Making It New (Again)

When the poet and critic Ezra Pound issued his famous literary proclamation to “make it new,” he uttered a phrase that became so identified with modernist literature that it’s difficult to imagine modernism happening without it. Of course, like many fitting pronouncements, over the years this one’s become a cliché, having been extensively quoted and requoted, purposed and repurposed. In fact, it wasn’t even new to Pound when he said it. Still, it sounds cool, doesn’t it?

That’s all fine if you’re T.S. Eliot or James Joyce, but what does it mean to me? What new thing can I possibly contribute to the world of literature? I’m just some guy with the nerve to think he can storm the exclusive ranks of The People of Letters. That must be an exclusive club. Elbow-patches and goatees as far as the eye can see, I’m guessing, and I can almost hear the affected British accents. Should I just pack up my pen and Moleskine journal and go home?    

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, encourages writers to scribble the bare bones of life. These are, I believe, the same essential parts of existence that Virginia Woolf celebrated the writer of consciousness for recording, the things that make us all uniquely us. So I’m supposed to write down the bones, but where do I find them? Deep in the dark well of my psyche? It’s a location that should have been condemned (or at least roped off) some time ago, but I’ll gladly plumb it if only to discover the truth.

Here’s what I do: I write, write, and write some more. I write until my hands hurt enough that I need to soak them in water, even if I don’t. But even as I write, because I’m me, I worry. Is my desired goal worth the effort and hours spent slumped over a notebook or in front of my keyboard? Is my art an exercise in futility, or is it a way of realizing my dreams? It’s probably both.

Now I write any time I’m able, and I write anything I feel like writing. Maybe it’ll be a bawdy limerick or a radio script or a biography for someone I’ve never met. Perhaps I’ll knock out a sonnet to my dog or sales copy for a new jazz album. Quantity rarely makes up for quality, I’ll admit, but practice does make me a more prolific writer, so I just “let the writing do the writing,” as Goldberg advises. It’s often necessary to sort through the bad in me to access the not-so-good, and picking through the not-so-good lets me get to the better.

Take a risk, I tell myself. Where’s the fun in playing it safe?

But then I wonder how I can afford to let go when I want so badly to control the way my words fall onto the page. How many ways are there to say what I want to say? As many as I can imagine, it turns out. Just as Hemingway searched for the perfect word, so I search constantly for the ideal poem, the impeccably balanced story.

We’ve all heard the adage that says the writer writes, so here’s what I’ve decided to do: I try to spend at least as much or more time writing as I do talking about it. Sometimes things come out beautifully and sometimes they don’t come out at all, but I’ve found through experience that these gems only appear occasionally, so I need to be there to greet them when they arrive.

Writing stories and telling lies. What a brilliant way to meander through life.