Tag Archives: voice

What is wonderful about that cartoon: not the plot but the stuff that could be considered the voice of that artwork

M said the city forces you to interact with other people to get your life, to get done those things you need to get done. It forces you to interact, and as you get sophisticated (or, what getting sophisticated means is), you learn whom to trust.  In the country, rural/small-town life, you already know everybody—everybody knows everybody, for good or ill. Once people know you, your reputation is set, as good or bad. In fact, your family’s reputation is set. There was another part to this thought that I can’t recall just now.

The grinch cartoon was on cartoon network last week. The TV’s guide info described it as a “curmudgeon” who ruins Christmas. The grinch as “curmudgeon”? It’s not wrong, but it’s not how most humans would describe that cartoon. It’s precise, just not accurate. That description misses what is wonderful about that cartoon, which is not the plot but the incidental stuff: the tone, the narration, the songs, the visual style—just all that stuff that could be considered the voice of that artwork, which, as I’ve come to see in recent months (or last couple years), is all that really matters about an artwork.

When you boil down/summarize a story into a plot, or a philosophy into one idea, well, lots of people have told the same plot, the same idea. Few ideas are totally new to human consciousness. But why you would cherish a particular telling of a story or a particular text or a particular writer’s/artist’s vision is for all those less-tangible aspects. Not that these are preset: you might like one artist’s sense of spontaneity and glee, another one’s (Verlyn Klinkenborgs’s essays) precision and … its cold accuracy, it’s precise polished brilliance, which is wonderful, but spontaneity is good, too, you know. “We tend not to do live animation. It’s hard on the animator’s wrists” [approximately] goes the line from the Simpsons where Homer is Poochy. So much of art has the polish, the “high production values” of Hollywood and network shows—professionals—even if the script is pure sh!t, tired dreck—

(pretty, byootiful—well, I was thinking “pretty”-denoting words, words that denote beauty, were themselves pretty-sounding (melodious) words—lovely, nice (but then “nice” is a feint compliment, or a dismissive), gorgeous—whereas words denoting “ugly” are ugly words: ugly (contrast hard “g” to the “j” sound in “gorgeous”), hideous, feo, repulsive—or am I just mistaking connotation for bad-sounding?)

and why I say all this is to defend my own budding belief in spontaneity—how I write spontaneously. Well, maybe that’s not the best word—though Kerouac uses it, doesn’t he?—”Spontaneous Prose“—and Dylan’s line about not wanting to do a 2nd take for recording—”that’s terrible,” as quoted in Beat Reader. The Beat ethic of not editing, though that itself can become an ideology. I mean, I admire Klinkenborg’s precision at times—I found a description (on Amazon) of VK’s writing, …[that said that] his search for the perfect word and phrase shows his love of words. And yes, I know Thoreau supposedly did many rewrites/revisions of “Walden”—and yet, and maybe this is just me, with my perfectionism, but the concept of having to go through multiple rewrites seems tedious. I’m not sure several rewrites are what I need. I tend to overedit and would boil my ideas down to that ridiculous one-line summary. M told me last week that my less-edited, more spontaneous email was better than the second, more edited one.

[From journal of Sun., 9 Dec. 2007, Journal 94, page 37-9]

Radical openness, part 2: Weds. 30 Dec. 2015 journal

Continued from previous post.

In essence, there is nothing that I have to say to others. There’s nothing I need to say, and what texts I’ve created, these don’t need to be published. These are not vital info for others, not all that informative nor all that entertaining. Yet, maybe I’ll publish them anyway. Maybe I put up a few things on my blog, things whose value isn’t argued for or explained. Yeah, I may look a little weird doing that, but I want to know what these other forms would look like — can these be done?

The value for me is in the act of publishing is in the doing (if someone likes what I’ve done, that’s just an ego stroke for me). I don’t learn much or have new ideas from having others read my work (though I guess it’s possible someone could read my work and give me a deep analysis from which I could get insights).

(These lines make some sense to me now, but I recognize that this text may not make sense to me later, once the ideas are gone from my mind. The ideas are in my mind now, so they do seem normal now.)

If you are to retain open-mindedness, you just gotta trust that new learnings, new experiences, will come. You can’t know/predict what these are, or else it wouldn’t be new learning. You gotta have faith in the process of letting go, having an open mind!

I may publish a text that isn’t clearly trying to communicate, but is conveying the message, “I’m alive, here’s something from my mind.” It’s not what I say that matters, but only my voice — that I’m writing — that matters? My experience of writing and editing? Of course, these don’t matter to others. But new ways to be, to write, can indirectly communicate, but this doesn’t need to matter to others — a near paradox.

