The Righting Life

I just wrote a really bad poem.

Revised it, too.

It's 57 lines long. Even after reworking, the language drags, it uses abstract imagery (which I detest in the concrete), and mines themes and motifs I've developed more successfully elsewhere.

It started off well enough, but about ten lines in, it took a turn for the worse. Five lines later, I knew it was still technically alive, but no amount of CPR was going to make it come back.

I kept writing anyway.

I put it away, added a few more leaden lines a day or two later, and repeated the add lines-stop a day process until it ground to a halt of its own accord.

If it had been a horse, I would have shot it. If it had been Catholic, I would have called a priest to perform last rites. If it had been a train wreck... Wait. It was a train wreck.

Instead of being humane, I revised it. First, I tried simple editing--changing words, sharpening language, taking words out and putting words in someplace else. I tried rearranging sentences and readjusting the narrative line. Still no success. I rethought big-picture issues like theme, point-of-view and use of extended metaphor, alliteration, repetition and other poetic devices.

I spent as much time revising that poem as I put into the original composition. And after all that work, I had... a car wreck.

There was good news. I had a lot less twisted metal to dispose of.

It seemed like a really good idea at the time. It shouldn't have been a disaster.

So what went wrong? I really don't know–there are just so many wrong ways. I suspect (strongly) that the gap between conception and composition caused the problem. My muse drops off ideas around 5 AM [My muse is a bastard]. When I get the 5 AM mail call, I'll play–think of an opening, an image, clever language and then drift off to sleep again. When I finally get up, the idea is still there, but whatever sparks I generated didn't make it out of bed. If I start development right away, I might be able to scare some of the lost material out of a dark corner. If I don't, the enthusiasm I felt at 5 AM gets lost too, and that makes for a less than enthusiastic poem. Sometimes I recapture the enthusiasm and turn out a pretty good poem. It may be different than the original conception, but still good. I just have to be patient and trust my judgement.

So why did I revise it, if I knew it was going off the rails? Well, it wasn't the fault of the original idea. I treat all ideas with the same respect and process, unless I don't start at all (a different issue). Plus, it might work (with care). So it was revised (keeps the revision tools sharp). Also, I put it the car wreck in my mental practice pile, along with prompt writing and intentional practice writing..

Were there any other lessons learned?

--G.K. Chesterton noted "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." I didn't do it badly, it just turned out badly. I think this W.C. Fields quotation is more appropriate: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it." I need to be able to decide when it's time to move on, and make that decision stick.

--Make sure the needed resources are available. If my brother-in-law is going to build a chair, he makes sure he has the wood, equipment, hardware and space he needs. If it's a desk, he gets different stuff. If I'm going to build a poem, I need certain things on hand beyond the idea for a successful project.

--I need a better capture process. I've tried keeping a pencil and paper on the nightstand, but either I can't reach them or knock one of them to the floor, or the next morning I find gort floozle Thomas herp-hop on the pad.

--I now know what I'm capable of. Yes, there are highs, or I wouldn't keep writing. But there are clank moments as well. Sometimes you have to write them out to get them out (of the system).

--We can't all be homecoming queens. Sometimes a poem is dull and ugly. It's supposed to be trash can filler. Or it was never going to reach full potential. Life happens sometimes. I recognize it for what it is. I wrote it. I own it. But that doesn't mean I let it run around in public.

--I can't let one bad poem derail my writing or be the star in the what a terrible, useless person I am movie running continuously in my head. Now, if I have a long stretch of disasters, I might want to revisit this avocation, or do something differently. But until then, I keep at it.

Time to take all this input and go write a poem.

And no, you can't read the poem that led to this essay.


Eastern Shore

map of the eastern shore

When we moved to Virginia, we came down the Eastern Shore. It is a lovely, charming place, a place that has a feel that time has sort of been suspended. I like that. At the same time, the people (at least the ones we met) are friendly, educated and informed. It was spared the ravages of the Civil War, and the people who live there are proud of their home, even the recent transplants. Yeah, they have problems, but they seem manageable.

We try to visit every year, at least for the craft show after Thanksgiving. Here are some pictures from some of the outings.

What I'm Reading.

Early February. I try to read a lot, in lots of different areas. And reading is becoming relative, too. If I'm picking up information that's useful, say from a podcast, I'm passing that along, too. Here's some of the stuff on the stack.

Todd Henry's Accidental Creative podcast.

