2021-11-06 07:30

I’m a week into Nanowrimo 2021 and it’s just like old times: I’m behind in my word count, I have no idea what I’m doing, and I want to quit and keep going.

(Update 11/10: …and I’m out. Other things have proved more important, and the writing I need to do is not about word count or bulk.)

2021-10-31 10:30

“It was 20 Years Ago Today…”

My first Nanowrimo was twenty years ago, 2001. I stumbled onto it a few days into it, maybe the 4th or 5th, by way of a post on someone’s long-lost blog. I jumped right in with no forethought, blind to plot or progression. I crashed and burned a few weeks later when I was knocked out by a bad flu. But I managed thirty-five thousand words in a bit over two weeks. Not bad.

It was a comfort during those dangerously stupid first months of the stupidly dangerous Post-9/11 age. The shambling mess I wrote that month became the kernel of a long, sprawling divagation that has preoccupied me now and again ever since.

I participated most years between 2001 and 2009, winning in 2005. The Teens have been much more sporadic. According to my records, I attempted it only in 1013, ’17, and ’18. I’m not sure I’ll do it this year. If I do, it will probably be a half-nano, aiming only for 24k, just for kicks.

2021-08-26 06:41

Awhile back, I finished reading a book that left me wrecked for any book that might follow it. It doesn’t matter what the book was; I want to talk about this liminal moment. I have a term for it: book freefall — I’m out of the just-finished book’s universe, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I want more, I can’t have it, and I don’t know where to go next.

Often I’ll know, even before finishing it, that the current book will leave me bereft. I will do what I know many people do: slow down to delay that last page, to keep that pinch of final pages from thinning too quickly. And every so often, I’ll find myself in a book freefall so precipitous, so massive, that there seems to be absolutely no book that could possibly follow the one I just finished. In those cases, I know I can’t really do anything other than give myself over to a binge rewatch of some old favorite TV show; let a few days or weeks go by; allow the next book (or books) to quietly, slowly, choose me.

Now, this particular book freefall was unusual because of how utterly unexpected it was. Although I found the just-finished book extremely engaging, entertaining, and demanding, I did not at any point suspect it would leave me reeling as it did. I have no idea why. Its impact truly caught me by surprise.

2021-08-20 07:56

Bachelard, The Poetics of Space:

If we were to give the imagination its due in the philosophical systems of the universe, we should find, at their very source, an adjective. Indeed, to those who want to find the essence of a world philosophy, one could give the following advice — look for its adjective.

(see also)

2021-08-18 06:00

WS Merwin, Introduction to Second Four Books of Poems:

…poetry like speech itself is made out of paradox, contradiction, irresolvables … It uses comparision to speak of what cannot be compared. It cannot be conscripted even into the service of good intentions.

2021-08-01 07:40

A poem sequence I wrote in the late ’90s has just appeared in the newest Otoliths.

2021-07-17 07:40

John Cage, Silence:

In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers it’s not boring at all but very interesting.

2021-07-07 17:00

A very old poem of mine, called Elegy, was published today in the “inaugural expo” of Cool Rock Repository. It’s so odd to think that this poem is finally seeing the light of day after living in my files for nearly thirty years.

2021-06-04 06:00

Laurie Anderson, Spending the War Without You:

I have to tell you: in theses lectures, I’m not going to be explaining my work or describing who I am as an artist. In fact, I don’t care if you know who I am.

I’ve never really tried to express myself through my work. It’s more about curiosity, about how things are, what they are.

Plus, I’ve really made an effort for most of my life to just get rid of the idea of being anyone at all.

(From Pt 1: The River @ ±7:30–50)

2021-05-12 08:00

Happy birthday to Lorine Niedeker and Katharine Hepburn.

2021-04-27 06:45

John Ruskin:

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.

2021-04-25 09:00

In the months since writing my response to this interview question, I’ve seen several references to extremely similar writing prompts — a typically synchronistic example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

In the Kenyon Review (from 3/2021), Michael Montlack speaks of Dorianne Laux & Joe Millar’s method of “making a list of words, throwing in a quote or fact or phrase, and taking an hour to write a draft.”

