Conceptualizing “Self-Portrait as an Atlas”

I have finally (though I returned from my travels across America in August) started to conceptualize “Self-Portrait as an Atlas.” I began working on the book back in 1998 when I was still completing my undergraduate work at the University of Alabama. I was taking a class taught by Bruce Smith, the author of Mercy Seat and Songs for Two Voices. During his class, he helped me see that the things I was writing were much more meaningful,  and had a much deeper purpose than I was assigning to them. Until then, I had only been creating stories: putting myself in other people’s places, making up their emotions and their circumstances. Imagining how it would feel to be them. And let’s be honest, that’s a part of the writer’s job. But it’s not the biggest part. It turns out that the biggest (and hardest) part of being a writer is to be honest about your own feelings, your own circumstances. At the time I started envisioning “Self-Portrait as an Atlas”, I was barely 21, not sure of where I was going and unable to remember where I had been. Not much of that seems to have changed. But, I am trying to learn to think more specifically about the things that have happened to me, to assign them a place in my writing that makes sense on the whole, that gives my life and my circumstances meaning. That is a very traditionalist view of writing. The language poets would have my head on a literary platter. But the kind of writing that really turns me on is the kind that can make me feel like my life has purpose. It is from this place that I must, once again, start envisioning “Self-Portrait as an Atlas.” Now, perhaps, I have more the means to do so since I have traveled so much and have seen so many things.  I wonder though, how large is the task of assigning meaning to something like the deserts of Nevada, the Great Salt Lake of Utah or the geysers at Yellowstone? How am I supposed to ascribe personal meaning to public places? Some people have the gift of travel writing. I am thinking of Michael Martone’s Blue Guide to Indiana or Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. As much as I might try, I cannot recreate what they have done. It must be something new. And therein is also another challenge for writers. The constant pressure to create something new and exciting: a challenge I am rarely sure I can meet. What makes my thoughts important? Anyone else could do the same things that I do. I do not have any particular kind of talent, though perhaps in some ways I have more drive to actually put my thoughts on paper than most do. Originally, Self-Portrait as an Atlas was going to be an imaginary landscape I created. But after I started traveling, the need for an imaginary landscape gave way to a need to understand the real landscape. Not just the actual physical nature of where I am in the world, but the emotional nature of where I am. I need, now more than ever, to understand the rich depth of everything I have encountered emotionally. These past few years have been supremely emotionally challenging and draining for me. I still don’t feel like I have my life completely back in the 100% range. I have not been pushing myself too hard to change the way I feel. Rather, I’ve been struggling to cope with it, to understand it, and most importantly, to write it. However it gets rendered, in poems and stories or even songs, doesn’t matter. The necessity is that the rendering gets done. I’ll be honest: for the most part, I am a coward. I do not like to talk about my personal feelings. When I write poems, I often try to conceal those things that are really the most important to me. It is hard to let other people in. Especially a third-party reader that you may or may not know. (It’s harder with the people you know than with the people you don’t. At least for me.) I have written a few poems that I plan to keep. Many of the others must be axed because they simply aren’t emotionally true. I suppose that in order to conceptualize the Self-Portrait, the best place to start is with what I know. Perhaps, all the rest will come later, when the time is right.

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~ by ImaginaryCanary on December 15, 2011.

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