Monday, April 04, 2011

Process of Writing 2: Myths of Practice

This morning I found myself writing, while thinking-is-linking about the process of writing:

Process of writing is more than putting notes down, putting words down. There's a lot of thinking-about-it time. Non-writers never seem to understand this. You turn things over a long time at the back of your mind before you ever write them down. Lots of folks think it's easier than it really is. It's actually pretty hard. You can knead that mental dough for days before anything happens. People have this weird mythical idea that creativity is an act of conscious will. But anyone who's ever stared at the blank page knows that the only place sheer will ever matters is in the daily discipline of willing oneself to go on writing.

Of course, people also have this weird mythical idea that you can fix all of your problems merely by thinking them through; in fact, there are a lot of problems in life that can't be solved by thinking about them. Creativity is not a "problem." In fact it's ridiculous to think of it as a problem to be solved, although people do just that, maybe because they've gotten too used to writing to prompts or in response to examples provided by an instructor. But writing is not a math problem, not a "problem" to be "solved" or a broken object to be "fixed." I see a lot writers act like car mechanics, approaching each assignment in that fix-it attitude. I suppose that's why a lot of self-help literature treats the enigmas of life as mechanical problems with mechanical solutions. I suppose that's also why a lot of people try to "fix" psychological problems by taking a pill. It's a pervasive cultural attitude.

This was an insight about writing prompts that I hadn't articulated to myself before. It snuck up on me quietly, while I was thinking about something else. I want to expand on it a bit more, now.

I've never been entirely convinced of the worth or utility of writing to prompts; my own writing practice doesn't really need, or want, that kind of exercise. You see writing prompts a lot on workshop boards and writing-tip blogs, mostly those geared towards relative beginners. The idea is to challenge the writer's mind, get it in gear, make a response happen. For relative beginners, it can be a kick-start, and a way of developing and honing the ability to tell a story, to put experience into words.

It's a good exercise for some, as it can give them something to write about, which they might otherwise not think to do. Some writing prompts are more interesting than others. Some do spark the occasional bit of inspired poetry, if they catch your mind on fire.

I've tried writing to prompts, when pressured to do so by friends on the online poetry boards I used to spend some time on. And once or twice I've even participated in one of those "write a poem a day for a month" challenges. I mostly did so when encouraged by a poet-moderator-mentor who specifically invited me to participate. I almost never made it through the whole month, by the way. I skated by, sometimes, by coming up with at most a optical haiku. Which was fine, as far it went.

What usually results from writing to prompt, in my observation, is a five-finger exercise: in terms of piano literature, a Czerny etude rather than a Chopin Prelude. The technical skill may be there, and one or two good ideas, and the craft is well-exercised. But the end result is a sketch, a warm-up piece, a practice exercise. Rarely does a real poem emerge from writing to prompts. Such prompted poem may be good exercise, they might limber up the fingers, but they aren't in themselves musical. What would you rather listen to, a pianist practicing scales for an hour, or playing Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit"? I've read published books of "poem a day" poems, even by famous poets, which were dull yet self-congratulatory: look, I made it through the process.

The concern I have about poets writing to prompts is that it's addictive. It can so very easily become habitual rather than necessary. Some writers write to prompt, or some other tip idea, so often, sometimes just "to get the juices flowing," that they get into the bad habit of thinking that this is how writing is so supposed to be all the time. It promotes the idea about writing poetry that it is a conscious, craft-oriented, linear, left-brain practice. That writing a poem is like making a puzzle, then solving it. (Which typifies a great deal of bland workshop poetry that gets published these days.)

Writing a poem a day, for a week or a month, usually results in mid-level poems, not great ones. In an experienced poet's hands, you might not get crap, but you rarely get anything worth keeping, either. The reason you get mid-level poems is because you feel forced by necessity or agreement to write even when you feel dry, stale, and uninspired. Oh gods, I have to write a poem this morning, but I have nothing I want to write about; so I end up writing a poem about having nothing to write about; or I search frantically for some topical idea or kitchen sink moment. You write just to be able to say you have written a poem a day, not because you really wanted to.

The problem is, when you do feel the need to write about something, it can come out bland and stale, because you've been exercising too much. Any great athlete knows that you have to take a day off from practice, every so often, in order to achieve your peak performance. If you force yourself to write even when you feel dull, and what comes out is as dull as you feel, how can you expect yourself to write to a higher level when you've worn a groove in the carpet writing mid-level blandness? It becomes habitual.

A writer too in love with words can lose sight of the truth that words are cargo-carriers, not cargo themselves. A writer who gets too used to writing exercise, of whatever kind, can lose sight of the truth that five-finger exercises are not really musical. Etudes are not really musical compositions: they're pieces designed to improve performance dexterity so that when one plays a real piece of music one has the technical skill to do so. But dexterity exercises are not meant to be art, and rarely are. A writer who gets too used to writing to prompt can lose sight of that.

