Monday, May 30, 2011

Process of Writing 11: the Push

This past week I went up to visit my close friend and fellow artist Alex in the Twin Cities for four days. He is moving to New Mexico, and this was my last chance to see him in person, hang out, go out to dinner, lie on the couch together, before he leaves. It was a good visit, albeit intense and a bit of a rush. I helped him haul a load to give to the thrift store, and a few other errands.

I was tired when I got home, as it's a six hour drive, and so I spent a couple of days recovering and resting. Today it's gloriously, summery hot, with bright sunlight. I've been out in the garden pulling weeds and trimming back some overgrowth. My tulips are done; there were intensely beautiful this year. The lilies are about to start, and other things are also starting to flower, and will flower all summer long. I've designed the garden so there is color from spring through autumn. I was tired and dizzy earlier today, but then I realized I hadn't eaten yet and I also have been taking an antihistamine that might contribute to the dizziness. So I got some gardening done, and made a good dinner, and went to the store and got more of the other brand of antihistamine that I use.

I noticed that where I planted a patch of wildflowers last year, some have already returned. You have to be careful not to pull wildflowers thinking they're just weeds. So you have to wait an extra week, sometimes, to be sure. Which I waited till this week to weed the garden. Today I noticed that I have a beautiful columbine flower blooming in the wildflower patch, and the alyssum "carpet of snow" flowers are already coming up and starting to bloom. The lilies are huge and ready to bud soon: everywhere I had one or two lilies last year, they've split, and I now have four or five. It's going to be a glorious, colorful summer in the garden. I've already made several good flower photos from my garden this year, and I anticipate a very good summer for making new images.

When I was in the Twin Cities, then home afterwards, resting, I got almost no writing done. I did a lot of thinking about the new music commission, but the only real writing I got done was in the truck, while driving. As usual, being on the road loosens things up. I finished off the lyrics for two songs that had been waiting to be finished. I also got clear ideas on a couple of other songs, and made some notes, which I'll get back to later.

Distractions.

Since yesterday, though, I have been working hard on one song, which finally came into focus this week, and it's almost done. All I have to do is fill in the gaps in the piano and choral parts, the overall shape and frame is already there. It's an angry piece. It's the dark side of being born and raised in the Heartlands, where the shadow side of the tribal message is to stay in the closet, "conform to the norm," and engage in repression and self-censorship.

I am pushing hard to get as much of this commission done as I can in the next two weeks. I have a long list of things I need to get done before the surgery, which is now only a month away. Getting a lot of the music done is my main goal, secondary only to the goal of getting ready for the medical journey I'm about to go through. I feel a bit scattered, with a long list of Things To Do. If I get a little bit done every day, though, I'll somehow muddle through.



Somebody asked me recently how I write, and in thinking about it, I clarified the point that I don't write in a linear fashion. For example, for this commission, I don't write the first song start to finish, then the second song, etc. I write wherever I feel like writing. It's typical to work on up to three songs at the same time, for this commission project. It's typical to switch back and forth, and write all day on the one that most catches my interest that day. I will write a section first that might come near the end of a piece. Then other sections.

The process of finishing a piece in final score sometimes means copying it over one last time, and stitching all the pieces together into a coherent whole. Nobody ever seems to see the seams. Some part of me knows all the pieces, has an overview, even if I mostly focus on the sections at first. Usually the piece in the end is coherent and unified, as it should be.

Breaking it up keeps me fresh. I might jump around between three pieces, writing parts of all of them in one session. It's only when I'm really one a role, and a single piece has developed its own momentum that I find myself giving it all my attention. What catches my interest on any given day is what I work on. The rest will be there waiting when I get back to it.

I find this way of working congenial in part because it minimizes blocks, or moment of getting stuck. if you're stuck and don't know what to do about one section, go off an work on another part of the piece. Many times, the "problem" solves itself, and I suddenly see (it feels like being gifted) how the problem section is supposed to work, how it fits together, and I go back to it to finish.

Some artists find this method of working chaotic and unsystematic. It's not truly unsystematic, it's just a different species of system: nonlinear rather than linear. Some writers of fiction work this way, too.

The only artform is which I do seem to start at the beginning and work through to the end is poetry. But the poem itself might be nonlinear, jumping around as the lamp of consciousness and awareness jumps around. I do write poems from the first line through to the last line, most of the time. The nature of the word-based artform of making a poem seems to call for that. But the mind within the poem, the lamp of consciousness, may be quite nonlinear. I do get criticisms about doing this from the left-brain poets, those who think that writing is an act of will rather than of listening. But such criticisms mean less and less to me every year, as time goes by, and experience shows that my way of creative writing actually produces good results.

More than one linear-minded poet has told me that they cannot understand or approve of the way I write poems, but they cannot find any fault with the resulting poems. (A sideways compliment if ever there was one: that we can't find anything to complain about, even though we believe we should have found something. Such criticisms are to laughed away into the wastebasket they deserve.)

The bottom line in your own creative process is really very simple: If it works for you, if it produces the results you want, or better than those, there's nothing wrong with your method, no matter how eccentric it appears to others. The creative mind is often an unconventional and rule-breaking mind. More precisely, a rule-ignoring mind. It's not about "thinking outside the box," it's more like not even noticing that there was a box. "There's a box?" The most creative people I've met in my life have all been of this type: "There's a box?" it's good example to keep in mind on those occasions where you start to second-guess yourself, or doubt your own creative process. If you trust nothing else, trust your creative process.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I can only think of one writer who consistently worked in a non-linear fashion and that's Nabokov with his index cards. I tend not to. I think if I was a plotter I might where I was just filling-in the novel (colouring-in with words?) but I usually don’t have much of a clue where my books and stories are going and that’s the fun of it. It’s frustrating and scary at times but it’s never boring. I think that writing a plotted novel must be such a chore. That said, I keep finding myself thinking about plots and a part of me is tempted to take some classic like Romeo and Juliet and write my West Side Story. (For the record it would never be Romeo and Juliet. I did a spoof of it when I was about nineteen and the play has never been the same for me since.) I don’t have much problem thinking outside the box – as you say, “There’s a box?” – because I don’t have a creative writing qualification. I’ve just read books and taken on board what I’ve read and tried not to overanalyse or make too many of my own rules to take the place of the ones I never learned in the first place.

4:54 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That speaks to the "amateur" nature of writing for one's own pleasure and discovery. Amateur is a great word, a word rooted literally in "amor" or love of doing something. to be an amateur writer is to be devoted to writing but without all the baggage of expectations and craft that the "professional writer" thinks needs to be carried around.

I wish more writers had the amateur attitude, and went off to explore what interested them, and wrote in styles they wanted to write in, rather than what they expected to be able to sell. It could radically change the face of fiction writing for the better.

10:19 AM  

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