I’ve written for a couple hours, and I may not have said anything of interest to anyone but me. But the point is, I like to write! I like spending time that way! Any value for others in my texts is nice but incidental.

2:55 p.m. — An implication of radical openness: I may just remain silent. I may not have anything to say! I will likely try publishing things. I won’t take “radical openness” as a restriction. Don’t take this idea too seriously, either!

I don’t want to have to put on a persona, do a performance, as most writings and art made for others are. there’s writerly ego there in making the performance pleasing to others.

When a nonfiction writer dramatizes his role as an observer or participant, that’s a layer of fakeness, because one can’t live (do things other than writing) and write at the same time. [see another example here] To pretend in an article to do so is to make artifice. Writing is done after the experience. Why not be more natural, less self-aware, self-dramatizing, portraying self-as-character? To be less aware of writing to/for others might be more authentic.

4:10 p.m. — Writings — texts — do not represent life or physical reality or experience. We may try to represent these in words, but it doesn’t work well. Writing is writing, representing only itself. The mind uses language — that’s it! Experiencing and writing are two different things — it’s inauthentic to both to elide that distinction.

The way we teach students to write — say, the Personal Narrative, the Research Paper — is filling in a form, learning to put info in a format that others people can easily recognize. This teaching has students learning to do a specific type of thinking and language use, but it’s not a type of writing that reflects authentic, spontaneous language use, as a freewrite can.

The criticism that certain narratives aren’t realistic doesn’t make a lot of sense from this perspective (that writing doesn’t represent reality). All stories use language — there’s no way to compare language to reality.

I seem to be making a claim here, though I don’t want to, because my larger point about radical openness is that I don’t need to make points. Claims are made as compared to some sense of reality — that’s one definition of truth: something is true if it matches or adequately explains some aspect of reality. My point here is that there is no truth, there’s just language, and looking for truth in language may not be possible or even useful. Of course, the trap here is that I’m making yet another claim about reality. An expression of language is just an expression of language.

6:30 p.m. — I think what I want to say is that this idea (that writing represents itself, language use, not physical reality or experience) can be interesting, useful — but that my point in writing isn’t to make claims but just to write because I like to write. There’s no point where I will or could be done. There’s no idea/claim argument endpoint. What I was writing earlier in today’s journal is that a topic or point, to communicate that is to communicate, when that’s kinda flawed. (Why? because of reasons I gave earlier today, which I can’t quite recall …)

9:12 p.m. — well, because of radical openness! Because nothing I can say will be as cool as what might be said next — and because whatever I’ve already said in the pile of writings isn’t as important as what I might learn from the next editing session! Old thoughts are old, existing thoughts are old, but the experience of reading old texts is new!

15 links on creativity, writing, art: Recorded poets, audience, storytelling, etc.

1. “75 at 75″: Recordings from the 92nd Street Y’s series of writers reading their work. Here’s an NPR story about this as well.

2. The persistence of a writer’s voice: Tom Stoppard’s quote that “all my people speak the same way, with the same cadences and sentence structures. They speak as I do.”

3. Regarding the audience for one’s art: Frederick Wiseman says, “the only safe assumption I make about an audience is that the people who are going to see the film are as smart or as dumb as I am. I think anything else is condescending.”

4. “The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling” in The Atlantic

5. “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar.” Related: “Style Wars

6. How one pastor writes his sermons.

7. How cartoonist Tom Toles finds ideas.

8. “There’s a tiny handful of musical-cultural conversations Americans have decided they want to be a part of, and then there’s everything else.

9. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s nonfiction book.

10. Several links about Sesame Street from the AVClub: “What do you remember learning from Sesame Street?” and “Sesame Street is the perfect TV show” and Adam Savage’s dad’s animation for Sesame Street and The Ladybug Picnic and other counting songs and pop culture allusions in Sesame Street.

11. Jazz non-improvisation: A re-creation of Kind of Blue.

12. “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction

13. “Introducing the Reality Novel”: Writers don’t need to go fictional to discuss their own problems and issues in a permissive society. Related: Tim Parks’ article “Trapped Inside the Novel

14. Story-writing and -sharing site Wattpad.

15. A documentary about a marble quarry.

‘Boyhood’ and Nonfiction Across Time

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts writing in the present

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts written in the present

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart interviewed Richard Linklater about his new movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over a period of 12 years. Thus, the three-hour film contains footage of all the actors at yearly intervals.

