“Work Is Its Own Cure”: Poetry and the Comfort of Commitment

When I was twenty-four or twenty-five and starting to take writing seriously (though I’d been calling myself a writer for a few years), I was trying to learn how to get the work of writing done. The obstacles to success were visible all around me. I’d already met plenty of writers who didn’t seem to practice their craft very often, and I saw that it was easy to spend a lot of time at open mics only to read the same poem every week. Some writers didn’t generate new work. I knew that many people had complicated family or work situations that zapped them of creative energy, a consequence, I already knew of capitalism’s relentless assaults. Most disturbing to me at the time, I met a lot of writers who’d simply quit writing for good, even writers who’d won awards, writers with MFAs and PhDs, writers who’d previously published books or recorded performance poetry CDs. 

I knew I wanted to be a writer, but did I know how to write consistently? I didn’t know how to stay with a project until it was complete. I could write text resembling a poem, but I didn’t know how to establish a substantial vision and transform it into something real, which has turned out to be one of the most difficult aspects of the writing process. All I knew was that I had to keep practicing. I received consistent messages from almost everyone in the game that writing regularly was the best way, the only way, to improve and expand one’s abilities. 

I was working in the nonprofit sector during the day and attending as many poetry events as I could at night. I lived in Milwaukee where live poetry was happening almost every evening of the week: Poet’s Monday, Poetry Unplugged, the Stillwaters Collective, Woodland Pattern Poetry Center, the Jazz Gallery, the public university, and reading series at various coffee shops and bars in the region, including two poetry lineups in two different cities with two unassociated curators called BONK! and (b)OINK. I was looking everywhere for poetry teachers, so I also turned to the library for writing about being a writer. I ended up reading a lot of advice books like Bird by Bird, Writing Down the Bones, A Poetry Handbook, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and even The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry

Many of these books said the same things: Read and write as much as possible. The only way to fail is to give up. Don’t let other people tell you what you can and can’t do (though you should integrate constructive feedback). Take risks. Welcome failure. And, importantly, learn to write well by observing what other writers are doing. Most of these books also recommended waking up hideously early, and that was the piece of advice, at the time, I found most difficult to adopt. Nevertheless, most of the advice seemed both doable and iterative. These books were recommending processes, not tasks, and so I started to calculate what I needed to do to my routine to become a “real” writer. 

I also read more than once, though I no longer remember where, that copying other people’s poems word-for-word was a strategy to closely observe how these writers made their deft moves. I typed up a Marge Piercy poem “For the Young Who Want To” and attached it to the fridge of the blue kitchen of the apartment I shared with my then-girlfriend.

Piercy provides a litany of advice for writers who are just getting started, advice about staying away from critics and naysayers, advice about sticking with the work—with your own vision for your life and your art. Piercy reminds us that setting down an anchor in the writing itself is the only way to really be a writer. My favorite line of the poem echoes these imperatives: “Work is its own cure.” The line conveys the escalating complication and gratification of writing and revision.

It felt revolutionary that the act of writing could also solve some of the problems it creates. This idea checked out with all those analogies people make between writing and meditation or running or healing—we write through discomfort and find some wholeness on the other side. The challenges tend to be worth it. 

In the decade or so since my first encounter with “For the Young Who Want To,” my life has changed in significant ways. I pursued an MFA program at twenty-seven, the “workshops with fancy names/when all you can really/learn is a few techniques” that Piercy denounces in her poem. As someone who came up through open mics, often memorizing my poetry and focusing on performance acumen, I held an ambivalence towards higher-education-derived mores of poetry even as I applied to graduate school. I saw holes in the argument that academic poets were superior because I went to the open mic every week. The poets who had the most experience with “formal” academic study were often the ones who seemed least experienced in sharing their work aloud. I already knew that in MFA programs there are a lot of essential poetry skills nobody ever shows you, like how to use a microphone. 

To some extent, I still have mixed feelings about the role of higher education in creative writing because of all the classism, racism, and other access issues associated with the rooms an MFA credential is meant to open. I have become committed to practicing methods of equity across writing communities. And, my MFA program genuinely gave me a number of profound gifts. I’m glad I did the MFA, but I know it’s not necessary for being a writer. As Piercy puts it, “A real writer is one/who really writes.” 