And in the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter (from 10/2020), Valerie Coulton describes Edward Smallfield’s process that “consists of a personalized postcard with four words and a quote. He used to pass these out in workshops, and then everyone would write for 15 minutes.”

I’m not surprised to see randomness and chance being integrated into writing prompts, but now I’m curious to find out what the provenance is of Rita Dove’s exercise, which I’ve been using on and off for about twenty years.

process writing
2021-04-23 09:05

The last post is up in my mini interview.

It’s the shocking season finale!

To save our gang’s favorite hang-out from foreclosure, I must perform a thrilling leap on water skis over a shark tank. And in the audio commentary, I talk about what I’m currently working on.

process poetry interview
2021-04-17 11:00

General George C. Marshall:

There is no limit to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.

2021-04-16 09:15

The fourth post in my poetry mini interview is up.

In this week’s musical episode, Hal Holbrook — fresh off his Tony award-winning run as the Mysterious Stranger — joins the cast to sing about adjectives. Performed and broadcast live!

process poetry interview
2021-04-15 07:45

(This reply was part of a conversation on Micro.blog in January 2019. I’m re-posting it here as a matter of storing it on my own server. See also this post, from October 2020. And also this interview.)

The drive to write can be due to the need to express oneself, but I’ve found that over-reliance on “expression” as a motivator plays into the mystical idea that poets are supposed to be “inspired,” which all too often leads to stasis and frustration.

If you wait to be inspired, you’ll be waiting a long time. And when you finally are inspired, you’ll have had no practice, and the product will fall far short of the ideal in your head. No one thinks they can simply be inspired to write a song and, never having played before, just pick up a guitar and boom: a song. So why would writing be any different? Well, I believe it’s because we think we’re practicing all the time, by virtue of using language to, well, talk.

That is, many of us think that writing is the same as talking — and, even more so, that writing is the same as communicating. But poetry isn’t exclusively about communication or expression. (Of course, neither is speech, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

A poem is an event made out of sounds — sounds which just happen to be human language. A writer makes words do things beyond their usual scope, and this takes practice. It also takes a lot of research — that is, reading — to see what other writers have managed to do with words.

If you learn to work the raw materials, you’ll be better prepared for when you are inspired. And you may eventually discover that the joy of working the raw materials is enough.

process writing
2021-04-10 07:00

Joseph Brodsky (via):

Pushkin called translators “the post-horses of enlightenment.” If we take this metaphor to its logical conclusion (which is always dangerous), we should note that horses run as hard as they can only when a whip is whistling over them.

Or when they’re free.

2021-04-10 06:34

Brian Eno:

Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit — all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.

2021-04-09 09:15

And here is the third post in my ongoing poetry mini interview.

In this “very special” episode — animated, in homage to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — I wonder how I know when a poem is finished. Grace Paley guest-stars.

process poetry interview
2021-04-07 10:00

Aase Berg (via):

Shit on your readers, shit on acknowledgment. Poetry is not about making connections. You don’t need to be understood, you don’t even need to understand yourself. Poetry is only research into the unfathomable.

2021-04-02 09:00

The second post in my five-part “poetry mini interview” is live.

In this week’s exciting episode — groundbreaking in its use of CGI — I answer the question, “What poets changed the way you thought about writing?” Special appearance by the late John Engman in a flashback.

Check it out here.

process poetry interview
2021-03-30 09:00

Alison Gopnik (via):

But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

2021-03-27 10:15

What if you asked me a question and I just asked another question in reply? Or a bunch of questions? Would you find it annoying? Why would I do something like that? To be clever and rhetorical, or coy and evasive?

