It’s funny how people can be so interested in the artistic process of writers, artists and composers. I don’t know of anyone who asks about the process used by auto mechanics or plumbers, but they should. To those unfamiliar with what goes under the hood of a car, auto mechanics are akin to shamans or wizards.
The mechanic’s goal is to make 1500 pounds of metal, plastic, chemicals and computer chips magically roar to life, stop, drive and take us to our destinations in a climate-controlled setting replete with easy-chair like seats and musical entertainment. When the car won’t start or makes a weird noise or hesitates when accelerating, whatever, we drop the car at the mechanic’s shop and try to explain. Often the mechanic-wizard will shake his or her head and say “ahhh, yes” and then tell you when it will be ready. If the problem isn’t as clear, we get “we’ll let’s take a look and we’ll call later with an estimate.” We don’t know what they do during that time, only that they say something complex like “the third torque-widget has worn and become disconnected from the flamox requiring a new widget and flingbat.” We say hmmm, hmmm, ask for the price, express initial shock and then say “sure, go ahead.”
When you learn about mechanics, however, things are usually a little less convoluted. Any mechanic will tell you that engine issues are always some variation on air-fuel-spark. If one of those things is off, the engine won’t start, run, stop, accelerate, etc. Today, of course, many mechanics plug the car into the computer and it tells them what’s wrong. But most cars still run on internal combustion and need the same air-fuel and spark that the first Model T’s used. Barring computers, though, a good mechanic will walk through a particular process to confirm or eliminate parts of the engine as culprits: is fuel getting to the engine? Is the system letting air into the carburetor, injectors, cylinders? Is there electricity to turn the starter? Is there spark getting to the coil and the spark plugs? A seasoned, inspired mechanic may have seen many symptoms over the years an may intuit a solution based on smell, sound, initial symptoms. But this is only wizardry if you are unfamiliar with such things.
I think it’s a little that way with art and writing. At writing conferences, I’ve seen novice writers ask accomplished and famous writers all manner of questions in an attempt to find the secret to those writer’s success and ability to move readers and create magic. Do you write on a pc or a mac? What program do you use? Do you write in the morning or at night? What writers do you read? What books about writing do you read? What kind of job should a writer have? Do you outline or develop as you go? Free verse or rhyme? Do you drink when you write? Red wine or white? Varietal? What sort of whiskey do you drink? Cat or dog? What sort of paper do you use? Revise on the screen or on the paper. What music do you listen to when writing? And on and on. There’s a persistent need to see writers, like talented mechanics, as something special because they have some special way of doing things that others don’t have. To be honest, I sorta like this approach. It’s neat to have someone look at you as if you’re holding a special wisdom of the universe, a key mystery. Maybe a little of that is true, but most writers will tell you that you gotta write.
Well, that’s not all of it, but it’s an important part. You can’t drink Jameson, buy a 1932 Remington typewriter, a cat named Fergus, rise at 5:30 and sit at an old oak desk facing east wearing Egyptian cotton pyjamas and listening to AlanHovhaness and suddenly find that you’ve written Ulysses or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
But Creative Pinellas wants me to write about my own process. It’s often different for prose and for poetry and I find that my day job—writing, lit and humanities professor at St. Petersburg College—often gets in the way of my writing. Sometimes I write along with my students and that helps, but all of the procedural things that go along with a busy job make it hard to put my head in the space that allows one to pay attention to the little thoughts (some say this is the Muse) calling for attention: “hey, the dead squirrel you picked up off the street rather than let it rot and be seen by children walking home . . . what’s up with that? Maybe you should write about that.” When cutting the grass, I left an island of fog fruit (or frog fruit), which many just see as weeds, alone and allowed it prosper. Butterflies seem to flock to it, it seems a microcosm of something, something larger about my life, my existence in my neighborhood, about paying attention to the small things in life. But sitting down to write about this when I have to remember to pay a bill or grade a raft of essays or call back Mr. Soandso, is challenging to say the least. Students of literature have often read about English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge having a bad headache and taking a dose of laudanum of opium (no aspirin or ibuprofen in those days), falling asleep and having this amazing dream. On waking, he began to write “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure dome decree” and began to flesh out the wild and exciting things he’d seen in his dream. Then someone knocked on his door. A man from the neighboring town of Porlock had to see him about some mundane business. When Coleridge got back to his work, the rest of his dream was gone. No one remembers what boring stuff this guy from Porlock had to discuss. I’m most thankful that the Rapid Returns grant has given me time so that I can focus on those things the muse keeps whispering. Not only that, but for a few months, I can allow myself to follow those thoughts in ways that I cannot when I’m focused on more mundane things.
Ironically, mundane things are often the writer’s friend. Clint Eastwood (and many others) say that they get their best ideas in the shower. I don’t think this has much to do with soap and water, but instead on focusing one part of the mind on something fairly simple and physical so the other part can deal with the world of symbol, imagination and myth. I love doing carpentry, auto repair (the only computer in my 1966 Ford truck is in the car stereo), cycling, fishing, sailing. All of those things require one to focus one part of the mind on the task at hand but allow the other parts of the mind to roam and look for connections among seemingly unconnected things. If you don’t pay attention when you’re riding your bike, you’ll run off the trail, or worse. Working on the truck makes one think in terms of spatial relationships. Sailing requires attention to sail trim wind, other boats, weather. So, I do things like this instead of sitting and trying to think Deep Thoughts. But I’m most productive when I do plan time to sit in front of the computer and either draft of revise. That’s when those thoughts come together. And sometimes you can’t wait to write them down so you have to stop what you’re doing and pay attentionto the Muse, like a cat who jumps on your chest or the dog with her cold nose who says we need to play ball now! That’s perhaps the hardest thing for many writers who have other responsibilities—allowing that the writing is important and that it’s okay, that it’s necessary, to write that poem about fogfruit, the essay about the dead squirrel, instead of returning that call, or filling out those forms, or whatever.
In an upcomingpost, I’ll talk more about the actual process of writing and how it works for me.