Monday, July 30, 2012

Not Feeling Like It, But Doing It Anyway

Whatever "it" may be.

There's a lot of sentiment and tribal-level excuses of mediocrity that float around as "memes," you know, those viral posters and quote sayings you find everywhere on the internet, especially on social media like FaceBook. Mostly they go about as deep as they go wide.

In an interview with poet William Bronk, the question is inevitably asked, "How do you work?" It's a question everyone always wants to know the answer to, although the answer almost always remains mysterious. The creative process is more like green growing things than engineering, after all: there are always elements of unpredictability and unknowing.

Interviewer: How much do you revise?

William Bronk:
I revise very little. And the revisions are not really re-writings at all. In most workshops and creative writing classes you’re advised to re-write and re-write. If the poem isn’t there there’s no point in trying to write it. And if the poem is there, leave it alone. Very frequently I think that I’m improving something. I make the improvements and then the next day realize that it was right the first time. Leave it alone.


Awhile ago, I objected to a poet telling a classroom workshop that it takes maybe sixty drafts to complete a poem. I still think that's the most wrongheaded, stupidest piece of writing advice ever given to a classroom of poets. William Bronk would very likely agree with me. Based on what he says here, that is, which closely echoes my own experience and practice.

I just returned home from a three-week roadtrip, and, following the usual couple of days of resting after the last push of driving, find myself ready to re-engage and re-assess. This roadtrip I didn't write as much as I usually do. I barely wrote at all in the journal. I wrote a few song lyrics, one finished one plus several fragments. I wrote bits and pieces of reflective writing and posted them on FaceBook.

(Yes, I've finally joined FaceBook. I resisted for years, but then joined a couple of months ago. My rationale is that I am basically using it as a tool of self-marketing for the music composition and photography businesses. It's actually part of my business plan. Nonetheless, you won't catch me posting what I'm having for dinner, or with who, unless it's related to arts business. I do find FB convenient for short-form blogging, quick and easy and usually only a couple of paragraphs. And yes, I do admit its usefulness for connecting with people I'm working with on various current projects.)

The first part of the trip was all about going to the quadrennial GALA Festival, and both listening to lots of choral music and featuring the premiere at GALA of my own piece Heartlands. I'm pleased to say that all went very well. There were a few minor logistical problems involving my personal post-surgery disabilities, but overall it was a fantastic, positive experience. One or two concerts blew me away. And my own concert was all I'd hoped for, and more. (More on all that as I have time to integrate and write about it.)

The latter part of the roadtrip, I mostly focused on making video and photographs. Frankly. after the run-up to the concert premieres of Heartlands, and GALA, I was mentally drained, emotionally burned out, physically exhausted, spiritually tired, I was coming down from months of stress, and pretty blank some days. There was also grieving involved, as one of my best friends, Erick Jonasson, died very suddenly, at too young an age, and for no really good reason. We, his friends, are all reeling from that. All of this colored the last part of the roadtrip, and even though I captured some very good video and photography (I believe) during the rest of the roadtrip, I was often either blank or overly-emotional, and just wanted to get home. I even cut short some of my planned stops in National Parks, as they were just too much to take on, and I needed to get home. The last two full days of long drives were no more than a blur, to be endured, and I wrote very little. Erick was the person who once pointed out to me that I do some of my best thinking, and writing, on these roadtrips out into the West; and that remains true. Yet the end of this trip consisted of coming down from the incredible stresses and joys and excitements and terrors of preceding months, and also reeling from Erick's passing over. So I wasn't as fruitful as usual while on the road. I was ready to be home, this time.

It doesn't matter. Here I am, getting back on that horse, doing things this week because they must be done, not because I want to do them. Actually, I do want to do things. I do want to stay busy. I know that keeping busy making art is one of my best ways to cope, as well as to process and integrate events. Things are changing in my life, and I have a business plan, and I still have a lot of Things To Do. (Patience, patience.)

But it also doesn't matter that this roadtrip wasn't a "vacation." It was never intended to be one. Yes, I did seek out and find some recharging solitary time out in the desert silence. Yes, I did have a successful concert at GALA. Yes, I did bring home new video footage and many new photographs. All of these are on the level of a "working vacation." Part of the overall business plan. So I wasn't just taking a vacation, and I had never planned to.

What this was, and this was only intensified after GALA, was pilgrimage. My roadtrips tend to be pilgrimages much more than vacations. I'm not even sure that I can take a vacation, except in small moments here and there. I recall that John D. McDonald had his character Travis McGee state that he intended to retire as frequently as possible. I get my vacations on those moments when I stop and do nothing. They last minutes or hours, and like the Zen masters encourage us to do, that's all that I am doing in those moments. It's active, not passive. I am for those moments actively doing nothing. And that is my vacation recharge. Then I get back in the saddle and ride on, metaphorically and often literally.

I have more to integrate, and write about, regarding this most recent roadtrip. And about GALA. And about Erick—who I hear laughing at me, somewhere there from the Summerlands. I hear him laughing at me because of some of the work he has now left me to do. (Gee, thanks.) I am not grudging, I am willing. It's all part of the new fabric.