Here is the genre-defying pilot: part one of my poetry mini interview. One question a week for five weeks.

process poetry interview
2021-03-23 10:00

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (pp 1000–01):

“We will buy it all up,” making the expected arm gesture, “all this country. Money speaks, the land listens, where the Anarchist skulked, where the horse-thief plied his trade, we fishers of Americans will cast our nets of perfect ten-acre mesh, leveled and varmint-proofed, ready to build on. Where alien muckers and jackers went creeping after their miserable communistic dreams, the good lowland townsfolk will come up by the netful into these hills, clean, industrious, Christian, while we, gazing out over their little vacation bungalows, will dwell in top-dollar palazzos befitting our station, which their mortgage money will be paying to build for us. When the scars of these battles have long faded, and the tailings are covered in bunchgrass and wildflowers, and the coming of the snows is no longer the year’s curse but its promise, awaited eagerly for its influx of moneyed seekers after wintertime recreation, when the shining strands of telpherage have subdued every mountainside, and all is festival and wholesome sport and eugenically-chosen stock, who will be left anymore to remember the jabbering Union scum, the frozen corpses whose names, false and in any case, have gone forever unrecorded? who will care that once men fought as if an eight-hour day, a few coins more at the end of the week, were everything, were worth the merciless wind beneath the shabby roof, the tears freezing on a woman’s face worn to dark Indian stupor before its time, the whining of children whose maws were never satisfied, whose future, those who survived, was always to toil for us, to fetch and feed and nurse, to ride the far fences of our properties, to stand watch between us and those who would intrude or question?” He might usually have taken a look at Foley, attentive back in the shadows. But Scarsdale did not seek out the eyes of his old faithful sidekick. He seldom did anymore. “Anarchism will pass, its race will degenerate into silence, but money will beget money, grow like the bluebells in the meadow, spread and brighten and gather force, and bring low all before it. It is simple. It is inevitable. It has begun.”

pynchon commonplace
2021-03-19 11:00

Something interesting is happening with my daily chance ops poems: I’m not actually doing them daily. Instead, I put it off for as much as a week, then write anywhere from three to eight of them in a row, in quick succession.

I am still sticking to my plan of not looking back at any of them until I have at least fifty written (six to go, if my count is right), so I can’t say if each poem feels like an isolated piece or a section of something longer. At this point, I can’t even guess what I’ll find.

writing process chance
2021-03-15 06:34

My Actor’s Nightmare

This is a dream I had in high school. I’d had actor’s nightmares before this, of course — and I’ve had many others since. But this one was astonishing in its duration and complexity. Also, even as I was dreaming it, I thought it was hilarious.

It begins with our whole cast and crew crammed onto a coach bus as we speed across a vast empty parking lot toward a sports stadium. Out the windows, we can see other coach buses converging on the stadium. We yell to the driver to go faster as we run lines.

We are part of a cross-country competition in which different theater companies race to be the first to arrive at a location, set up, and stage a play. Then we strike as quickly as we can, get back on the bus, and hit the road for the next location, which is sometimes several days’ drive away.

The dream jump cuts to the interior of the stadium. We are running up and down stark concrete corridors, pushing costume racks, carrying carpeted blocks and other set pieces, frantically trying to find our dressing room. We’ve been assigned a room, but the numbering system doesn’t make sense. Each room we look in is a cluttered storage closet or a utility space full of pipes and mysterious, bizarre equipment.

Another jump cut. Now we’re on stage: the performance has begun. The houselights are on, so we can see the packed audience under the glare, watching us disinterestedly. Whenever it’s not their line, actors slip offstage to the green room to get fitted for their costumes, or to scavenge for necessary props. The stage manager is studying a fuse box as the lighting designer is puzzling over the light board, pushing dimmers up and down to see what, if anything, happens. The crew is building the set around us, so we’re shouting our lines over the constant din of hammers, drills, and the occasional circular saw.

Sometimes I’m an actor, sometimes I’m in the crew, but in the final scenes of the dream before I wake up, I’m one of the playwrights. We’re crowded into the green room beside the seamstresses at their sewing machines. We’re writing the play as it happens: brainstorming, jotting notes, and banging away at large manual typewriters. When someone finishes a page, they pull it out of the typewriter and run to the copying machine. When the copies come out, someone else grabs the sheets and runs out into the house. Weaving between the members of the orchestra (who are crammed in the space between the front row and the stage, sight-reading music they’ve never seen before), the runner then feeds the sheets up to the actors, who pass the script out as surreptiously as they can while carrying on the performance.

I remember I woke up laughing. I was relieved it was only a dream but I was sorry I didn’t know how things turned out. How, for example, did anyone actually win this competition? As with any actor’s nightmare, however, it was both worse and better than some acting experiences I had in waking life.

