Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Notes on the Writing

Pretty much all true. I don't make up much, except connections and associations. This morning's poem, Distinctions,, for example, completely unexpected as it was to be writing a poem this morning, fell into place more or less as recorded. I might leave out a few unnecessary, topical details, in hopes of being more permanent, more universal. Writing is about leaving just enough detail in to activate the imagination, but not putting so much in that it stifles or becomes over-specific or too thought out. Over-writing is usually about putting too much in, not leaving enough out.

I might look for the best turn of phrase, the inspiration of saying something perfectly in a poem that might otherwise be slack in conversation. The perfect phrase is usually concise and detailed, accurate and fulsome. Revision for me is usually about reducing, like a sauce on the stove, concentrating flavors into a denser broth. I take out the chaff, I leave in the grain.

I'm reading every day, although I don't write every day. Reading is part of writing. In fact, you should read a lot more than your write. Let it percolate through the strata of your being, let the limestone filter it as it drips down into those caves inside your unconscious, and were the springwaters re-emerge on the surface, it will be changed, transformed, sweetened, made more drinkable by being laced with minerals leached out of the rock. That's an extended geological analogy, but it's absolutely true. It's an analogy that goes all the way back to my ancient Celtic and Nordic roots.

I read every day. I read eclectically, usually reading something first thing in the morning—except a poem bubbled up from the spring first thing this morning, so I didn't read anything—that gives me a spiritual push, an awakening, or something to contemplate. I do a lot of my spiritual reading in the morning. Later in the day I'll read something literary, a book of poems, or a commentary on poems, or an essay about the arts. Reading in the bathroom can be anything, but it's often science fiction.

I read a lot more than I write. You can learn how to write from your reading. You take it all in, let it stir around inside you—another analogy, this time one based on the alchemy of cooking—and it will come out eventually in a changed form, made yours by having been passed through you. What you write is made yours by having been passed through your system, no matter its origins or influences. Don't think about this too much. Just let it happen.

I'm writing more poems, again, suddenly, unexpectedly. As usual, I don't know why. It might be linked to the recent bouts of insomnia—lying awake at night, unable to turn off the brain, which is still turning things over even though I'm dead tired and want to rest. That constant churning of re-activated lifeforce that was quiescent during the past year of heavy illness. Now I'm preparing, and getting stronger, to get ready for some major surgery this summer designed to kill my chronic illness and give me my life back. Maybe the restlessness is because I have more energy, now, than I know what to do with. I'm working out, exercising, taking walks, starting to think about this year's flower garden, noticing the tree is starting to bud, out back. Maybe it's that my energy is returning.

Maybe I'm writing more poems because I'm writing more lyrics for the new music commission. I'm also writing music. I improvised and found a lovely, lyrical chord progression on the piano yesterday, and wrote down two pages of score. Now I have to find the words to fit to the piano part. The frame is there. I just have to choose the lyric, or write a new one. This will be in the new piece, it will be a lyrical piece, a quieter piece focusing on the beauty and fragility of life. We'll see where it goes. I plan to work on it again today or tomorrow.

Why am I writing more poems again? For no reason that I can think of; those possible reasons listed above are just guesses. I don't mind. It's just unexpected. And I hope it's a sign of surplus energy now being available, because I don't want to have to budget myself with regard to the new music commission. There just seems to be an excess of energy. I actually have to find ways to tire myself out. This is no complaint. It's just a novel experience, after a long time being short of energy for most things. I have to get used to it, figure out how to use it well.

Reminder to self: Creativity as an energy is an infinite resource, not a scarce one. It is not subject to being used up or wasted. It simply cannot be wasted. Nonetheless, my discipline has to be, right now, about staying focused on what I most need to be working on. The truth is, I have catching up to do on mundane chores like sorting the mail. Priorities. As much as I'd rather not have to deal with the mail, there it is, waiting to be dealt with. Meanwhile, another new poem. Another piece of music. Let the pieces fall into place wherever they wish, and focus on making them fall into place often and more.

it's best to read for an hour at most, then go do something physical. The balance is essential. I do a lot of my best thinking when walking around the block, or driving on the interstate. Read for awhile, then absorb it by going out for a walk. Reading too much in one sitting, like writing too much in one sitting can degrade the experience and product.

Oh yes, it's entirely possible to write too much at one sitting. When the writing gets stale or rote, that's when it's time to take a break, or even stop. I don't believe in forced writing habits, like a-poem-a-day, or set hours for writing. On the occasions when I followed some writer's advice and tried writing that way, I produced nothing but crap. Or in some cases études. But nothing worth keeping. So some creative writing teachers view me an undisciplined, which by their standards I suppose is true. What they can't account for is that I produce poems they like in my very undisciplined way. The truth is, it's just a different kind of discipline that I practice.

I have to get up and move around for awhile. Let the physical counterpoint to the writing make a balance, and come back a brief while later with fresh ears. When I was writing this morning's poem, I got up and made breakfast while I waited for the poem's ending to bubble up. It wouldn't come for awhile. Then, having walked away from it for awhile, ti came easily and obviously. I probably got up and walked away from this poem a minimum of four times today. Then, when you're walking around or cracking an egg, the phrases start sounding in your mind again, the spring bubbles over, and you go back and fill in some more lines. This is how I normally write, these days.

Poems in this form are invited to ramble by the form itself. The form being a Letter rather than a sonnet. I find it interesting, though, how each digression in the poem turns out to be essential. Sometimes the getting and walking around is when the clues start to converge, the shape emerges, the final form, and you know when to end. How to get there might take awhile. But you can feel when a poem in this form is ending. Digression is part of the fabric. Each digression really does mean something, though. They turn out not to be random. Which often is a surprise to me as well as to any other reader.