And I realize: some fundamental things in my life are in the process of changing, or already have. My second night home I dreamed of the desert, of lightning and rain, and of the gods and heroes that ride the rainbow. Whatever journey begins now, here and now, for once I feel little fear but mostly anticipation.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think it depends on what the writing is. My poetry is always brief. I have many poems that are only one or two sentences long and, yes, they’re worded with care but once you’ve committed to a particular direction a poem can only be as good as it’s going to be within those limits. It feels like I revise the prose more because there are so many more sentences. I know that sounds simplistic but I think that’s what it boils down to for me. That said even with the prose I rarely scrap big chunks. I edit them with care and read them over and over again to ensure a smooth flow from beginning to end but I’ve never really understood the whole first draft, second draft, third draft way of working. About twelve years ago, much to my great surprise since I hadn’t written a short story since I was at school, I sat down and wrote about fifty of the buggers one after another over maybe a three month period. I spent a long time tidying them up but there was only normally the one draft, the one write; no rewrites. Now I’m editing them with a view to publishing them next year. I’m hacking away at all the ‘actuallys’, the ‘justs’, the ‘thats’ and the ‘seems’; I’m checking my spellings (a helluva lot of two words where there should be one), my punctuation and grammar obviously. Where does editing end and proofreading begin? Can’t say I’ve ever been that clear or care that much. By the end will I have gone through every story sixty times? Maybe. Quite likely. But do those count as sixty drafts? Not in my book.

I also learned of the death of an old friend recently. I stumbled across a site where some kind soul had posted class photos from 1974 which was my last year at school. One of these showed a girl called Alison who was the first girl I even fell in love with. I would have been about eleven at the time but I never quite fell out of love with her. So I thought I would see if I could find her and I did. I found her obituary. She had died just over a year earlier. She would have been maybe fifty-two. I had just showed her picture to my wife and then a few minutes later I had to tell her she was dead. That made me terribly sad and I couldn't shake it for about three days. I just trawled through websites looking at picture and videos of my hometown until the ache wore off. She was not the first to die—the first was a suicide which was sad in a different kind of way—but I got a real sense of ‘It’s beginning’ with Alison’s death. I’m sorry you lost your friend too.

That said this is the most positive you’ve sounded for a while. That’s good to hear.

4:32 AM  
Blogger David-Glen Smith said...

Regarding rewrites and redrafting:
As a composition instructor I am used to students typing out their work an hour before it is due. This is NOT a good thing. The material turned in is sad. As you can well imagine.

With that logic in mind, a poet needs to shape their ideas slowly, and sometimes redraft the work in order to tighten up erratic line breaks and strengthen phrases and enhance vocabulary to achieve the finalized results.

Now. I am also the type of writing who will only draft out a piece and change merely a word or two, or rearrange a line or two. A year later I will rearrange a "finalized" piece and scrap all original thoughts.

In terms of the example you gave, in a workshop/classroom scene, the point in getting people to rewrite their work is to encourage the notion that their material is not perfect at the moment the pen stops moving on the page. Instinctual writing does NOT work for everyone. For very few people in fact. Even William Carlos Williams and Charles Bukowski reworked in some fashion their most "basic" and "minimalistic" writings.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, I think it does depend on what the writing is, yes, and I certainly agree that prose needs to be rewritten in a way that poetry does not. Prose also needs to adhere to grammatical and syntactical rules that poetry does not, nor should it; in fact, on of the aspects of poetry that I encourage is a gleeful disrespect of the rules of prose. Poets who tell us that poetry needs to follow the rules of prose writing have completely missed the boat, and are probably writing prose, anyway, even if it's broken into arbitrary lines.

I've never had any ambition for writing prose, or much interest in it. I've written a few short stories, and I like the short story form. I think the novella is a perfect length for storytelling, and I wish more novelists would write in that length, because if you were allowed to edit many longer novels published these days, you could arguably trim them down to novella length and they'd be better works.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

D-G, I've been through poetry workshops myself, so I'm not unfamiliar with them. Nonetheless, even though I agree that most of the time "first thought, best thought" usually produces mediocre results, especially for beginning writers, when rewriting endlessly one reaches a point of diminishing returns. The whole idea of revision and rewriting is not what I'm opposed to, but if you can't get it worked out in a few drafts, you're probably not going to. Rewriting sixty drafts falls into the category of obsessive rather than productive—which is precisely what I said when I wrote my earlier response to such advice. I stand by my opinion that obsessive revision does more harm than good.

And then there's this: Stanley Kunitz, for example, towards the end of life does not need to rewrite or redraft many of his poems, because he has been writing so long that the almost-finished poem emerges on the page without needing much, or any, revision. In other words, experience matters.

Experience in writing, and being able to write, and following our own inner writer's compass, takes us much further than workshops ever can. At some point, one needs to cease attending workshops, which after all are focused on beginning rather than experienced writers, and strike out on one's own.

For those of us who neither teach nor study within the academic halls, or the halls of writers' workshops, who have always been independent (for whatever initial reason or cause), belonging to a writers' group, or attending a workshop, can indeed help us hone our craft. But craft is in the service of inspiration, and cannot survive on its own.

Which is the other reason I think doing too many drafts is a problem, because you can kill the source of your inspiration by drowning it in the minutiae of craft. Workshops can only teach ONE thing: craft. Actually having something that's worth saying is something they cannot address—something which comes mainly from experience, not education.

1:06 PM  

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