2021-03-10 15:00

Freedom is a great and paradoxical burden: it is something that can only exist incompletely, and which cannot exist without constraints. The desire for freedom and its attainment are difficult, and come fraught with dangers: When we assert ourselves as free and sovereign persons, for example, are we causing others to give up their own freedoms and sovereignties so that we can claim ours? And do we desire to be free of coersion, or to be free to coerce?

This is true both for individuals and for groups. All we can do is strive to fight against those constraints that enslave us, and grasp for those constraints that will set us free.

Epictetus said that if you wish to be good, suppose yourself to be evil. So if we wish to imagine freedom, suppose ourselves to be enslaved. What, when you are enslaved, do you desire that is denied you? To act as you choose; to assert your judgments as you choose; to identify yourself how you choose; to live as you choose.

But if you do not know how to act, if you have no judgment, if you don’t know who you are — can it be said you are free? Therefore Epictetus also said: The masses are wrong when they say only the free can be educated. Trust the philosophers instead, who say only the educated are free.

freedom tranche
2021-03-07 05:50

Acmeism: “beautiful clarity.”

The only reason I’m not more clear is because the ineffable is elusive, and I’m not very good at my job.

process meta
2021-02-23 18:15

(I wrote this on 25 March, 2019, but never posted it. Lawrence Ferlinghetti died yesterday, and I’ve been thinking of this short piece today. This is more about my father than it is about Ferlinghetti, but I always think of Ferlinghetti and my father together — because of their shared birthdays, I think, which, I concede, is silly. But in that peculiar way that artists choose their own predecessors, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my ancestors, and indeed, one of the earliest and most profound.)

On Poetry and Bullshit

Lawrence Ferlinghetti just turned 100 yesterday, on what would have been my father’s 95th birthday, and I find myself thinking about where I started as a writer and as a person.

I began writing poetry as a teenager but I didn’t take it very seriously until a teacher showed me some of Ferlinghetti’s poems outside of class. Many other poets have since accreted in the subsequent three decades, of course, but Ferlinghetti’s influence — along with Cummings, Stevens, Plath, Bishop, Rilke — is batholithic.

Initially, I thought I’d be a novelist, producing “large, loose, baggy monsters.” But I discovered that with poetry, I could build something in an hour or a week (or, okay fine, a month or more) and then build something else, and so on, until I had collected enough tiles for a mosaic that could — in theory — rival any doorstop.

Indeed, Durs Grünbein, in The Vocation of Poetry, says: “I might even go so far as to say that poetry is in large part born from the desire to start over as often as possible.”

From my father I learned that the opposite of the truth isn’t a lie but, rather, bullshit. Both “truths” and “lies” are equally committed to a coherent vision of the universe and they often serve the same sort of purpose; a person might tell the truth or a lie for surprisingly similar reasons. But bullshit is faithless. It’s incoherent, and it has no integrity.

So the Statue of Liberty can wield a sword instead of a torch in Kafka’s Amerika, and Ben Franklin can be a DJ at a rave in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Both false and true at the same time — but not bullshit.

My father learned the power and poison of bullshit in the Dutch Resistance as a teenager. After the war, he went to law school in the Netherlands — not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because he wanted to be a writer. Then he gave up everything to move to the US to marry my mother. Then law school — again — for a second law degree. He worked in publishing; then in the crucible of a massive law firm; then taught; then founded his own firm. He did many different things, and started over many times. But it was always about language, about learning how to use it with humility and respect; to fight against bullshit and chaos. And countless stories at the dinner table, all coming together as one big story. A hedgehog who talked like a fox.

One small thing, then another small thing, then another. Steering by compass, from tree to tree, post to post — all the way across a continent, a lifetime, one poem at a time. Always seeking clarity and integration, attending to what’s there, and how it all fits together. And if you are seeking several destinations, all on a circuit, a seasonal cycle, following a rhythm, a flow — then you never really arrive and you never really depart. You continue.

poetry process
2021-02-19 07:36

The third series didn’t last. After an extremely promising first few days, I discovered the source text was problematic; I kept landing on passages that needed way too much massaging to render them usable. So I’ve settled on a different text and it’s been so much better. I even did five in one sitting the other day, just for kicks, which caught me up on the days I’d missed while looking for a new text.