I wrote my arm off in graduate school, lengthening the boundaries of my genre comfort zones and sense of what I thought was possible. During my three years as a graduate assistant, I also discovered that I loved teaching, a puzzling pursuit that filled me with nausea every morning for the first two years even as I unearthed a deep sense of purpose in the work. I worried about all the ways I was failing, my voice cutting in and out as I spoke in front of students. I furiously drank my travel mug of coffee up there, fatigued by perfectionism and late nights spent fine-tuning the activities I planned to share. 

My biggest challenge as a new teacher was conceptualizing the whole semester, or even just a multi-week unit, at once. I was a dynamic teacher, responsive, touch-and-go, with a loose plan I filled in the evening before each class. This created late nights of unnecessary stress, but I now see the gift of my overwhelm because I tailored each lesson to what had happened the previous day. Planning the semester as it occurred was a way to do the work of making myself a better teacher. My lack of pre-planning made it impossible to teach in auto-pilot. I had to pay close attention to what was going on. Looking back, I think—I hope—that each class was better than the previous one.

Over time, I honed an intuition about what worked and what didn’t in the classroom. I learned how to plan ahead. I figured out how to apply the tools I’d been generously given through multiple semesters of shadowing and a hundred conversations with mentors. And I learned processes for writing students to show they understood the material in real time. I thought and asked a lot about audience, the power of writerly choices, and the negative writing experiences that students carry with them.

In my quest to create a functional classroom, institutional barriers remained, but my trepidations about my personal ability to teach slowly resolved through iterative practice. In other words, “work [was] its own cure.” Honing my ability to teach by continuing to teach even through the agony of anxiety has been one of the most powerful lessons of my life. 

Piercy writes about how “every artist lacks/a license to hang on the wall.” For me, these lines bring up questions about authority. Who authorizes us to create? Who authorizes us to teach ourselves or other people? I was unnerved by my new role as a college-level instructor because even though I was vetted into the program, once I got there, I was convinced I was being given power that I was not qualified to wield. There were all the regular kinds of institutional oversight, but there were so many moments where I knew that no one in charge was watching me. Why was I being trusted with such responsibility? I had control over people’s grades, and to some extent their GPAs and ability to access certain kinds of financial aid. I was in the process of being given “a license to hang on the wall,” but an even higher order of business seemed to be improving myself enough to manage my new power responsibly, a matter of integrity. I wanted to be the kind of teacher who didn’t take the power she was given for granted. I wanted to democratize the classroom. I never wanted my sense of who was a writer in the world to stop at the campus borders. And I wanted to be the kind of writing teacher who is an excellent, practicing writer. 

I’ve carried my re-typed copy of “For the Young Who Want To” across homes in four states as a consistent reminder of what it takes. Piercy’s poem is for any writer, really, who slides into the mindset of not being cut out for our line of work. It’s for anyone who needs a reality check that writing is about writing, not recognition or public accolades or even teaching. The poem is sort of like Piercy’s taken all her answers from a post-reading Q&A (“Where do you get your ideas?” “Can you help me become a writer?” “Why is writing so hard?”) and condensed them into a poetic manifesto.

“For the Young Who Want To” is about committing to the work when no one is looking. Our discipline as writers requires multiple kinds of solitary work: the emotional work of reflecting on our worlds, the work of writing or typing each letter and word, and the working at it hour after hour when we can’t yet see the finish line, the work of temporal persistence. “Work is its own cure” for the ailments of unwelcome critics and self-doubt, but it’s also a meditation, a constructive focus away from associated distractions. Writing is hard. That’s why we try to get in the zone, because when you’re really in the zone, you don’t have time to think about why you shouldn’t write. And when you’re writing on a regular basis, I’ve found, you stop thinking about whether or not you have the authority to teach.

