with some useful marketing ideas for poets, both from my own creative well and by researching what other poets have done and are doing.
My next thought was that I’m not very good at poetry. This, too, is probably a belief I’ve bought into because I never really gave myself permission to delve into poetry. I realize as I type this that I also have a habit of telling people that I’m pretty good at dialogue, but I’m not much of a fiction writer. Wow – how our own thoughts can limit us!
I grew up a researcher, so nonfiction came naturally to me, which is perhaps why I got my degree in that aspect of creative writing. I do believe we each have gifts – natural leanings toward one genre or specialization over others. However, if you catch yourself thinking, as I have, “I’m not very good at __________,” PLEASE STOP! Don’t feed your brain junk food! If there’s a genre that interests you and you don’t know much about it, go find a mentor, read a book, take a class, or otherwise explore it. Just don’t tell yourself that you’re not good at it.
Which leads into our topic of the day…
Imagine being 21 years old and thinking you know everything. Perhaps it’s just a human right of passage, a phase we all go through. I have relatively few regrets in my life, but one of them is that I didn’t listen to my college advisor when he told me I needed to take more poetry. “No, sir, I don’t. It says right here in the course catalogue that I have to take only two poetry classes to graduate with my degree in nonfiction writing – and I’ve taken two poetry classes.”
My advisor put on his glasses and examined the line I pointed to with my know-it-all index finger and said, “Well, I’ll be damned.” He seemed to know he had lost the argument, but he tried valiantly to change my mind. His exact words were, “You will regret it later if you don’t take more poetry.”
And my smarty-pants response was, “No, I won’t.” I hated poetry and was terrible at writing it. I found it tedious and boring and I just didn’t see the point. So at the time, from my very limited vantage point, I thought I knew how I would feel in the future. Was I ever wrong!
Richard Shelton is an Arizona writer, poet, and emeritus Regents Professor of English at the University of Arizona. He has written nine books of poetry; his first collection of poems, The Tattooed Desert, won the International Poetry Forum’s U.S. Award. His 1992 memoir, Going Back to Bisbee, won the Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction in 1992, became a New York Times Notable Book, and was selected for the One Book Arizona program in 2007. In 2000, Shelton received a $100,000 grant from the Lannan Foundation to complete two books. You can practically count the living poets who get paid well for their work on one hand – so this accomplishment alone is astonishing!
If that weren’t enough, Shelton’s poems and prose have appeared in more than 200 magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and The Antioch Review and have been translated into Spanish, French, Swedish, Polish, and Japanese.
Back in 1974, Shelton established a writer’s workshop at the Arizona State Prison, and a number of books of prose and poetry written by men in Shelton’s prison workshops have been published. His latest book, Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer details this experience. It won the 2007 Southwest Books of the Year award.
Subsequent to ignoring Professor Shelton’s advice and graduating from the University of Arizona, I have developed a fascination with poetry. I doubt it will ever be my best form of writing, but I have unending respect for the gifted poets who do it well, if only because they seem to make it appear so effortless. As a result, I can’t help but wonder what I might have learned from Professor Shelton if I’d simply had the common sense not to think I already knew everything about poetry I would ever need to know. While he may not come to the top of my mind as one of the most influential people in my life, I really wish I’d heeded his advice back then: “You need to take more poetry.” (And I still regularly recall his pet peeve about the word lifestyle and have all but stricken it from my vocabulary.)
My life is wonderful now – but it could have been richer, fuller, more lyrical, and filled with much more beauty and joy if I’d hadn’t thought I knew it all when I was 21. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn something new! I think I see a poetry workshop on my horizon…
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