Sunday, March 16, 2008

Instinct

In cleaning out the basement, digging through boxes and caches of old papers and magazines and books, I've been stumbling across mostly trash, but also the occasional treasure. I came across a small stash of science fiction magazines from the mid-1980s through the early 90s, their pages still crisp from being carefully stored, and couldn't resist re-reading a few bits and pieces. I subscribed to more magazines back then than I do now, mostly because the past few years have been about travel and nomadism and minimizing the physical Stuff in my life—the very reason to be clearing out the basement at this time.

In the March 1991 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Asimov's monthly Editorial was part one of a two-parter about suspense in literature. He began by describing about how a critic had made some very disparaging remarks about Asimov's writing in some journal or other, prompting an episode on the writer's part of throwing the magazine across the room into the trash bin. But then, being an honest man, Asimov found he had to sit down and think about it. Maybe the critic was mad, but if he wasn't, Asimov found himself looking at his own writing to see if there was any truth in the accusations.

Such episodes, irritating as they can be, can also be the seeds that produce pearls. The introspection that follows such an irritation may produce a better writer.

The passage in Asimov's editorial that caught my eye, and that is relevant to what I want to discuss here—my own seed-pearl—was a small paragraph in the middle. Asimov explores the issue of how suspense is used in several levels of writing, by citing several fictions ranging from cheesy pulp comic-strips to better literature that one always wants to re-read even when one knows how the story's going to come out. And then:

Now I come to my own writing, but I can only discuss it if you who are reading it understand that I never did anything of what I am about to describe purposely. It all got done, every bit of it, instinctively, and I can only now understand it after the fact.

This caught my attention as if church bells had begun ringing in the house overhead. It gets at the root of what the writing process is for some writers: instinct, intuition, trust. I include myself in this group. This has always been a difficult process to explain—it actively defies analysis—without collapsing into defensiveness or justification. Asimov's use of the word "instinctively" in this context crystallizes all kinds of thoughts for me about my own writing process, and the creative process in general. It provides a foundation for explanation rather than excuse.

What Asimov says about instinct feels exactly correct to me. During the process of writing itself, I usually have no idea what I'm doing, and I usually only figure it out later. It can be a short while, or a very long time, before I can "understand it after the fact." You don't always know what's there, you don't always know how you did it, till much later.

Understanding in art can become a critical shibboleth, some idea of ultimate meaning that places too much emphasis on total clarity, as though creativity were a wiring diagram that when properly assembled would produce a predictable and reproducible result. There is something fascistic about the demand for total clarity of meaning in creativity, some whiff of totalizing Control that the insecure psychoblast seeks to impose on the chaotic and unpredictable world, as though forcing creativity into the conscious channels of the known would somehow make life safer and more secure.

But such imposition is doomed. Complete understanding is almost always an illusion.

There are poems (including some that I have written myself) that I remain unable to fully understand. There is no one logical and final interpretation or meaning to such a poem; instead, there is a deep well of revealed mystery each time it is read, or re-read. I find something new in it every time I re-read it. It is inexhaustible.

It has been my observation that writers who work instinctively often lack any idea of what they're doing till they're done. They can analyze after-the-fact, to be sure, but they tend not to do so beforehand. Sometimes they even lack writing routines or regimens; their writing process can be apparently chaotic, messy, illogical, nonlinear, disorganized. Sometimes they don't even practice writing as a daily exercise, sitting down for two hours or more to write as though playing scales on the piano; or if they do have a daily regimen, they recognize going in that much of what comes out will be irredeemable bilge.

I have also observed that some more experienced writers who work instinctively have come to understand their own process well enough that they no longer try to force it to happen, but have learned to trust the process and go with the flow. To outward appearances this can seem undisciplined and disorganized to the outside observer, but there is a deep inner practice at work. The disciplined aspect of the process appears in the realm of being prepared for the lightning to strike; waiting with mindfulness and attentiveness; going about life as though nothing unusual were happening but with the inner ear constantly tuned to catch the smallest hint of a whisper.

Sometimes nothing appears to happen for a long time. But then it takes you over, and when it comes over you, it can be as sudden and devastating as a natural disaster. It's as if the mind takes fire, on those occasions when one has the need to write, and whatever it is that drives the writing takes control. The need comes to the foreground, eclipsing all other needs. You drop everything else going on to get the poem done, or the story out, or the essay sketched, before it evaporates. It's as if someone tapped you on the shoulder and when you turned to look they slapped you on the forehead with a sheaf of papyrus made of light and told you to transcribe it. It's as if someone hit the Print button on a virtual word-processor in the back of your mind, and now whatever it is ready to come forward and be printed out.