When I'm writing music score, I have to get up and walk around even more often. It's even more urgent. It's like sitting and writing music score builds up a static charge. I need to walk over to the stove, or across the living room, to ground the charge, to shed the extra voltage, before I can sit back down again and focus. I learned this a year or so ago when I was writing Weavers of Light. It still holds true. So it can take all day to write just a few pages of music. Maybe it's because most things I'm writing lately, music or words, tends to come out at white heat. You need to give the nozzle of the furnace a little time cool down, before you extrude the next segment of melted ore. Another analogy, maybe the best one yet, because it accounts for the cooling periods in between emergences of creativity that all seem to come out at white heat. I need to walk off the tension that builds up. Ground the static. Let the smelter cool down a little. Then I can go back and work again at white heat, until the next cooling cycle. This might mean that the writing takes a little bit longer than you'd expect, but it also seems to mean that when the ore emerges, it's worthwhile, and not a waste of effort.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

It's good o hear you're getting your energy back, Art, however hard the by product, this sleeplessness.

I agree with you on the importance of balanced reading, writing and exercise. I only wish I could manage it better myself.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, E.

Balance. BTW, I hope you've regained all your mobility by now.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I know that the basic advice every writer gives is, “Read, read, read,” and I don’t dispute it. The thing is though I’ve never been a great reader. When I sat down and wrote my first two novels I doubt I had read more than a hundred books and I still own hardly any poetry, about half a shelf’s worth. Up until recently when I’ve started accepting review copies from all and sundry I was always a very fussy reader. I never read crap. For years I only read books by Nobel Prize winners – even the Pulitzer wasn’t good enough for me. I did watch an awful lot of TV though. The BBC did a list recently of promising novelists and they noted something about the dozen they picked, none had a straightforward narrative, they all utilised techniques taken straight from TV and that doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I see that trend continuing.

As for creative writing teachers frowning on you, well they’d frown on me too and a lot of authors from the past. Writing comes naturally to me and that’s the key word here – nature. Saying there is a way to write is preposterous. I’m working on another post about the Australian writer Gerald Murnane at the moment who writes for one hour a day and that is it. In that day he writes about a hundred words on average and I love his logic when he says (and I’m paraphrasing): A hundred words a day over a year is about 36,000 words and that’s enough for anyone to write. I don’t write like that. I tend to work in clumps. Is that wrong? No, it’s what I’ve found works for me. Some writers need to tell the world every time they’ve written a sentence and that works for them, the constant peering over their shoulders by their peers and I get that, that’s why places like Weight Watchers work; me, when I put on a bit of weight I went on a diet and lost it – end of story.

3:36 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

Hey, Jim, via Art, (apologies Art. over your shoulder as it were). I'm looking forward to Jim's Gerald Murnane post. GM has written two more books via this method and I'll pass them onto you as soon as they're published here in Australia, Jim. You, too, Art, if you're interested.

4:11 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

@Lis - Two? I thought there was only one more due. Anyway it's a review of Tamarisk Row (my daughter bought me a copy). It took me six days to read the book (unfortunately she bought me a reprint of the 1974 original) and I've been at the review for three days now. Hopefully I'll get done today but I wouldn't bet on it.

5:14 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I look forward to the Gerald Mumane post, Jim. (And yes, I'd love to see the books, too, E.) Mumane's writings habits are interesting, one more example of the broad range of individual solutions. My own style tends to be working more in spurts and clumps, rather than a steady trickle every day.

There are a number of Oz (or Oz/NZ connected) writers that I've liked to read over the years. One of my favorite poets, for example, Judith Wright. Lately I've been getting into Les Murray's poetry; he's quite a character. Randolph Stow comes to mind as having written a couple of novels I'll never forget.

The thing about reading and writing, I do agree, is individual. I've become picky about what I read, just because I've become more jealous of my time as time has gone by, but I can truly say when I was young I read everything in sight. As you know, I read fast and retain most of it. (I shocked a friend when camping one summer by reading the fifth Harry Potter book in one and a half days; he doubted me till I summarized the plot for him.) I don't know if that's any better than your slower reading, Jim, or if I absorb things more deeply in the long run. Probably I don't.

Am I a natural writer? I don't really know. (Lately I've avoided calling myself any kind of writer, just to avoid arguments about it.) It's not that I labor at it. Writing has a certain natural ease for me—which is one reason, I suppose, that I don't always take writing seriously. I can dash off a 1000 word essay or journal entry with little effort. I work harder at poems, usually, although it's true that when they come they come fast. I work a lot harder at writing music, and pretty hard at making visual art. Some of all that hard work is getting the materials to match the flash of inspiration, which can be tedium after the fact. It can take hours to execute something that came to you in a flash of vision; it can be an exercise in patience. Conversely, sometimes just playing around leads to a piece, when an idea forms in the middle of just playing around.

Some perverse part of me trusts art that I make more, if I worked harder to make it. Sometimes writing is TOO easy, and I don't trust it as much. More accurately, because writing can come so easy, I'm not sure how to value it. Is it more meaningful, more valuable, if I labored over it? Or doesn't that matter? It's hard to be objective about the value of my own work, based solely on the effort expended to make it. One or two of my best poems happened almost instantaneously, with little revision after. I don't know how to judge any of this.

I guess this is a holdover from my culture's "Puritan work ethic," which is all about hard work, etc.

10:18 AM  

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