Back when I first copied down the Piercy poem, there was a day when I made an important agreement with myself: I was going to work at being a poet every single day for the rest of my life. The confidence of that assertion makes me blush a little now, but I reflect on that passionate early-twenties version of myself and appreciate her. Without daily practice, how else was I going to become a poet? I remember the day the thought crawled into my head, silently, like a group of ants carrying a blackberry. I was sitting in a desk chair in my apartment, looking at the window frame’s thick layers of white paint. It was a Wisconsin summer, maybe August, breezy because I lived a few blocks from Lake Michigan. The thought that poetry would always be there and that all I needed to do was tend to it regularly was accompanied by a great sense of comfort. I knew that continuing to pay attention to poetry was something I could do, and committing to myself like that was reassuring, soothing. Some of the anxiety about becoming a serious writer floated away. It makes me smile to think about it even now, a simple strategy for a quandary I’d been trying to find a solution for in all those how-to books. 

I knew that some days, I would only be able to work at being a poet a little. Other days, I hoped I would work at it a lot. All of the reading I had been doing about being a writer told me that the challenges and barriers to writing were constant, and it seemed that these challenges would likely get more plentiful and varied with time. 

What I’ve learned since then is that my relationship with my creativity is the most important relationship of my life. This relationship is essential in the nourishment of myself. In this way, too, “work is its own cure.” My creativity is myself, but I also consider it a kind of ethereal partner, something I can gaze upon as in a mirror. I wonder if the comfort of this long-term commitment is the way some people feel about marriage, a reassurance, a knowledge of the future.  

I’ve also learned about the fragility of goals. I love goals and I set them often. I even create vision boards every January. But I know now that goals are excoriated by volatile variables, the matrices of which we usually cannot control. Personal losses and international crises happen every day, sometimes directly to you, and if your life is rich, you will also likely be subjected, at some point, to heavy-duty caregiving. 

Last year, after my dad survived a stroke, I moved back to Milwaukee for several months to aid in his intensive recovery. I continued to teach online, but for a while, I stopped writing completely, a loss I had not experienced since my very early twenties. When I wasn’t caring for my dad or working, I uncharacteristically watched hours of television every single day. I felt like part of me was hibernating inside a cave. 

My dad, also a poet who never went the academic route, who retired as a factory maintenance worker, had trouble using his eyes and recognizing written words after the stroke. He could see and sound out individual letters, but never in sequence; there were problems putting them together into words. A previously avid reader, he was determined to regain this ability, and he did, beginning nearly obsessively, trying to decipher street signs, food packaging, medicine bottles, brand names on household objects, and the slogans on our t-shirts. My dad spent those early months surrounded by caring family members, and I don’t think there was any paucity of care, but he also sought fiercely to regain the things inside himself that had been damaged, including his relationship with what had been his major creative outlet, reading and writing. 

Piercy writes, “Work is its own cure. You have to/like it better than being loved.” It’s not just enough to be loved, though that is certainly a key part of our continued survival. Beyond interpersonal love, I’ve come to believe that any recovery involves re-connecting with what you love about the world. You’re establishing contact with those parts of yourself that exist outside of yourself, finding a new way of looking in the mirror of your new, changed reality. 

Piercy’s poem has a sense of the “before” and “after” stages of a writer’s public recognition. She writes about what happens “after the novel/is published and favorably/reviewed,” “after the play is produced/and the audience claps,” and “after the third volume/of remarkable poems.” When I first encountered these words, I believed that I would accelerate to the “after” far more quickly than I have. Certainly by thirty, I thought. But mostly, I’m still writing in obscurity, albeit happily and with supportive friends and family, though I do occasionally encounter judgements about my “tedious hobby” from people I meet. 

I no longer set goals for things I have no control over, such as when my manuscript will get picked up. The milestones I work to meet now are about doing my part by putting in my writing time. Piercy’s poem tries to tame the enchantment we feel about the fantasy of recognition, but I’ve been in enough poetry circles by now to know that even “big” writers have to “like [writing] better than being loved” in order to keep writing. 

One of the most satisfying writing experiences I know is the feeling of finishing a large project because it means I’ve shown up and put in dozens or hundreds of hours of work. The world is so chaotic that sometimes I feel it’s a marvel when anything reaches completion: a literary reading, a workweek, a childhood, a book of poems. Most of my major decisions like where I live and who my partner is, the work I do for money and even the kind of clothes I wear, have been made with removing obstacles to writing in mind. I know this is a position of luxury. I take my position seriously. I still have the Marge Piercy collections I bought used and worn at Downtown Books. I like this life, this life where I’ve chosen writing. It feels like love.

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