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R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr., Self-Actualization

by Shane McCrae Spalding MFA Faculty, Poetry

Probably you’re too young to remember this—or were too sane at the time to care—but back in the early 90s, when R.E.M. were considered the best band in the world by more than a few people, back when they had just released Out of Time, both the band and their fans began expressing anxiety about the band returning to their roots—i.e., the people wanted R.E.M. to make an up-tempo album again, a rocking, electric album, and the band wanted to make the people happy. Let’s set aside the fact that R.E.M.’s first album, Murmur, while marginally more up-tempo than Out of Time and definitely more up-tempo than Automatic for the People, was in only the vaguest sense a rock record—R.E.M. gets very little credit for having started out as one of America’s finest early purveyors of pop-inflected post-punk obscurities—and concentrate instead on what happened when R.E.M. actually made the record the people seemed to want: Monster. Real talk: I hate Monster.

Well, ok—semi-real talk. I guess I don’t hate hate Monster, but it was the record that killed my R.E.M. fandom dead. And there had been a stretch there when they were basically my favorite band! I didn’t even buy their next record, New Adventures in Hi-Fi (I still haven’t heard that one), and I only bought the records after it out of guilt-riddled hope. I remember reading a review of a pre-very-excellent-reformation, mid-90’s Dinosaur jr. album in which the reviewer said that, because J. Mascis had become such a technically proficient guitarist, he probably couldn’t play the way he had on the first Dinosaur jr. albums if he tried. It took me a long time to figure out what that meant—after all, if he had become a better guitarist, why couldn’t he play the way he had when he wasn’t as good? The problem, however, wouldn’t have been the technical difficulty of playing as he had when he was younger, the problem would have been the impossibility of thinking as he had when he was younger. And that’s why Monster doesn’t sound anything like Murmur, and also why it isn’t a very good album.

More real talk: I often—very often—find myself wishing I could write poems that would sound like the poems in my first book, Mule. When I was writing Mule, I felt both in control of my process (which strikes me, at the moment, as a terrible, pretentious word for some reason) and abandoned to it. With each subsequent book, however, I’ve felt, with regard to process, at least, less and less in control—less able to say things as I would want them to be said, more beholden to the ways the poems have wanted to speak—and, although I have felt myself just as abandoned to writing as I’m writing, that feeling has become more frightening. None of this is to say that I enjoy writing less! I enjoy it more now than I ever have. But I’m not, you know, the boss of it. And, I admit, sometimes I want to feel like the boss of it—sometimes that feeling is nice. Paradoxically, I was only able to be the boss of my own writing when I understood what I was doing less thoroughly (which is not so say that my understanding of what I’m doing is actually thorough now—just that it’s more so now than it was). The boss who understands the scope of their bossness makes monsters.

That is: It’s not enough to forget who you are when you’re writing—to get out of your own way and stay out of your own way—you must also forget who you were. Too much self-awareness leads to over-determined writing, and when you’re trying to think yourself back into writing the way you wrote years ago, you’re almost unavoidably too self-aware—the goal of that thinking, after all, is self-awareness. Your writing is ahead of you—it knows better who you are and who you are becoming than you do. If you can trust that—and it can be difficult to trust that, because to act upon that trust is to turn your back on writing (and, by extension, a self) that was at one time the best you could do, writing that might still seem good enough—you will, with each poem you write, make yourself a better writer, and, fearfully, yes, strange to the person you have been.


Shane McCrae is the author of four full-length books of poetry: The Animal Too Big to KillForgiveness Forgiveness; Mule, a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Center USA Literary Award; and Blood. His work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2010 as well as The American Poetry Review and has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. He has received a Whiting Writer’s Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He holds degrees from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Harvard Law School, and the graduate English program at the University of Iowa.


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