The process of writing instinctively has always been suspect to those other writers whose natural tendencies lie in orderly workmanship, in clean regimens, in pre-planned outlines and consciously-directed logical progress through the process. There is often a sotto voce accusation, from the intentional and orderly writer towards the chaotic and instinctive writer, that it is somehow cheating, somehow not doing it right, somehow not real writing.

The baffling dilemma to the orderly mind is how both kinds of writing process are able to produce good work, since both demonstrably do.

This dilemma may be a permanent one. It goes beyond the usual dichotomies and polarities that art historians and philosophers present—Apollo vs. Dionysus, left-brain vs. right-brain, logical vs. chaotic, disciplined vs. undisciplined. (I readily admit to being an undisciplined writer with no regular routine, and that I don't care much to develop one.) The dilemma seems to go further down to the roots of worldview and mindset, into the realms of belief and comprehension: The disciplined mind seems always unable to comprehend how the undisciplined mind can produce gems amidst the apparent chaos. The rhetorical-critical cliché about chance and luck (if a million monkeys typed randomly for a million years, would they produce the works of Shakespeare?) is a sop to the illusion of understanding, and provides no real answer. It's an excuse, not an explanation.

One returns to the truth that some instinctive writers seem to embody, that one must trust one's own process, and go with the flow, and neither cling to the fruits of the process, nor try to over-control or micro-manage the process itself. At present I can only frame that negatively, a prescription of what to avoid. Yet, I have heard numerous personal anecdotes from artists that, when they have attempted to dictate to their process, to over-determine it, they have succeeded only in getting stuck.

The dilemma also seems rooted in the assumption that an artist must suffer not only in life, but during the creative process itself. That it's not real writing unless it is paid for with blood, sweat, tears, and angst. This has become so deeply rooted in our creative culture that even artists do not question it; it has become an archetype, the Starving Artist, or the Suffering Artist, or the Mad Artist, that is often unconsciously embraced without question. It is an archetype, like all such, that can be developed and overcome—but how many artists actually achieve that?

As far as I know, Isaac Asimov was a writer who could sit down any time, and type out a story. His extremely prolific career output is testimony to the ease with which he usually was able to write. We're not talking about sweating blood onto the typewriter here. Was Asimov's prolific fluidity coupled to the fact that he was an instinctive writer, rather than one who carefully pre-planned every effect? There may be no definitive answer to that question, yet I think it's likely. The fact is, based on his own reports in his essays, editorials and letters that he has left behind for us, Asimov often didn't know what he was doing till it was done, but he never let that stop him from doing it. He trusted his creative process, he trusted himself as a writer, and he trusted his readers to be able to go on that journey with him.

This level of trust in the creative process can serve as a role model to us all.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

When it comes to poetry, if I don't understand my poem when I'm done with it I usually give it up as a bad job; I'm not a great lover of ambiguity in poetry. As for prose, I never know where I'm going when I begin a prose work. Even the four novels started off that way with a single line hanging in mid air. You feel your way. I would love to sit down and lay down a plan of action but I seem incapable of working that way. When my characters come to a crossroads we make the decision where they will go or what they will do based on what we know about them at that point.

There is no right way to write. Look at Nabokov with his index cards for example. Asimov was a scientist and there is a science to writing but there is also an art to writing too. And, if we're honest, there is an art to science too. How often does a scientist take a wild guess or trusts their gut or take a leap of faith or just try something because it feels right? More often than they'd like us to imagine.

We have a pet bird, a cockatiel my wife rescued from being pecked to death by a magpie, and, when he hears a loud noise, instinctively he will fly away but he doesn't fly always to the same place. Instinct tells him to flee but he assesses the best place to fly to logically. It's the same with our writing. Instinct tells us something and we interpret that and make logical decisions based on what feels right.

I have a lot of time for Asimov. No airs and graces. He saw himself as a storyteller, plain and simple.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

There is also the truth that sentient, sapient, self-aware species can overrule instinct in favor of reason. We can choose not to react, which has its own dangers, or we can listen and decide what the best course of action is—a rationally-guided response rather than a thoughtless one.

11:16 PM  

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