I have become a very organised person and people don’t expect that of a poet. Poets are meant to be spontaneously creative and sensitive souls, not advocates of online project management tools with supporting apps. I’m not entirely sure what it means to be the sort of poet people expect; presumably it’s a life of just wafting about, swishing a Stevie Nicks-style shawl wherever you go. There’s no inherent harm in this – and really if you get any chance to be more like Stevie Nicks you should take it – but it does hide some pretty damaging assumptions.
I live on my own and I’m currently completing a PhD whilst also working. If I didn’t have everything carefully organised, some aspect of my life would collapse pretty quickly. I don’t have any rich relations to subsidise my choices and even on the day-to-day level of things like remembering to pay the electricity bill, there is no one around to share the workload. I don’t expect a medal for all my careful organisation but I think it should be acknowledged as a valid part of creative practice. It is only because I run a tight ship that I can have the time to work on my poetry.
Poets don’t all live in ivory towers and perhaps if we acknowledge this, then there could be more diversity both in the writers published and the readership of poetry. Working class artists don’t have the luxury of being scatty, distracted or temperamental. Every hour of creative time is hard won, having been clawed back from other obligations. Not having endless resources means saving up for every book you’ve ever owned, it means budgeting for every artistic competition you’ve ever entered. In short, if you’re working class and you want to pursue the arts, you’ve had to plan for it.
The other reason this idea of chaotic genius is so frustrating is that it denies the very real work that goes into creating anything. It’s a romantic idea that writers have a single eureka moment and then somehow draw together about six layers of meaning within a complex metaphor. It denies all the planning, research, reading and revising that goes into the work. Every writer gets a flash of inspiration from time to time, but those ideas won’t be realised without a lot of hard work.
Although the idea of the “born artist” – too sensitive and pure for this world – can be seen throughout the arts, it’s particularly prevalent in writing. Chen Chen’s recent discussion of how writers of colour are expected to focus on suffering – as if this will, by default, lead to art – is a case in point.
& there's the toxic assumption that to write, you must suffer. to write greatly, you must suffer greatly. cinematically, if possible. & as though depth of suffering = depth of authenticity. another issue: writers of color must produce "authentic" accounts of being oh so different— Chen Chen (@chenchenwrites) May 28, 2018
Apart from the obvious problems with this expectation discussed by Chen Chen, the idea denies the extensive work behind the literature. Similarly, this article by comedian Jamie Kilstein discusses the idea that comedians are expected to be funny off-stage. It seems we want comedians to be naturally funny, not men and women who spend time writing, editing and refining their performance. We want comedians to be constantly happy the same way we want poets to live in worlds of heightened emotion or writers of colour to share their pain.
Why do we revolt against the idea that artists often work very hard for what they create? And by association, why is any ability to plan ahead or organise your time seen as the opposite of being artistic? Both of these concepts – that art is work, and that work must be planned for – demolish the idea of the sensitive artist… or the privileged artist who has the time and money to wait for the Muse and have someone else pay the rent and remember to pick up the milk. There’s something distinctly unpleasant beneath those stereotypes because it implies that creating art is something you have to be born into, like royalty, rather than worked at like any other craft or skill. It implies, also, knowing your place and staying within it, even within a field that is meant to celebrate freedom.
Acknowledging the work that goes into writing does not diminish the creative achievements of the writer; it celebrates them. It also means that any writer from any background can write what they wish. There are, of course, structural issues to do with race, class and gender to consider before you can simplify it as far as saying that anyone can do anything with hard work. It would be a start, however, to demonstrate that creativity isn’t something you’re born into, or born with, and you don’t necessarily need a year off and an ivory tower to write your magnum opus.
So yes, I have a pretty detailed spreadsheet to manage my PhD, very accurate filing (in hard and soft copy), a white board, regular reminders set up in my phone and routines which keep life ticking over. It’s only because I do all these things that I can spend a (planned-for) hour tinkering with a poem’s title, or bury my head and my heart in a new poetry collection or literary magazine. It is not the case that I am organised despite being a poet; it is that I am a poet because I made space for it by being organised.