Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: Or, Choosing the Problem to Address


Life imitates art at least as much as art imitates life. This morning I walked into my office to find on my desk a Xeroxed meme of a little juggling monkey, with the words “Not my circus, not my monkeys –Polish proverb.” This is one of two meme phrases we use among ourselves a lot at the MIT Writing Center. (The other is “I am a tiny potato and I believe in you. You can do the thing,” which comes in handy a LOT during Thesis Pain Season, i.e., spring.) In life, choosing which battles to fight, and whose, is a constant struggle. The ability to create boundaries for ourselves is a crucial skill, and one that our socialization seems to make a bit harder for women than for men.

But I think this principle is also important for writing (because if you hand me a principle or concept of ANY kind, the odds are ridiculously good that I can figure out a way to make it be about writing: The arc of Susan is long, but it rolls towards writing.) Increasingly, I have been thinking about the process of writing, and that of writing poetry in particular, as being about problem solving. With a poem, I have not only a story to tell in a particular voice or voices, both of which I am managing with word choice and line length and spaces between lines (stanza control, as I think of it, even with free verse); but I am also singing this to my readers and I want them to hear the music, the rhythm and pitch, the emotions that those convey, and I have to choose each word so very carefully, so that you can pick up the poem and turn it in the light and you will see the facets of a gemstone rather than the patches of a soccer ball (unless of course you are a soccer fanatic, in which case I would rather have you see my poem as your beloved ball). And each word that I choose limits my choices for the following words.

I know that all writing has some of these difficulties. These are the things inherent in a piece of writing that make writing hard. The other, more environmental things are not at play here for me, since this is a personal, free form, deadlineless project. And I think, because of that, when I say that a poem is a series of problems that have been solved I think of it as mathematicians think about problems as opportunities for beauty to happen (no, seriously, they think that way; they are just as crazy as the soccer fans, which is also kind of beautiful).

And sometimes in writing the most important choice is to know when to stop hammering away at the thing and get up and go make dinner or play with the cat or grade papers. The words will be there, waiting for you, when you get back. Trust me on this.

One comment on “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: Or, Choosing the Problem to Address

  1. PJS says:

    “The arc of Susan.” The Ark of Susan. Arc longa, vita brevis. (I need sleep.)

    Liked by 1 person

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