Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth. Not superficial costs—anybody can have that—I mean in truth. That’s what I write. What it really is like.
In the beginning, I used nature as a mask for writing about private feelings. Oscar Wilde says somewhere that man is least himself when writing in his own person. But give him a mask and he will tell you the truth. This, in part, is why myths and fairy tales are so valuable to poets—they are masks.
One does not want a poem to serve anything; the liberating god of poetry does not endorse servitude. What we want to see a poem do is to become itself, to reach as nearly perfect a state of self-direction and self-responsibility as can be believably represented. We want that for people too.
I think “finding your voice” is a false concept. It leads you to believe that it’s out there somewhere, like it’s behind the sofa cushions. I think your voice is always inside of you, and you find it by releasing things into your work that you have inside.
There’s no method. There’s no formula. If you really proceed a sentence at a time, if you pay attention to the sentence you just wrote and look to it for the clue for what to do to the next sentence, you can inch your way along to what may be a story. This wouldn’t have occurred to me starting out, for example, when I thought you wrote one sentence, then just looked out to the world trying to snag the next one. That’s not how it works. You look back at what you gave yourself to work with. Sharon Olds said something beautiful about sometimes thinking of her poems as instructions for how to put the world back together if it were destroyed.
We live in a cluttered culture, a culture of information in which even our computers can’t tell us what’s worth knowing and what is merely cultural scrap. In such a society, we don’t have the experience of contemplative space, of the time or mood to engage a book of poetry or even read a novel. Who can achieve the unconscious-conscious state of the reader when everything is stimulation, everything is movement and information?
9 good bits from Adam Phillips' Paris Review interview
1) “I had never had any desire to be a writer. I wanted to be a reader.”
2) “One thing you discover in psychoanalytic treatment is the limits of what you can change about yourself or your life. We are children for a very long time.”
3) “Fortunately, I never recovered from my education, I’ve just carried on with it. If you happen to like reading, it can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect, at least on me. It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible. I don’t quite know what it is. The Leavisite position, more or less, is that reading certain sentences makes you more alive and a morally better person, and that those two things go together. It seems to me that that isn’t necessarily so, but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.”
4) “You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself.”
5) “That’s what a life is, it’s the lives you don’t have.”
6) “I hope you read one of my books because it gives you pleasure or because you hate it—you read it for those sorts of reasons—and then you discover what you find yourself thinking, feeling, in the reading of it.”
7) “You can’t write differently, even if you want to. You just have to be able to notice when you are boring yourself.”
8) “Anybody who writes knows you don’t simply write what you believe. You write to find out what you believe, or what you can afford to believe.”
9) “[I]f you live in a culture which is fascinated by the myth of the artist, and the idea that the vocational artistic life is one of the best lives available, then there’s always going to be a temptation for people who are suffering to believe that to become an artist would be the solution when, in fact, it may be more of the problem. There are a number of people whom you might think of as casualties of the myth of the artist. They really should have done something else. Of course some people get lucky and find that art works for them, but for so many people it doesn’t. I think that needs to be included in the picture. Often one hears or reads accounts in which people will say, Well, he may have treated his children, wives, friends terribly, but look at the novels, the poems, the paintings. I think it’s a terrible equation. Obviously one can’t choose to be, as it were, a good parent or a good artist, but if the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having. People should be doing everything they can to be as kind as possible and to enjoy each other’s company. Any art, any anything, that helps us do that is worth having. But if it doesn’t, it isn’t.’
Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.
A: Writing—that’s a lonely job. Editors are lucky enough to be thrown into the company of many, but you have to make time to be alone. Because the work isn’t necessarily solitary, it’s easy to get distracted by meetings and hanging out. It’s important to have the time to do your work, but also to lie awake and worry.