In the interview, this passage caught my attention:

Jon Stewart: “Philosophically, did the act of being observed, for the younger actors, change their behavior? Were they conscious …”

Richard Linklater: “I don’t think so …[but] I guess it [the film] was pretty mind-blowing to them [the younger actors] when they finally saw it.”

JS: “What did they, what was their reaction?”

RL: “I gave a DVD to [actor] Ellar and I said, I suggest you watch this alone. Um, you know, build up some kind of relation with this crazy thing. And I didn’t hear from him for a while , so I was worried, but, ah, yeah, I think they’re still processing.”

JS: “Right. It’s an awful lot to take in.”

RL: “Yeah, yeah.”

JS: “What’s very interesting is, it’s hard not to watch it and process your own life within it, which is how art works that way.”

RL: “Yeah, you have to.”

Some of the movie’s reviewers have also responded to the images-through-time/time compression aspects of this movie. This article at Time concludes with:

We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.

Of course, this movie is not trying to prove that time is real; what this writer intends, I think, is that watching this movie prompts viewers to think about their own relationships to time.

I have yet to see “Boyhood,” but the method of filming a movie across so much time highlights some aspects of artistic creation that are otherwise easy to overlook. For example, Anthony Lane makes a point about how a plot-driven work can obscure character, which is revealed in

those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave. A haircut, in short, matters more than a Quidditch match. We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process

Lane generalizes from the movie’s structure to claim that the meanings we find in our own lives — the stories we tell about what has mattered to us, what has shaped us — depend on “memory’s cave.” Lane also writes, “that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone,” which editing metaphor also implies that our memories may themselves be artistic products.

An individual’s memories, along with most of our culture’s stories (both fictional and non-), are structured as events from the past that are recounted in the (storyteller’s) present. We can’t tell a story — in fact, we may not even have a complete, satisfying story — if we don’t know how it turns out. Even if a writer starts off telling a story that she doesn’t know how to end, it will end before she finishes the book, and she would be able, before publishing the book, to go back and revise the early parts of the story to better fit the ending, once she knows the ending. (Stephen King writes — if my memory is accurate here —  in “On Writing” that it’s after the later drafts of his novels that he plays up the symbols that appear almost unintentionally in the first draft.)

But, of course, Linklater could not have gone back after Year 12 of shooting to film something from Year 2. He could re-edit what he had, yes, but he could not have gone back with the same actors. Even if, say, Linklater could have fabricated — because it IS fiction, and there are options such as stand-ins and CGI — a new Year 2 scene in Year 12, Linklater would himself be a different artist than he was earlier. As a review in The A.V. Club states it,

Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.

What intrigues me about “Boyhood” is that its “constant present tense” describes how most of my nonfiction writing is done. Rather than telling memoir-type stories about my long-ago experiences, I mostly write journals about previous-day events and present-day impressions, and I write down my real-life observations and my thoughts within moments of having them in mind.

I don’t often tell stories about my past, but I do tell some, and I’ve become skeptical of telling these stories because the versions of these stories that exists in my memory doesn’t always match the versions that I wrote on paper soon after the event. For a few years, I warned my high school senior students not to drink when they go to college because I remembered seeing a person have his stomach pumped outside my dorm on the first Friday night of my freshman year of college. Not too long ago, I found the journal entry where I’d written about this, and it happened on the fourth, not the first, weekend of that year. This new setting doesn’t invalidate the story as an anti-example, but it bothered me that I’d remembered it wrong (and in a way that heightened the student’s foolishness, and thus, the anti-example lesson). It made me less confident in trusting my memory, particularly when I have these texts written more closely in time to the actual experiences.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that some of the things I remember from college didn’t get written down in my journals, and that what’s in the journals, I don’t always remember having lived through. It’s actually sorta disturbing to feel this disconnect between what I wrote (which reflected who I was) in the past, and how I now remember these things (as the person I am now). Maybe this disconnect is part of what Stewart and Linklater were referring to when they said that watching “Boyhood” required the actors to process their experience.

I value having my writings going back 20-plus years now, and I’m not so interested in present-day telling of stories of my past. I mean, sure, I can go back now and re-interpret my remembered experiences of years past, and this can be a diverting pastime, but it doesn’t draw my attention to the current moment, and how to live in the current moment, which seems to me to be the most interesting part of my writing.

I don’t want to overly define myself and my writing, but it’s valuable for me to understand who I am and what I do, and I think that what motivates most of my writing is a drive to understand — to form concepts of who I am, what I should do, how I should act toward others, why others do what they do, how I should think about my job, my writing, etc. These concepts, of course, I am willing to revise over time, which thinking and revising feel like the most interesting, even necessary (in the way that I get out-of-sorts when I don’t have enough time to write) processes of my being alive. Others may have a need to run marathons (maybe they do — it’s hard to understand others except by analogizing their needs to my own) while I feel I need to write, and specifically, to write about myself and my experiences.

