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Personal essay: George Murray on surrendering to the information-saturated world

FrontmatterDec_GeorgeMurray(c)JohnW.MacDonaldWhen I first discovered poetry, I was a genius. I felt something crack open inside me and I left the lucrative world of short fiction to find fortune and glory in verse. I wrote all the time. I loved everything I wrote. I loved myself. I wrote all the pages, all the days. I did nothing but write poetry and drink with poets. I can just see myself with my long Kurt Cobain hair and army boots, hunched over a notebook scribbling away like David Foster Wallace’s slightly dirtier superfan. I was 24. A good time for being in love with oneself.

It was also 1995. There was no real Internet yet; email was a thing you went to a lab to log into. There were no cellphones for impoverished undergrads; no TV in my roach-infested bachelor apartment; no screens in the bar I drank at; no video advertisements in bus stops. I didn’t even have a portable CD player to keep me occupied on the long rides to school. When I was on my own, I was on my own in my own head. I was trapped in that cavernous existential chamber into which one sometimes calls out, “Am I going to die today?” and hopes the echo replies, “No.”

So poetry was my main distraction. Besides beer, drugs, and sex with people at poetry readings (the last of which seemed, statistically speaking, to go together with the first three), crafting poetry was what I did to stave off doubt, worry, dread, angst, fear, and anger. Back then, writing – a form of talking to myself – was the thing that saved me from having to listen to myself.

But as I grew as both a poet and man, I dialled back on all the things: the beer and drugs, the sex, the poetry. Year by year, my poems became better, and I became a better person (I think). I chalked it up to maturity, marriage, kids, artistic development. And much of it was.

Yet now, 20 years later, I am not only not in love with everything I write, I’m simply not writing nearly as much. And by writing, I don’t mean the act of sitting down to write; I mean the thinking that goes on in the moments prior to the physical act of writing. Those are the moments of art for me; the rest is just trying to be as true to that moment as possible.

I feared I was drying up. I feared I was getting old. I feared I was fading away instead of fulfilling my original plan, which was to burn out. I used to have ideas while waiting in lines at grocery stores, or while sitting in a bar, or walking down the street. Now all that time was filled with other distractions: pings from texts, Twitter alerts, 24-hour news crawls, cat videos on Facebook, ads talking to me at bus stops, five to 10 TVs per bar, all tuned to different channels, phone calls interrupting other phone calls, Candy Crush levels to be beaten, emails delivered directly to a watch on the wrist. That cavernous chamber in the brain was now filled all the time. I wasn’t writing because I was distracted.

Some people might solve this by going offline – getting a place in the country and going for long walks during which they examine birds and the change of seasons. But I was never that poet, and I also have what I like to call “a life.” My kids are wired and I need to communicate with them. I work in marketing and need to communicate with people all over the world. I live in a remote part of Canada and have friends in other cities and countries who I get to keep in touch with and whose kids I get to watch grow up via Facebook. My career as a poet and professor is conducted largely by email attachments and online teaching software. In short, I can’t leave that world.

So I thought: What would happen if instead of fighting for quiet space, I just let all the noise in? What would happen if I just wrote in the world around me, instead of getting out entirely? The result was simultaneously amazing and horrifying.

My new book, , is a product of this. Chaos. And yet, a kind of new order. Not poems of narrative: “here’s a loon I saw, and as I sat in my canoe looking at it through the mist, I had this revelation about myself and the world.” Rather: “here are the 41 crazy things I thought in a row, in which are buried both the mundane and the profound, and dear reader, since you already have to navigate these same streams of data yourself, I trust you’ll figure out what I’m talking about.”

We’ll see how that works out.


George Murray is the author of six books of poetry, a book for children, and the bestselling book of aphorisms Glimpse (2010). From 2003 to 2011 he owned and operated the website Bookninja.com. He lives in St. John’s, Nfld. Diversion is published by ECW Press.