I have a lot of back listening to do on this, so I just heard his May 30th, 2017 discussion with Jeff Goins, Real Artists Don't Starve. Not only do you not have to suffer for your art, it can actually be harmful.

Susan Orlean, The Library Book.

I'm about a hundred pages in, and I'm fascinated with the way Orlean interweaves a number of stories–her own love of libraries, the Los Angeles public library main branch building, the fire that destroyed the building and a large part of the collection, and the life story of the arsonist. If you're a writer, this is Exhibit 'A' in how you don't have to start at the beginning. Or connect all the dots with one straight line.

Christopher Moore, Sacre Bleu.

Christopher Moore has replaced Terry Pratchett as my primary go-to brain candy writer (I ran out of Discworld). This one is set in the turn-of-the-century Paris Montmartre art world, and mixes speculative fiction with real people. Pissaro, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, and Toulouse-Lautrec all make an appearance (as does Michelangelo. We seem to have time travel too). Lots of fun, although a bit dark, as so many of Moore's books seem to be.

Jocelyn Glei, Hurry Slowly Podcast.

Specifically, Episode 305. I've recommended Jocelyn's podcast before. Jocelyn has two formats–the guest format (about 45 minutes to an hour), and just Jocelyn, eighteen minutes. I prefer the latter. This one deals with re-inventing ourselves. In it, Jocelyn explores making resolutions and what they say/do to self-image. Also there's some excellent advice on creating space to develop your artistic self.

She doesn't come right out and say it, so I will. Your artistic/creative self is your authentic self. So spend time and pay attention to developing that creative self.

Jim Harrison, The Essential Poems.

If I'm going to write poetry, I should be reading poetry. It's only fair. Harrison is this month's choice. He's a contemporary (d. 2016), and seems down-to-earth. He deals with small moments in the real world, as seen in the opening stanza of Drinking Song: I want to die in the saddle, an enemy of civilization/I want to walk around in the woods, fish and drink. Except for the fishing part, he's my man.

Robert Mankoff, How About Never? Is Never Good for You?

I just started, so I can't report yet. What I can report is that Mankoff is the long-time cartoon editor for the New Yorker. There are lots of examples of what crosses Mankoff's desk on a daily basis. This sees to be one of those jobs where a person says, You have to be crazy to take it. If you're not crazy, it can make you that way.


The 15h (or 16th) anniversary edition. For this go-round, we're putting things back.

TomatoPlanet!! has been in existence (with a couple of name changes) since about 2003. It reflects the interests of its author/creator, John McCarthy. The sole purpose of Tomato Planet!! is to provide an outlet for my attempts at being creative. At various times, these interests have included writing (always writing–fiction, poetry, speculative essays, and humorous writing), coding (html and css) taking pictures, cooking, and cartooning. As interests waned (camera broke and was never replaced, cooking became more functional and simpler), pages devoted to these activities were phased out, to the point where TP!! was a single page. A lot of the writing and subject matter had a limited shelf life, and so instead of archiving it in an accessible fashion, it was just taken off-line and parked in the shed.

I was mildly shocked when I heard from a number of readers (shocked that I had a number of readers) that no, they would like to be able to access some of the old stuff. Some people were missing the Stories page, for example.

So for this iteration, I'm putting some things back. Some pages are already in place–Stories, Poetry, and Cartoons. Some pages are in place, but need populating, like The Attic. And then there is this page, Miscellany, which actually has a long history (one of the predecessors of TomatoPlanet!! was called McCarthy Miscellany.).

All work is based on observation of the world around me. Serious writing, the poetry and stories take a different approach to capturing these observations. Photographs are what they are. The rest–cartoons and speculative essays take very little seriously, reflecting the world. If you look long enough, you realize that the orbital pattern is random ellipses, not perfectly round. I try to capture the absurdity of that. Not all the way to dark absurdity like Camus and Sartre, or even like Samuel Beckett–I sort of pull up in the land of Douglas Adams and Joseph Heller. I should be so lucky as to write half as well.

If you view the world through absurdist-colored glasses, you will enjoy some of the material here. If you're not an absurdist, well, you haven't been paying attention.

TomatoPlanet!! is a random collection of writing, cartoons, and things that strike my fancy. © 2003-2020, John McCarthy

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You've probably noticed that each page has a different background color. They're the Pantone Colors of the Year from the last decade. The Miscellany page is Marsala, from 2015.