and so I
She says: I’m
tells her: You
have permission to
Massive storms, lightning,
within hours. Terminal
in any concordance.
symphonies, untroubled by
and reduced. Unexpected
negligent dreams, unhindered
(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.
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:
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
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
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 in fact been working well for me.
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
Then at last I simply sat down.
The vulturing pigeons
ignored me and I lost count.
See how the clouds
come together into one,
wordlessly into fragments,
each whole. As if we
could have fooled anyone
into believing anything.
They look deep into our eyes
and know instantly — you are
a fraud: even the pigeons jump
only momentarily then resume
Mozart violin concerto blasting
unlocked and drowning her
voice as she takes the sandwich
order. A voice that doesn’t match.
A viola in the first violin part. Can
I bring the real into it? Here, regard
these rails, always parallel.
Note, while you attend the
earth, note: spit, old gum,
cigarettes, and leaves. And
the earth attends, notes you, and
will have you: welcome, real!
Who needs sense when sound will do?
Here is the last clacking train
to the beach. Some apple in a bag.
Some other theme, a variation, and
sudden — sudden — a loss, a spider
on the rug — all the same. (Let me
start again.) I vanish as
the leaves. The ground
spits and I am unwashed, retoxed
and folded into my wrapper—
How can it be done so precisely?
Each random little turd in the park:
all part of the Grand Poetic Vision.
And I am here, in the Am-land,
the country of I’s locked in the
claustrophobic verbs, weak, friendly
but gutless — over there the magicians
pull coins, swallow flowers
to shit swords then pound them
into garden hoes…
You can stand in the rain,
you could lift the dark.
You could sit, not talking, even as
you finally get it. You imagine
the whole world is
you, in strange places.
You suspect, wrongly perhaps.
You take two extra seconds. The idlenes
of the TV: this is you, content
to roll over. Do you mean art
should be visible somehow? You’re almost
arguing. You’d say something else.
Keeping up, the other last moment, the
now that, the okay then, the stand back.
Grip with strength, but even, even odd.
Tall, in the dark, tall with the totem.poem persona
To start over, first you have to have started.