I had to remind myself of a similar stumble before the second series, where I cast about for over two weeks, trying out three or four different source texts to see if they’d work. Something that looks like it’s going to be great can often present problems that make the chance operation more cumbersome or annoying than it’s worth.

Maybe I’ll talk about what I’ve found to be good and poor source texts some time.

Also, there’s something I’m trying to do differently this time. The poems in the earlier series each stood very much on their own. They all felt like they belonged together, of course, by virtue of the source texts setting the tone, so to speak; but they were each quite self-contained, at least to my ear. This time, I’m holding the idea that they are stanzas in a longer work.

Are they all by the same “speaker”? Are they parts of an ongoing dialogue of some kind? Not sure. If I continue my habit of not looking back at earlier days’ poems, then there won’t necessarily be any explicit through-line from one poem to the next any more than in the earlier series, since it will be yet another exquisite corpse, of sorts. But sometimes, simply “holding an idea” can be enough to alter the trajectory. We’ll see whether that’s true for this project or not.

writing process chance
2021-02-02 17:20

I started my third chance operation series yesterday. As with the first two, I’m drawing five words at random from a predetermined list, then I’m using a source text to choose a line at random.

The first series ran for about forty days and the second for a bit over fifty days, which felt right for each of them. But I plan on running this series for at least three months, to generate as many as ninety or a hundred poems, from which I can select and winnow. This time, I want as many options as possible: I want the luxury to cut ruthlessly and still have something left over after the carnage.

I plan on doing it daily, but I did two today, so I’ve already written three. I also intend to not look back at the pieces until I’ve written at least 50 or 60, but I went back and copied out these first three poems since I had left them in something of a mess. And… something is happening. Something is clicking. I may even have a title for the project already.

writing process chance
2021-01-19 17:30

A poem of mine, “Polly,” was published this morning at Autumn Sky Poetry Daily.

I was especially pleased that the editor commented on my use of enjambment, since this was a deliberate and essential aspect, along with the mildly twisted syntax, of the poem’s halting flow. I wanted to create a music that both sang and stumbled, like the faltering breath of a fading life and of the survivor who mourns.

(But I am just a little concerned that people who like “Polly” may be startled by my other poems — like those Edina moms buying the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me after hearing “Skyway” on WLOL as they carpooled their kids to hockey practice.)

2020-12-24 17:05

Thomas Pynchon, V.

Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia.

commonplace pynchon
2020-11-17 11:50

Are you looking through the bent-back tulips to see how the other half lives? Well, now you can satisfy your literary voyeurism without all that skulking under windows or peering furtively through the hedge!

I was featured yesterday at My (Small Press) Writing Day.

2020-11-01 07:00

How I Build Things

(This is the second half of whatever this is. The first part is here.)


But this year has been different.

Beginning in February, I stopped keeping an Ongoing notebook with me. I was just filling it with rants about the repugnant slug in the White House, or Covid. I’d stayed with it for a while, thinking that by letting those thoughts have their time, I could get them out of my head and I could move on with my morning. This had worked in the past. But now I found it actually amplified these thoughts, cementing them more firmly, which set the grim, desperate tone for the morning and for the day.

I decided I simply didn’t need to record these thoughts. It’s difficult for a writer to think that it’s okay not to write. But it is okay: let it flow past with the current. Watch it, but let it go.

Then, in March, I needed to prepare my home office to accommodate video conferencing when my day job switched to Distance Learning. As I shuffled things around, I discovered to my surprise that I had twenty-three Ongoing notebooks, going back to roughly 2011, which I had hardly been reviewing enough over the last few years. Instead, for most of this last decade, I was pushing on, filling more pages, filling more notebooks, with hardly a backward glance. How many poems were lying hidden in those years of messy first drafts? I decided to take some time to look at them again. I gathered them together — and, in the boring excitement that was March through May, I forgot about them.

