Artistic process

Living in Two Worlds: On the Mechanical and the Creative

            I’ve always been someone who’s lived in two worlds, and perhaps that’s the definition of a writer.  In high school, I was as interested in fishing and carpentry as I was in reading books.  When I was a junior, I was seriously considering one of three major career fields: astronomy, cabinet/furniture making or journalism/literature.  In college, I could never choose between a focus on literature or creative writing.  While these two fields are closely related, in the world of academe, there are some major differences.  So I completed the requirements for both.  For my master’s degree, I focused on creative writing—poetry.  For my Ph.D., I concentrated on American literature.  When I moved into my working class neighborhood, I got along well with my next door neighbor, a master carpenter, who is generous with his knowledge and helps me as I do repairs and projects.  It’s not that he has to tell me everything, as I am a competent (casual) carpenter, rather he lends the wisdom of experience and expertise.  I’ll help him out with work on his truck, for he doesn’t know much about auto mechanics (and I do) in return for his hanging doors or other work.  We collaborated on reroofing both of our houses ten years ago.  I had probably lived next door to him for 2-3 years before he asked “man, what do you do?”  “College English professor” was probably not the first thing he expected.  Same with the folks across the street, who like my ’66 Ford pickup and have come over now and then when they see the hood up or the truck up on jackstands and me pulling the front suspension apart.

            Every year, after I finish my spring classes, I seem to fall into the same pattern.  While I’ve jonesed all year to have time to write, once my grades are submitted and I have some time open, I’m focused on doing the most physical, mechanical, non-academic sorts of things possible.  I dive into a project on my truck.  I rip planks of walnut and begin fitting together a cradle for my neice’s new baby.  I build a flag box out of mahogany for my late father-in-law’s burial flag.  I throw my cast net for mullet. 

            I once thought that maybe I was sliding towards the non-thinking side of the scale as an antidote for too much cerebral work—a healthy dose of carpentry to counteract too much modernist American poetry scholarship, replacing worn bushings on the pickup to balance the work of developing assignments and syllabi.  Over the years, however, I’ve learned that there are really many different sorts of intelligence and that, for me at least, a balance between those types of intelligence are important to my work.

            There’s something important about the mechanical/spatial sort of intelligence.  And it’s different from the logical-intellectual sort of intelligence.  When I took the ASVAB in high school, the results said I’m supposed to be an Army truck mechanic.  I guess they weren’t too far from accurate.  If you’re not a mechanical type, take your car to a good mechanic when you have a vexing problem and see if you can follow his or her thinking.  Or if you’re trying to learn an instrument, watch how your teacher accomplishes the same skills with which you’re struggling.  A good literature professor can bring a poem or story or novel to life and it’s amazing to watch those mental gymnastics make obvious what was there, seemingly hidden, all along.

            Okay, so maybe this is all an excuse for why the early weeks of this blog were so spare.  When I finished my summer classes and found that I’d been awarded a Rapid Returns grant, I was elated.  And I began tearing the front suspension off a parts truck I’d purchased cheap so I could put disk brakes on my 66 pickup.  For days, I’d come in, drenched in sweat, wearing my stained t-shirts and shorts, hands covered in grease and feel guilty about not writing.  I’d trim the trees in the back yard, carry big branches on my shoulder, live in the world of loam and sawdust and come inside to shower, dirty and sweaty and guilty about not writing.  As always happens, eventually, I would wake and have my coffee and feel that all I wanted to do was write, to work out the images, symbols, characters, settings rolling through my head.  Some people say that some of that stuff needs to “percolate” until one is ready to write, but for me, there’s some necessary balance between the physical-mechanical and the creative-intellectual.  If I emphasize one thing, I starve the other.  I sometimes envy my daughter her cello playing, for it combines the physical elements of her fingers on the fingerboard, her hand on the bow and all the purely mechanical essential elements of getting sounds from the instrument along with the musicality and expression and artistry which is also required.  She has it all in one package.  I pick up my guitar and strum or pick a little sometimes, but that’s not my main thing.  Similarly, I envy my fellow Rapid Returns artists who get busy with their hands and heads at the same time as they get dirty with clay and paint and sweat on stage. 

