I was tempted to give up on my Possession read-along, but gave it one last push over the weekend, validating my own belief that whatever I’m doing (and therefore whatever I’m reading) is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing (or reading) at this exact moment. It all pays off in the end.
My friend Matej once relayed some advice he was given. To be a writer, you should read. All the time. And you should write. All the time. I like this advice, but sometimes feel pressured by it to make sure I’m reading things that contribute to my growth as a writer. Nothing strictly for pleasure. (Except it’s all for pleasure.)
At the end of last week, when I was very behind in my read-along, I considered setting Possession aside to read something that has more to do with my current writing life. A memoir. Something about dogs. Nothing on my Reading List felt like what I needed.
Taking this as a sign that I what I needed was to continue re-reading Possession, I threw myself into it, skimming (skipping) the poetry that vexed me.*
In Chapter 10, which consists entirely of letters between Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, Ash confides:
I cannot bear not to know the end of a tale. I will read the most trivial things — once commenced — only out of a feverish greed to be able to swallow the ending — sweet or sour — and to be done with what I need never have embarked on.
The “need never have embarked on” part is what kills me. I’ve written before about whether to quit a book or stick with it. That line was another sign I should press on.
A few pages later, LaMotte writes:
I sent some of my smaller poems — a little sheaf — selected with trembling to a great Poet — who shall be nameless, I cannot write his name — asking — Are These Poems? Have I — a voice?
Poor LaMotte. To doubt her own talent and seek external confirmation. I don’t necessarily believe that To Be a Writer, One Only Need Write, but I will say that a writer ought to believe in her own work. Know what you are without having to ask.
I will follow up Matej’s advice with my own: Do the work. Write your book.
If the muse isn’t speaking to you: Take a nap. Eat a cookie.
And yet, to paraphrase Tom Robbins: Waiting for the muse is for amateurs. I’m a professional writer.
Speaking of muses, Ash confesses that LaMotte is his:
Well, you will say, you are too busy writing the poetry itself, to require employment as a Muse. I had not thought the two were incompatible — indeed they might even be thought to be complementary.
I love this line from both angles. On the one hand, I respect his image of LaMotte being too busy with her own work to be concerned with inspiring his. But he’s right, the two are not incompatible. She can be both his Muse, even knowingly so, and a Poet. It all goes back to my earlier statement. Everything she does is what she is meant to be doing. Time spent as his muse is not time spent away from being a poet. Time spent writing this blog is not time spent away from editing my memoir.
I am not capable of writing anything like Possession, but reading it energizes me as a writer.
*A final thought on poetry: I was on the verge of simply declaring that I don’t get poetry and that doesn’t make me a bad reader. But on Saturday morning, I caught the second half of Romeo + Juliet and was reminded how much I like Shakespeare. That’s poetry written about 250 years before the poetry in Possession is meant to have been written (although it actually was written by Byatt in the late 20th century). How is it that I get Shakespeare, but I don’t get the poetry in Possession? To properly appreciate the fictional poetry of Ash and LaMotte, I think I need to participate in a discussion led by an English professor. I tried reading it aloud to myself, but that did nothing for me. Then I tried reading it in Poet Voice, as heard by the folks at my local open mics. Nothing. I don’t think Victorian poetry is supposed to be read in Poet Voice.