In June, I noticed the stack in the corner, and I carried them to the kitchen table and finally got to work. Since late June, then, I have been slowly working my way through the Ongoings, an hour or so each weekend, two or three notebooks at a time.

Here’s what I’m doing.

  1. I skim each page with a red pen and post-it flags. If a passage, sentence, or a word catches my eye, I draw a quick red line down the margin, or box it, then flag the page.
  2. When I finish a notebook, I go back and cut the flagged pages out of the notebook and toss the excised sheets in a folder.
  3. After going through seven or ten notebooks, I quickly sort the accumulated loose sheets into three groups:
    • “poem”
    • “essay/blog”
    • “???”

The key to these first three steps is quickly. I move fast and I don’t think too much. Thinking is for later. Am I going to miss some good stuff? Maybe. But what’s “good” anyway? I’m looking for interesting, for puzzling, for confounding. And if I overlook something, I’m not worried. It’ll be there the next time I pass through the notebooks. And my definition of “good” and my preoccupations will have shifted, so different things will catch my attention.

Okay, so now I have three stacks. This is what I do next — and, again, I try to move as quickly as possible:

  1. I go through each stack and sort them into smaller groups:
    • beginnings and endings
    • fragments in search of other fragments
    • rough but whole

But what do I mean by “beginnings and endings”? And how do I know which fragments are seeking other fragments and which are just… fragments? Good questions. I don’t know, and I don’t really need to know. I’m basically chick-sexing here. It isn’t my job during the sorting to be able to defend why any fragment is going into one category rather than another. It doesn’t even matter if I’m wrong. The important thing is to put them somewhere.

And by putting the fragments into these broad, rough categories, I’m making the next stage just a little easier. That is, now I have fragments that are waiting either to be assembled, or expanded, or simply polished. This means I have a fairly good idea which activity I’ll be engaging in before I’ve even read a syllable of text.

Each of these — assembling, expanding, polishing — are, of course, very different activities and they involve different creative strategies. By matching the work with my energy level, I will be just a little less likely to burn out or feel overwhelmed as I begin my editing, or composing, or remixing.

This was a fairly easy process to develop, since it was a simplified, stripped down version of how I almost always build everything — songs, poems, essays, even email messages. I let fragments accrete then I allow coherence to develop through the accident of proximity. I listen for any odd or jarring leaps and I reshuffle things, either filling in those gaps or making the gaps wider.

The clean, chronological narrative of a final draft of writing is an illusion. We start with hunches and look for ways to explain them. Thoughts begin within webs of associations, and only later do we, with any luck, discover the strong supporting evidence that built them.

We start with meandering paths and dead ends, and only later do we present the final “short cut” that got us from there, to there, to there, to here. Whether you do all that wandering and orienteering “in your head” or on sheet after sheet of messy notebook pages, the work is unlikely to proceed in the orderly and logical progressions we present in our fastidious, crisp, spell-checked final drafts. Even logic is not nearly as logical as we think it is. There are wild, shocking leaps in even the simplest of syllogisms. We just craft them to seem like the leaps were inevitable. And who’s to say they weren’t? It all depends on where you were trying to leap to.

process art
2020-10-31 14:15

On Motivation and Writing Prompts

(Some quickly assembled and incomplete thoughts on the use of writing prompts and the vocation of art-making, inspired by this conversation on Micro.blog.)

Prompts don’t “force” us to be creative: they give us an excuse to practice, to play with our tools, and, if we’re lucky, to make discoveries we might not otherwise have made.

Art is a craft, and all crafts use tools to shape things. We must practice to remain fluent with our tools, and to stay familiar with the raw materials from which we shape our art. So a prompt for a writer is no different from, say, a fingering exercise for a musician.

It is pointless to use a writing prompt, of course, if we assume that to be “creative” means to know ahead of time what we will say, if we have “something to say” and we are simply trying to say it. But making art is also a process of discovery, of exploration. A prompt is always only a beginning, never an ending, of that exploration. Suppose you decide, Maybe I’ll drive up Highway 99 today. That’s the prompt. If you think you already know what you’ll see on your drive, you’ll probably stay home. And if you have to go to the grocery store, you will need no further prompt than a bare cupboard.

