Sunday, August 20, 2006

Conscious Craft or Dictation?

Here's a dichotomy in approaching the arts as an artist: I've seen it stated as the question, Do you write from quick inspiration, in the heat of the moment; or is it a more conscious, craft-based, labor-intensive process? Of course, this can also be rephrased as: Do you write from the heart, or from the head? Without wanting to get too far into analyzing the stereotypes behind the distinction, I think there is merit in considering these questions.

So, herewith, some thoughts:

First off, I think phrasing the question this way forces it into an either/or dichotomy, when the truth is both/and. (How we ask the question can shape the outcome, obviously.) I don't think these ways of writing are of necessity in opposition, but are rather in complementarity. One needs both inspiration and craft; one cannot fulfill one's potential as a writer without both.

Craft is a road many uninspired writers take, however, without ever realizing that, if they have no inner vision, if they have nothing to say, they are not really saying anything. In some cases, you end up with beautifully constructed, superbly executed poems that say nothing, contribute nothing, and do not add any value to anyone's lives. Craft without content is hollow.

Craft exists to serve inspiration. It is in the service of the art of writing. Craft is necessary, in order for one's inner vision to be expressed at its full potential; but by itself, craft is nothing. Craft is tools, and there are many good tools, but if you have nothing with which to use the tools on, they will lie stagnant and rusty.

The final thing you must rememebr about craft is this: craft is all that anyone can teach. We can teach good grammar, we can teach syntax and form, symmetry, narrative, good construction, and all the rest. But we cannot teach inspiration. Inspiration comes from within the creative person, in whatever medium they work in. "Inspiration is sometimes confused with "talent." Talent is an apparent knack, perhaps an innate gift, that makes working in one creative medium relatively effortless for the gifted person. (This is not limited to the traditional arts, of course; there are talents and gifts for cooking, driving, and other "mundane" skills.)

I heard a quote once from an acting teacher, although I don't know the exact source: "Craft is what you fall back on when you're not feeling inspired."

One of the interesting differences between craft and talent is the apparent effort involved in applying each. Conscious craft can be an effort; it takes work. But the talent, or gift, or receptivity involved in listening to the inner voice that almost dictates the creative work—that often appears to be effortless, natural, automatic. This is not to say that there is no effort; rather, there is less apparent effort. The effort may have been occuring on a pre-conscious, pre-verbal, or subconscious level. What we call dictation, in this context, may be not instanteous creation but rather the result of a long, invisible gestation process that only emerges into the conscious mind at the last stage. It can be as if, after a long period of gestation in the pre-conscious mind, something suddenly hits the mental "Print" command at the back of the mind, and out it spews. Who's to say that there wasn't a lot of revision alread going on, back there? It was just not visible to the conscious process—at least, not in the same way that consciously-applied craft is visible.

For me, personally, writing begins as a process of letting whatever wants to arise, arise. My job on the first writing pass, is to simply get myself out of the way, and let it come through. (The parallel description in Zen studies refers to getting the ego or mind out of the way, so that the true self can come forward.) I have actually "taken dictation" once or twice, when writing a poem or a piece of music, during which process I quite consciously knew what was going on while it was happening, but managed to transcribe what was coming forward without getting in the way of the process. I view my discipline, in all the arts I practice, as exactly this: being prepared, being ready for whatever happens, and also maintaining the constant the willingness to drop everything else I'm doing and listen to and transcribe whatever comes forward, whenever it wants to. It is a warrior's discipline, to keep the blade cleaned and sharpened, but to not draw it out of the scabbard until it is actually to be used. Readiness is all.

For me, the conscious craft comes in when I revise. I might prune, trim, compress, condense, and so forth—typical revision processes—but you'd be surprised how many finished poems or mine are first or second drafts, with only minor changes.

I think the labor-intensive method of writing is equally valid, and I know a few poets who approach their writing as a daily discipline, sitting down to it for a set number of hours a day. I think this is a different means to the same end, but neither a better one nor a less-inspired one, ultimately. It's workmanlike, rather than meditative. It doesn't work as a method for me—I am by some standards a very undisciplined, intuitive poet—but it works for others, and I honor that. On the other hand, I am a fairly disciplined musician, and can be a disciplined visual artist, if necessary.

When I talk about taking dictation here, I am not thinking of André Breton's idea of "pure psychic automatism," the automatic writing practiced by the Surrealist. When someone sits down to practice automatic writing, one is still sitting down with a conscious intention to do something, even if one is open to whatever results. Rather, I would go further, into the Zen arena of "no conscious intention whatsoever."

This is pretty much the way I write poetry most of the time. Thinking about what I intend to write is reserved for essays and creative non-fiction. This may also be why I go through periods of writing a lot of poems, then writing maybe one a month for several months. It goes in waves. I choose to not try to tame this process, or force it into harness, because the process works just fine, for me—based on the results, others seem to like what I produce well enough, so I don't feel like fixin' what ain't broke.

I do have some advice for those who would choose to pursue the path of listening to what arises from within, which may or may not be helpful: get out of your head, as often as possible. Stop trying so hard to write. Take a walk, and don't think about writing anything (which is meta-thinking, already removed from the moment, the finger pointing at the moon rather than the moon itself). Write purely somatically. Pay attention to what your senses tell you, and respond to your bodily sensations, and don't try to layer meaning, intention, purpose, or sense into it. Simply report. Better yet, don't even write about it. Just experience it. Any time that you set out with intention to write a poem, you will derail this process. The poem comes in response to the experience, if it comes at all. As long you have a goal of writing a poem, you won't be able to write as you say you want to write. Give it up! Give up wanting to do it.

The problem with many poets I see who want to write this way, but don't as yet, is that they spend too much time in their heads, and get into endless mental loops. "Lose your mind and come to your senses" is actually good advice, in this context. When you no longer care about writing the poem, the door opens to actually writing the poem. The paradox of letting go: everything you desire will come to you just as soon as you no longer need it to.

if you start with this process, but then step in consciously and start editing what's arising, or intervene consciously during the process, then you're going to go astray. Just spew it out, when it's coming. Editing it comes later.

Furthermore, attachment to "getting it right" when it first comes out is an attachment that will lead you towards self-consciousness. Losing the "I" in the process is the way to get around all that. Intervening in the process is the mark of wanting to control the outcome, control the process, be directing it, be in charge of it, be self-conscious about it, be In Control. When you don't care about the outcome—if you are perfectly willing to write utter irredeemable crap (which is a risk some poets cannot face)—that's when you are likely to achieve what you want, and not before. Caring too much about what comes out kills what comes out.

Sometimes, to master the process (as opposed to controlling it), you have to watch yourself, and be a language cop. You may have to change the way you describe your creative process, in order to both describe it more accurately, but also to avoid the pitfalls of expectations. The first pitfall of expectations is the assumption that you know how things will turn out; the second pitfall is assuming you can control the outcome. Both are false assumptions. Give them up!

How does one go about exercising this process, to learn to hear the inner voices, and even take creative dictation?

Most importantly, one learns to quiet the mind. That monkey mind that is always chattering, and dwelling on anything but the present moment: that stream of thoughts that spin and circle without resolution. This is the mind of distraction. I studied many spiritual practices and became a better poet as a result. I found I got a lot from meditation, martial arts (Ki Aikido and Tai Chi, both soft-style arts), and Zen about quieting the mind. I find the "mind of Zen" and the "mind of poetry" to strongly overlap, in my experience, and writing in haiku and haibun forms help me with that, as well. The whole point of this is that it is a practice: you do get better at it over time. It's a discipline that is cumulative, even if only one drop at a time.

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