WRiting to prompt is a skill other than writing to inspiration.

Maybe I'm going on about this too long, but it's Really Important.

It's an aspect of a problem often discussed in writer's circles but rarely addressed: namely, that writing is not a math problem, nor is it problem-solving, nor is it simply the engineering of grammar and syntax. The only thing they can teach you in creative writing classes (seminars, workshops, tip websites, MFA programs)) is craft. They might be very good at teaching you your craft, but the one they can't teach a poet is inspiration, and having something to write about. The reason a lot of workshop poetry is bland is because it's written by young people whose whole lives have been spent in school: they haven't enough life-experience, yet, to really have anything to write about. Maybe in ten years after getting their MFA, they'll find a subject matter that their craft can serve. Many don't ever get to that point. (They do get published, though.)

Here's a writing exercise that many writers will be unable to do, or afraid to try:

For the next fifteen minutes, quietly observe the world around without describing it in words, even in your mind. For fifteen minutes, notice the sky, the sunlight, the way things look around wherever you are, and do not put it into words. Silence the inner narrative. Calm the continuous inner journalistic note-taking. Just be silent, inside as well as outside.

My observation is that most writers can't do this, even if they try. The practice of translating experience into words has become so habitual for these people, that it has become a crutch, a prop for their very sense of being.

On the other hand, I've observed that when a writer can succeed at this practice exercise, can be really non-word-focused for a period of time, when they come back to assembling words, their poems often contain a freshness, a depth, an appreciation for language that is no longer stale and habitual, but refreshed. Like taking a rest day, a vacation from one's habitual practices and patterns, to return to work later fully rested, relaxed, and refreshed.

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I have created a couple of decent pieces when writing to a given prompt but I don’t usually do my best work unless I’m invested in the writing. There have been loads of things people have been writing about of late – Japan for one – but if you’d asked me to write a poem about Japan I’d have given it a shot but it wouldn’t have been half as good as the one I did write. The fact is the poem wasn’t really inspired by Japan, rather it was by a comment someone made about it that gave me the opening line; from there it was easy. I never wrote about 9/11, not a word. I did write a short poem about the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales but it wasn’t her that piqued my interest but the millions of flowers that died on that day.

I’ve just made a comment on another site and referred to myself as a ‘gestator’ meaning that I’m a writer who thinks before he writes and usually thinks a lot. I used to fret about this but I’ve been working this way for a long time now and I’ve become comfortable/resigned to it: this is the kind of writer I am and there’s point wishing I was Proust.

2:04 AM  
Blogger David-Glen Smith said...

I half agree with the anti-prompt concept. Writing prompts are intended for a specific purpose and can became habitual.

However, in 2010 I set up an exercise to write 365 haiku, daily tests of observations and analysis. As the year comes to a close, I realize I did gain insight into my writing habits and practices. Because I knew that not every day would produce "book-worthy" poems, I could relax and just write about the day's events. Still, I would not recommend the process for every writer.

In the end, it depends on the expectations of the writer.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


I like "gestator" and your description of how it applies to you. I think that whatever mode you or anyone finds most natural to them is good. Probably the real secret is discovering that mode for ourselves, the most natural way that we ourselves write.

I'd have to call myself an intuitive writer. I listen a lot to those inner voices, and don't really have anything to write until I "hear" something. I don't really care if it comes from some inner psychological level, or from "inspiration"—there may be no real difference. (cf. Julian Jaynes, "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind")

I find myself unable to write to new events most of the time. I have written about 9/11 but it was a long time afterwards. I've been a student of japanese culture, and have written about Japan often before; I find myself in a sort of shocked numbness at the moment about everything going on there right now.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Don't get me wrong, I think writing exercises can be very useful, and writing prompts have been great for some people. Again, my concern is when they become too habitual or, as you say, create expectations.

Expectations are, frankly, the bane of most peoples' existence. Expectations are what cause almost as much suffering for people as does the question "Why"? (As in "Why me, Lord?" etc.)

I tend to think that in most matters in life, including writing, having no expectations is best. It may not always be possible—speaking of habits—and I find for myself that living day to day with no expectations is the only way I can live for now.

Your haiku-a-day exercise is an interesting one. As you know, I probably write more haiku than anything else. I write a lot of them when I'm traveling. Little micro-observations, or triggered moments of near-enlightenment. I'm glad the process was useful to you, and that you learned from it.

And I agree with you completely about not expecting every day to produce publication-worthy poems, and therefore just being able to relax and do it. I think that's a very healthy way to go about ANY kind of regular writing exercise.

My concern, again, is that I've noticed here and there that when some poets make their writing exercises too habitual, they start to believe that their every exercise-poem may be better than it is.

Again, don't get me wrong. There are great things about all kinds of writing exercises, great learning moments. it's just important to remember that they're etudes, not finished art, the vast majority of the time.

10:17 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home