For a long time, I worried there was something wrong with me as a writer, because I leaned so heavily on the thinking and writing of others. And further, that instead of wanting to hide that leaning, my impulse has often been to showcase it, to make this thinking-with-others, this weaving of mine and others’ words, part of the texture of my writing.
The flip side of this “leaning against” has been well put by Emerson, that sage of self-reliance, who famously said: “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” This is also good advice. “Leaning against” can’t be an excuse that saves one from doing the real thinking and writing. I still struggle with this balance. I’m not saying I always get it right. What I’m saying is that it can be a worthwhile and generative place in which to experiment, stumble around, live, and create.
The phrase “a sort of leaning against” comes from Alice Notley’s poem “Lady Poverty.” Here’s the passage in full:
Beginning in poverty as a baby there is nothing
for one but another’s food and warmth
should there ever be more
than a sort of leaning against and trust a food for
another from out of one—that would be
poverty—we’re taught not to count on
anyone, to be rich,
but now I seem to know that the name of a self is poverty
that the pronoun I means such and that starting so
poorly, I can live
“The name of a self is poverty”—I like this. It’s a good place to start, especially for those of us who are born creators, but who feel annoyed or excluded from the notion of a writer as someone who has a highly “active imagination” or one who creates “great images.”
Read the rest of Maggie Nelson’s article here.