Nonfic: The Mystery of Where the Words Come From

A posting by Poet Charles Simic at the New York Review of books about people writing poetry for reasons beyond merely getting paid includes this idea:

“In a country that now regards money as the highest good, doing something for the love of it is not just odd, but downright perverse.”

This reminds me that it took a long time — years, and maybe decades — for me to learn that my satisfaction as an artist, as a creator, was based not on external success (getting published, paid, awarded), but is simply based in being engaged in the creative experience, the act of creating.  As Alan Shapiro essays of himself, I write to be absorbed in the writing. I do it just to do it; the texts produced might as well be by-products.

I sense that this sounds a tad mystical, and as a novice writer reading this, I would have compared this idea to my provisional understanding of my writing process, and I would have wondered if I were a “real writer” because I had not had that near-religious absorption. As a young writer, I did have (in retrospect) some sessions in which my attention was fully absorbed and I was writing words coming from I-know-not-where, but I recall feeling that I had to intend, to try to control things, to make myself into a writer (when by now I value letting myself become the writer I am by accepting whatever words, ideas, styles, etc., seem to come naturally).  Of course, I say this 20 years after I started writing my journals, and so I could go back and see what I thought then. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that, for years, I thought I should be writing things that were More Important than journals — by More Important, I meant texts that would be publishable. It was only within the last five years or so that I came to accept that my journals are what matter to me — I accepted that what I had been doing all along is what I do. I didn’t need to make myself into a Novelist or Poet or any other publicly defined role. At about the same time, I realized I could write more poems and fiction if there, too, I accepted what came and didn’t try to narrow my creativity to what seemed Good or Important.

Another bit of the Simic post that struck me is:

As for me, I still can’t really explain to myself how I became a poet, and I’ve given up trying.

This reminds me, too, that I have no knowledge of where the words come from. The words that make up my journals, my poems, etc — any kind of non-formal writing, I just follow my mind-voice. [I’m much more effective and efficient at writing formal prose — for example, academic, formal essays — than I used to be, too, but writing well in that sphere seems more about matching, comparing a text to, a certain standard, a certain form (including tone, structure, voice).  Creative writing, for me, is writing that does not attempt to match or be compared to any standard.] Again, this “mind-voice” sounds mystical, but I don’t know how else to explain it. Where do the words ever come from? Why do we say anything that we say?  What impulses drive that? I’d suggest that my writing “mind-voice” is perhaps the same as the source of words that I speak — in fact, my spelling has gotten worse as I’ve gotten better at transcribing my “inner monologue” onto paper. I now hear “won” when I’m meaning “one” — but that brings up a different issue — if I’m just transcribing what’s going on in my head, where does the responsibility for meaning lie? What entity then is the creator? I understand now why artists can’t explain, when asked, where their ideas come from. Artists, if they are open to accepting suggestion (from where? one’s subconscious? semi-conscious? memory associations?) and are not merely plotting everything out before hand [which plotting and controlling would seem to be limiting the artist to what he/she consciously knows — but for me, my un/semi-conscious mind feels much smarter than I know myself to be consciously. My conscious mind knows only what it has previously thought; it’s not as open to suggestion because my conscious mind (the one I tend to use in my daily living, when I’m working or shopping or fixing things or spending time with other people) tends to want to solve problems, get things done, look smart or funny, get things, get attention — all that ego stuff. My conscious mind gets me through my days and brings in the money to feed and clothe my body and it helps me get along with my neighbors, peers, colleagues, etc — this is to say, my conscious mind is good at living in the world, at keeping me safe, etc., but it’s not a mind that questions, that senses beauty, except instrumentally: that a pretty house is better than an ugly one, or that an attractive person is preferable over a less-attractive one — yes, my conscious mind tends to be shallowly judgmental, but then, making snap judgments is a skill that can help us get through our days. Of course, these judgments are merely “snap” and these judgments aren’t worth very much. They are mere opinions, mere reactions. And these do not make life worth living. Falling in love is not a conscious decision, having an insight/epiphany is not a conscious decision, nor is sensing that something is truly beautiful or valuable or interesting — these are what we call “gut” decisions, and that’s perhaps the basis of art: artists are people who learn to trust, even perhaps, to “live in,” the part of their minds that use “gut” feelings.

In attempting to explain this, which explanation has itself been sorta “stream of consciousness,” I have distinguished the conscious mind from the non-conscious, and this split isn’t quite that neat, of course. There’s an interaction between “gut” feelings and conscious decision that results in the creation of new artistic things; for instance, even as I wrote this text above by listening to my “mind-voice,” and following my gut instincts as to what to write next, I didn’t follow every whim that came to mind.

This post is much longer than I intended — but, of course, that’s OK. I had an impulse to “talk” about, to think about, this stuff — I could say that Simic’s post inspired me — in the figurative sense (and etymological sense of “inspire” meaning “to breathe in”) that my mind-voice took in air from Simic’s ideas and then released a torrent of words as a result. But then, like I said above, I don’t really know where any of these words came from, or why I felt I should write them. This is mysterious, and this mystery is part of what makes writing hard to teach — but writing ultimately is not a step-by-step process to which students can be given “put tab A into slot B” instructions.  We can talk in writing class about forms and purposes and proofreading and all that good results-oriented stuff, but I still can’t tell students where the words come from. I do ask them to do a lot of freewriting, with the hopes that this free-expression of mind-words onto paper helps them discover for themselves where their own word-source is.

A few minutes after: I suspect that when I read this post in a few weeks or months, it won’t feel like it was even me who wrote it.  I may even appreciate some of the ideas or the turns of phrase, but since I don’t know where the words came from, I don’t really feel much pride from that appreciation.  I might feel glad that I wrote a text, but I don’t feel I have earned any praise, because I often feel more like a transcriber of whatever words my mind (in whatever way) decides to send. I don’t feel I created this text any more than I created my elbow, and yet, the text exists only because I sat here and listened to my brain and typed. To be truly creative is to be open to and accepting of new ideas, which come not from the part of my brain that feels like “me,” like “I did it,” but from the part of my brain that I just listen to.  To be creative is to lose one’s ego — and, I’m venturing here, but I’m gonna say that any artist who does feel some kind of egotistical pride in his/her creations is either not fully creative (is creating by following a pattern of some kind) or feels an emotional need for others’ approval — not that there’s anything wrong with getting approval from others, but (to finally come full-circle in this post) that’s not the most satisfying of motivations. (You can’t control what others think or do or even if your creation gets destroyed — the one thing that is truly yours is that you have the experience of the making. Even if you forget the memory of the creative act, you spent some of your living time that way.)  And maybe this sense of being-responsible-but-not-really for one’s creations is what is meant by those artists who refer to their creations as children they send out into the world.

One response to “Nonfic: The Mystery of Where the Words Come From

  1. Pingback: Reality’s ‘weiners’: Words point beyond words | MonkeyMoonMachine

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