We should be careful not to confuse vocation with compulsion. An artist is, simply, someone who shows up every day to make art. To show up every day requires a sort of compulsion, of course, but something more than compulsion must keep us in the chair once we sit down, and something more than compulsion must keep us working even when we’d rather be doing something else. That “something more” is vocation.

If you’re hoping your obsession will be an engine that moves you constantly to action, if you’re waiting for your obsession to somehow propel you into making art, you may be waiting for your whole life. Because there is always some other competing obsession, something else we’d rather be doing.

Without a vocation, we may find ourselves buffeted by our obsessions and preoccupations as they each clamour for our attention. Our whims will drive us away from our desks as easily as they drove us to them. And that’s fine! But we should keep in mind that if we don’t choose our concerns, our concerns may very well choose us, with decidedly mixed results.

As Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” If you are someone who “simply must” spend each day doing something, then you will look for any excuse to do that something. And a writing prompt is just one small excuse among many.

(Added from the conversation:) I generally see a prompt as something for when you’re already sitting down with your guitar or pen or camera or paint, and you’re asking yourself, “What will I work on today?” A prompt may be: running major scales in DADGAD tuning, or using only shades of yellow, or avoiding all words with the letter E, or limiting yourself to a 50mm lens set at ƒ/2.8. Or, of course, “staircase.”

Prompts are just suggestions to challenge ourselves, and to keep us working even when we’re not feeling “inspired” to work. Inspiration, in my experience, may get our ass in the chair, but it won’t carry us very far after that, especially if we’re expecting it to do all the work.

If you go months or years without picking up your guitar, then maybe you’re just a guy with a guitar in his apartment. And that’s okay! But if you want to be a guitar player, you gotta sit down with it even when you don’t feel like it. Same with writing: you have to do it as often and regularly as you can. Having a writing prompt gives you a place to start.

process art
2020-10-31 09:30

How I Build Things


Writer’s block is the unwillingness to crawl. — Eve L. Ewing

I wasn’t always an early riser, but at some point in the first year or so after college, I had a temp job that started at about six in the morning. For about two months, in the darkest stretch of winter, I woke at four, stunned and blasted like an atomic atoll. I clung to my little kitchen table, stared blankly out at the silence. Then I drove through an empty city to a cold office behind an icy parking lot.

I soon moved onto my next job, which had very similar hours. And some semblance of a new routine began to coalesce. As the world slowly woke up around me. And I formed the habit of slowly waking up into writing by the window. I have remained an early riser ever since.

What I discovered almost immediately was that this early in the morning, the Artist is still sleepy and the Editor hasn’t even woken up, so no one is really thinking too hard about what’s being written down. Then, later on the day, when the Editor is in the Office and the Artist is ready to stare out the window with a glass of wine, the Editor can go over the pages, selecting, cutting, rearranging, maybe jotting down questions in the margins for the Artist to look at.

This sort of rhythm could have worked equally well, of course, had I stayed a night-owl: late nights for the Artist, the next morning for the Editor. This, in fact, was more or less what I’d already been doing. But that temp job helped me realize this had not been working well for me anymore.

To this day, I keep a notebook open on the kitchen counter in the morning as I make my coffee. I call it my “Ongoing” notebook. I jot down sentence fragments, syllabic rhythms, snippets of nonsense. Sometimes only a few lines, sometimes a full page, sometimes — all too often — nothing. I fill about two or three of them each year.

With some variations, this has been my overall routine, even when it wasn’t. Something I’ve noticed about me: simply knowing I have a plan helps me get work done, even — or especially — if I don’t follow the plan.

(This was the first half of whatever this is. The second half might appear before Monday, if I can figure out how to end it — or at least abandon it to my satisfaction…)

process art
2020-10-26 05:43

To start over, first you have to have started.

2020-10-25 06:15

Wait, I was in the middle of saying something. What was it? I was distracted for a moment, and now I have nothing but the moon over my shoulder — always looking so surprised. But why? Is this anything new? How is any of this still shocking?

2020-10-13 07:41

Thoreau, Walden:

Sunday is the fit conclusion of an ill-spent week, and not the fresh and brave beginning of a new one—