Saturday, June 09, 2007

Shopping for a New Creative Process?

Feeling stuck? In a rut? Stale? Don't enjoy your creative process anymore? Has your process become a routine?

Routine processes are good for starting the process of creativity, kind of like sparkplugs. But once the engine has started, you can abandon routine, and go with whatever flow you're in at the moment. Sometimes that can be quite "sideways." What I mean is: unpredictable. In other words, experience has taught me that it's better (for me) to go with wherever the process seems to want to go, rather than try to control it. "Control" is an illusion, anyway; many things we think we can control, we really can't. So sometimes it's better to not try to control those things, but to listen to them, and follow their lead.

For many poets, writing is largely a mental process. They get accustomed to a routine. They think that poetry is like engineering: if you follow the correct "rules of assembly," everything will work out fine. The problem with that is when a routine becomes a rut.

My experience is that breaking routines is exactly the way to break habits that get us stuck. It can be smart to go looking for another process, but I doubt anyone can sell you one that will work for you—pieces of a process, probably, sure, but not an entire new routine.

Are you forcing yourself to write, even when you don't want to? Maybe that's what is making it seem stale. In writing, I use what we might call the discipline of readiness: being ready at any time for a poem to come, but not forcing one to come, just waiting for it. The discipline is in the readiness, not in the actual writing practice. As a writer I'm very undisciplined, very unroutined, very unpredictable. I can write a flood of poems and essays for several days or weeks, then nothing for months. The "dry spells" or "fallow periods" don't bother me, because I've learned that, for me at least, forcing a poem is absolutely guaranteed to make a bad or mediocre poem; by contrast, letting a poem come to me, I like most of what I write. Again, the discipline, for me, is in the readiness: being ready, and patient, while waiting.

Sometimes we just sit down and play with the materials, with no intention of "making something." Just play: mess around with the elements, like pieces of a collage that we put together into a whole but can totally re-arrange many times before we finally glue them down and finish the piece. Sometimes, the end of of the collage-making process is when you realize, simply, sitting back and looking at it, "Okay, this is done." You don't even know how you got there; you just did.

In other words, the play/compose process is the same for any of the arts: music, graphics, writing. It is an organic process. In poetry, you can play with language, throwing a lot of drafts away, the same way you might for a graphics project. Play has to risk error, risk being run. One of the big stumbling blocks to the creative process is the fear of doing it wrong. That can be a burden, that quest for perfection. How can one ever expect to get a poem perfect the first time out the gate? Why can't both processes be openly and deliberately organic? Why not let it grow at the speed it wants to grow, and not push it?

One possible routine-breaking tactic is what some writers have called free writing: just spewing: journal-writing, spewing, whatever. It's called by many names. Natalie Goldberg's books on writing, such as Wild Mind, are full of good examples of how to go about doing this practice. It's a terrific practice for getting unstuck. The trick is to sit down without having a topic in mind, and also to not care about what you're spewing out. You can always sort through it later. But the real value of free writing is that it's a warm-up: it loosens up the writerly muscles, like an athlete doing isometric exercises before a workout. Free writing prepares the body-mind for writing; but what is produced during free-writing shouldn't be considered writing itself. Some writers do it in a separate notebook, and don't afterwards go back through what they've spewed. Don't get attached to outcomes; just do it to do it.

I can tell you right now that many good poems are "accidents," because they were not planned. There was no outline, no plan, no intention beyond that of simplly writing, and what came out was beyond what the mind knew was there, beforehand. After all, that's what "inspiration" means: the breath entering the body, and the body producing something new. The breath is necessary to life: inspiration is necessary to living. If poetry really were only an engineering problem, it would be something any educated ape could do, and do well.

If you have fear about trying to write again after not having done it for awhile—that "I'll never be able to write if I were to try it again someday" fear—well, so what? who cares if you never wrote again? Obviously, if you do care, there may be a reason to care; but it may not be the obvious reason. It may be a self-esteem reason, rather than a literary reason. Writers write for a lot of reasons: only some of those reasons have to do with the audience, or applause, or awareness, or commercial fame. Some writers even write to know what they're thinking about, because they don't articulate their thoughts to themselves before they sit down to write; writing clarifies the mind. Other writers write because it's a compulsion (which isn't a negative word in this context): they write because they must. They write because they need to do it, like breathing, to live.

Nobody ever writes great stuff all the time. I won't tell you how many notebooks of crap I have, that no one will ever see. My journal is my journal, and my artwork is my artwork. Sometimes artwork comes out of the journal, but hardly from every page. Some art ideas began in the journal, but the journal contains no finished pieces. But what the journal does allow me to do is just write, for no reason, just to vent, or spew, or try something out. If it seems interesting, I might pull it out and expand on it later, or revise. It might become something, but the mere act of writing out garbage can get the ball rolling, even if the actual garbage isn't recycleable. And that breaks the routine.

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Blogger Michele said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts - what you say is very interesting...

I found you via L Lee Lowe's "Lowebrow Blog", by the way.

12:45 PM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

"the discipline of readiness." What a marvelous, apt phrase. You said it well.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad the ideas here have some resonance for you.

That discipline of readiness: I learned years ago that that's how I work best. I won't repeat the details here, but it really does seem to work for me.

It's amusing, though, when I occasionally get into conversations with "poem a day" type writers, whose ideas of discipline are very structured and craftsmanlike. I respect that, it's just not my style.

I did have one poet say to me, a few years ago, that he found it very difficult to understand how I could be so undisciplined about writing practice (by his standards) and yet still write poems that he thought were so good! LOL It was flattering, but I think I maybe blew his mind. Or maybe he just didn't believe me. Regardless, it was amusing.

10:17 PM  

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