So I’ve got these 20 years of texts, mostly journals and notes, and I used to wonder how I’d make these interesting to other readers. I felt that I needed to do that, if I were ever to become a Famous Author, and yet, I didn’t find myself naturally writing things that would appeal to others. What I had were my journal writings, and I thought for a long time about how these writings could be made interesting to others. I still don’t have a final answer, and now I don’t expect to find one, but I have come to think that there’s value in the texts written as they were at the times they were written.

Like Linklater’s movie, these texts present the problem of time: when I wrote about my college years, I was in college. I could write now about about my college times, but that’s 18 years after the events. So at the time of the journal-writing, I had lots of particulars but no distant perspective; now I have perspective, but that it’s the perspective of a 40-year-old.

And this is kind of a basic problem with writing (and it’s the basic problems that interest me the most): Everything one writes must be written from a perspective; writing is a product of a consciousness, and every consciousness is always already situated in time. I’m a better writer now than I was at age 20, but I’m no longer the person I was at age 20. I can see the changes when I read “between the lines,” as it were, in my texts written when I was different ages. I’m a different person. Yet, I’m not an entirely different person, which may be the point Lane was making in his quote above.

So if I want to be honest to the perspective I have now, I could write only about now, with the knowledge that whatever I say now will be superseded by what I write later. Or, maybe not — maybe one’s later nonfiction writings don’t supersede one’s past writings; maybe they’re just completely different and shouldn’t be compared?

That Linklater’s film was filmed over 12 years interests the commenters above because it uses real actors. If the film were made of, say, animated characters rather than human actors, the movie could’ve been made over 12 years without the characters’ appearances changing, as “The Simpsons” characters haven’t changed much over 25 years of TV episodes. (Although the characters were drawn differently in their first appearances on “The Tracy Ullman Show“.) Of course, what Linklater did is maybe not all that different from looking at how the actors of M*A*S*H change over 11 years of the show (which was weird, too, as the show was set during a war that took only 3 years).

And I suppose I could put together a document that contained my writings across the years, like an overview anthology of any author’s work, but then the main impact of such a document might be to show the change in the author’s voice over the years (which might overshadow any thematic concerns of the particular works anthologized). Linklater’s film may show the cinematic equivalent of that, but it also coheres as a single story. I’m still not sure how this would work with nonfiction.

But perhaps this problem requires a format of writing and/or of publishing that’s broader than any one book or other single-themed work.

P.S.: See related thoughts on writing in/through time here.

Links: Funny and otherwise stuff, 13 Jan. 2013

1. Here’s a bit of cleverness from McSweeney’s: The Von Trapp wedding cancellation and a memo on solving the problem of Maria (as my wife is named Maria and as she has long been annoyed being considered, in song, a problem, I liked this idea).

2. Also at McSweeney’s, an open letter to the “Today” show. I don’t normally have time in my mornings to watch that show, but I did over winter break. There’s something about watching daytime TV that feels indulgent — at least for a day or two. But I’m both drawn to and puzzled by the “Today” show, and for that matter, “Good Morning, America,” too. Why would people as accomplished as attorney Savannah Guthrie and political adviser George Stephanopoulos be on shows that don’t seem to be intellectually challenging? (I wondered this question before I saw and was surprised by the salaries in these jobs. OK, I guess I too might do some mindless things for a salary of millions a year.) These shows seem to spend an amazing amount of resources in order to give beautiful, credentialed people chances to make small talk and giggle. Ah, well: capitalism, huh?

3. Some thoughts on blogging and what to talk about — on not spending your “principal” as a blogger.

Nonfic: Ye Olde Blogge and Ye Olde Blogger

blog_tree beneath picA note along the way: I realized that I may not have explained what I mean when I label a post “nonfic” (“nonfiction”). As I tell my creative writing students, I interpret “nonfiction” to mean a writer is writing honestly, truthfully, as himself/herself. Nonfiction can include all manner of things beyond mere reportage or argument; one is writing nonfiction when one is guessing, speculating, remembering, talking to oneself, documenting one’s life, making lists, etc.  One of my students recently complained that nonfiction is not creative like fiction is. Well, in writing nonfiction, one cannot lie of course (when I ask students to write fiction, I sometimes repeat my instructions as “lie to me.” Yes, there’s the idea that fiction is “the lie that tells the truth,” but I appreciate fiction primarily as an exercise of the imagination, as an exercise in making impossibility possible (for instance, I assign my fiction-writers to create the interior monologue of a butterfly). But there’s all manner of creative expression in nonfiction within those limitations of 1. writing as oneself and 2. not lying.