            Yesterday, I wrote 1000 words for a novel I’m working on and rearranged the scenes in it.  My protagonist is a pilot . . . and a mechanic.

Inner and Outer Storms

Last night, a powerful thunderstorm rolled through Hillsborough and northern Pinellas counties.  Shawna and I saw it building as we were pulling grass out of the fogfruit in the front yard.  By the time we were having dinner, thunder was cracking and lightning was flashing and a warning banner ran across the bottom of the TV screen on the Weather Underground  channel.  On the table was a copy of Pinyon's 20th anniversary issue, with my poem, "Late Trail" in it.  I reread the poem and then passed it to my wife, as it had been a good ten years since she'd read that poem which I wrote at the Hambidge Center in Georgia.  That poem had been making the rounds for at least that long.  We had been talking about our daughter, Carly, who is playing her cello at the Philadelphia International Music Festival for the next two weeks.

I lay out all of the random stuff in the above paragraph as a way of charting the genesis of the poem below.  As usual, a poem comes from a variety of ingredients that seem to come together at one place and time: storm, poem, daughter, father's death in the background.  Rereading "Late Trail" probably had me thinking in terms of myth and symbol so the storm was likely making some sort of connections beyond just the concerns listed in the TV warning.  Discussion about my daughter had me thinking about her and stuff we'd done together, and that led to the memory of sitting on the tailgate of my pickup with her watching a storm.  As I tried to remember the details of that day, I remembered that the truck was in the garage of the house we rented back then because the timing chain had eaten through the timing cover and coolant had forced its way into the cylinders.  I'd called my dad and he'd agreed to come down to help me diagnose the problem, which we both figured was a cracked block or cylinder head.  So Dad came down and we tore the engine down, figured out the problem and Dad left when it was clear I knew how to reassemble the engine.  Ten years later,   I would find that failed timing cover when I went through my father's stuff after he'd died.  I'd put a clock in it and a note thanking him along with a picture of the project.

 So, I had the connection of the memory of my dead father with the experience of watching the storm with Carly.  As I drafted, I began to be aware of the connection of the father-child relationship in the poem.  My dad had come down to help me understand something (the engine) as he always seemed to know something about engines even though we never really worked on cars when I was a kid.  When Carly sat on the bed of the truck with the storm raging outside, she did so with a confidence that if her dad was doing it, it must be okay.  Further, the experiences I had with my dad and with my daughter were both silent experiences.  So here's the draft.  Y'all hear?  Draft, draft.  My wife says it's good, but she's kind with my drafts and I know it will need work.  But I think it has good bones.   (It should be single-spaced but I'm having problems pasting it in that way).

Prospero as Mechanic
The pickup was in the garage and the tailgate was down.
Parts of the engine were arrayed in the bed:
intake manifold, cylinder head, timing chain.
The block was still where it belonged.
My father had driven down from Pensacola
to help me tear it down and diagnose the problem.
None of us knew then that he would be dead
in another ten years.  We had found the cracked
timing cover that let coolant into the engine,
not unlike his bad heart valve that would do him in.
All I had to do was reassemble the engine
so he left again for Pensacola.
But here is what I remember:
a thunderstorm came in late one afternoon,
when it should have been sunset
and I sat with my own daughter, who was maybe three,
on the bed of the truck.  She looked up at me
standing there at the kitchen door
while wind blew and thunder came after
lightning and the rain came down in heavy drops
just outside the open door to the garage.
She and I sat there, as if tempting something
dangerous and terrible, and I knew
that sitting next to me she feared neither
electricity nor thunder, as if my own spells
could keep the deadly world at bay.


Writing Process, Fogfruit, Dead Squirrels, Auto Mechanics

My 1966 F100 Ford pickup.  

My 1966 F100 Ford pickup.  

            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.

     Samuel Taylor Coleridge

     Samuel Taylor Coleridge

            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.