I love reading fiction and poetry for the sensory experiences of image and sound. I also love fiction and poetry for showing me wild new ideas. I love reading nonfiction to see writers really struggling with ideas, attempting to make meaning of their experiences.

Recently, TAE commented on a post I wrote about efficient stories, by which stories I was mostly thinking of nonfiction anecdotes, the stories we tell our friends and families about our daily experiences. The comment:

I think another point with longer stories, novels and so on, is that you want to have some “noise”, because you don’t want the straight line, you want to confuse the reader to an extent. While I can produce suspense by using certain words, I can also get there by being somewhat “inefficient”.

I don’t often write longer fiction. My one attempt a few years ago, written in an attempt to follow, vaguely, the NaNoWriMo method, became an 80,000-word exercise in self-flagellation: Many chapters were dialogues where my characters excoriated me for my lack of plot for them to act out. So when I do write fiction, I write short stuff. I would speculate that I don’t write long fiction because I tend not to read long fiction, possibly because I am not eager to get fully absorbed into a story. I don’t mean this as a criticism of those who do read novels for this reason — I just don’t enjoy doing that. I read shorter things, in general, and I read longer things in short, out-of-order bursts.  (Side-thought: If we can write creatively, why should we also not be able to read creatively? Jump around in a text, read every other word, read columns of words instead of reading across the page, etc.)

Maybe I’m just more interested in reading how others make sense of their lives — maybe I’m looking for ideas on how to live my own life. For instance, a question I asked my dad when I was in college was how he had gone to work at a series of jobs for, by that point in his life, almost every day for 25 years of his life. I don’t recall his answer as all that insightful, but to let him off the hook, my old man wasn’t all that insightful of a person. He wasn’t inclined to self-reflection, let’s say. But I wondered about that question — how are we supposed to keep going in our jobs, in our careers, day after day, year on year? I asked that question of myself (and wondered how others would answer it) much more in the early, more-challenging years of my professional life than I have lately. Now that I’m 16 years into my own full-time work life, I’m not sure I have a great answer to that question; I just know that I get up each day and go, and that by now I enjoy going. I like my vacations, of course, but I am glad for my job. It gives me routine and it keeps me from obsessing about myself and my life and my writing (a hazard when one is as self-reflective as I tend to be).

Not that I now expect there to be any one set of answers to questions of how to best live — I’m not even sure any more that such answers can come through rational thought. More and more, I think living, being alive, is less about abstractions, generalized answers, or even conscious ideas, and more about particular experiences, specific moments that aren’t comparable to other moments. It’s OK to do what I feel like doing — I don’t have to justify not living according to a plan or principles (as I for many years lived without eating meat. I still don’t eat much meat, but I no longer pride myself on my purity, my adherence to the no-meat principle.) My desires, drives, tastes, and joys  just inexplicably are, and don’t need explaining, rationalizing, or inhibiting (I’m talking here about those desires that aren’t the hurtful type. By all means, I inhibit my stupid, risky impulses. That’s part of what being an adult is, no? And when I see a fictional or nonfictional character doing something that seems obviously stupid, I lose interest. I am interested mainly in characters who are at least as smart as I am.) My best creative ideas, I can’t explain where they come from. To be alive is to not-know (even as one wants to know), and to this point in my life, what I have learned is that it’s OK to not know. That learning took a few years, of course. Perhaps that’s typical of a middle-aged mindset. Perhaps the cocksure passion of one’s teens and twenties becomes a mildly skeptical acceptance in one’s late thirties. Or, of course, maybe that’s just me, and maybe that’s just what I’m saying right now, this minute. But that’s also part of the beauty of nonfiction: since the nonfiction writer is only writing as oneself, one necessarily must write as the person one is now, in the particular circumstances (context) one is in now.  One may not even understand one’s current perspective or circumstances (until later, if ever), and yet, here we are. I write this today. I am as I wrote this; I was alive to write this. I may not be correct in what I said, but I said it. This authenticity of nonfiction I appreciate.

Regarding the title: A couple times in recent weeks, I’ve heard or read that “ye” as in “ye olde blogge” is not pronounced “yee” but the regular old “the,” as described here. It’s weird, but mostly likely meaningless, of course, how certain things repeat in my life at about the same time. Ah, my pattern-seeking human brain. I can’t always trust it, but we mostly get along.

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.