Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Big Books and Creativity

            Creativity is strange.  Frequently humiliating, sometimes exhilarating, and always out of nowhere.
            Except that it's not.  The artist, writer, whoever, has a lot of power to create the appropriate circumstances.  This is absolutely crucial of course.  But then, it either comes or it doesn't.  So it sort of is out of nowhere.
            To make clear why I'm on about this, let me explain something about how I've engineered this blog and my brain to work together:
            First, there is a Big Book.  In my case, the last Big Book was Don Quixote.  The next two I'm currently reading are Five Dialogues, by Plato and translated by G.M.A. Grube, and The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan.  So I read the Big Book.  My brain gets really, really into it at first.  I'm so into this super-intellectual book, I'm sure I should have been a college professor.  No, no, wait, I'm way smarter than any and all college professors because I'm not working my tail off for five dollars an hour to pay off tens of thousands of dollars of student debt.
            But I digress.
            So my brain gets really into it.  Then it says it's done.  Long before the end.  We argue, I compel, and the brain completes its work grumbling and refusing to ever generate another light-hearted thought or genuine emotion ever again.  (This is a total lie, by the way.)  Usually just as my brain and I are nearing the finish line I throw it a couple of general interest books and murder mysteries, maybe some movies, just something to help it out.
            Second, there is the stare-at-the-wall phase.  I stare at walls, and stare at blank sheets of paper, go out for drinks with friends, and wonder why I didn't marry that nice guy who wanted to set me up in a house on the Mediterranean seven years ago.  (Oh, wait; he wasn't that nice, and I don't tan well.)
            Third, I write something.  It is actually more linked to the first phase than might seem obvious, but it's difficult to explain how non-linear things happen in linear time.  Anyway, I write something. But the something I write will most likely never see the light of day.  In fact, it will be bad.  It will be very, very bad.  Then I'll write something else.  Maybe I'll combine the first and second things.  Maybe I'll start over.  And then maybe I'll start over again.  Hey, why not start over again?
            All this time, I am writing things which I will most certainly not post on this blog, let alone dream of publishing.
            After awhile, I'll start to get something.  A poem, an essay:  a piece.  Then I'll tweak it.  Maybe I'll write another piece.  More revising.  More writing.  Honestly, probably more staring and drinking with friends.
            At some point I'll be able to look at what I've been working on, and I'll say, "Hey, look!  I had a thought!"
            And that thought, gentle reader, is what goes on this blog.
            Which is to say, it takes me a long time to form a thought.  Or at least to articulate it.  So I started the blog when I had pretty much wrapped up this whole process with the Quixote.  As I've been posting things about that Big Book, I've been somewhere in the middle of that process with Plato and Bunyan.  I just finished The Pilgrim's Progress and Apology, but I don't consider that to mean I'm ready to offer a thought on them.  And while I'm trying earnestly to put some effort into Bunyan, for some reason he's not prompting ideas like Plato is.  I would have expected the opposite.  The Pilgrim's Progress is far more beautiful than I'd remembered, and (yes, it's true) very spiritually inspiring.  But for whatever reason, nothing linguistic is happening.  And Plato/Socrates (more on that conundrum later) seemed so dry from far away that I never would have thought I would write an actual poem to, um, him...them...it.
            So consider the next few posts a small interim.  A time for me to share other, more-easily formed thoughts:  what I think about Jad Abumrad; how cute Jad Abumrad is; Jad Abumrad's recent and wonderful essay on creativity.  Okay, no, I won't only talk about Radiolab.  But in the next month or so you'll probably see some posts on philosophy in general, Agatha Christie, The Artist's Way, Woody Allen...whatever stuff I've been throwing my brain to get it across the finish line without completely rebelling against me.
            So for my next trick, maybe not exactly Plato.  Maybe...

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Gentle Reader here.

    This is a fascinating (set of) topic(s) for me, no surprise. For one thing, you're making me want to reread Pilgrim's Progress.

    I think for me, though, what I'm reading has a more tangential relationship to what I'm writing. It's less about inspiring what I write, and more about keeping my mind on a particular form. If I'm writing a novel, for example, I need to be reading novels. If a screenplay, I need to watch a lot of movies. (I realized this as I was starting to write a novel, and my head had been so stuck in Screenplay Land I could hardly wrap my head around composing extended prose.)

    Exception to the above: When I get stuck, I do have a certain set of permission giving artists I turn to, mostly writers and musicians. This is a necessary part of tuning my brain.

    But the general conditions for creativity are touchy things, aren't they? Every individual creator learns what trends well for her or him. I am VERY attached to my morning routine now, which involves Bach, candles, the Lord's Prayer as an extended focusing medication, and about six shots of straight espresso. Still, there are no guarantees.

    I remember having a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates about daily writing routines. I asked her if she gave herself a page quota every day, since she produced so much. She was surprisingly relaxed about it. She said some mornings work, and some don't, and if you give yourself these hard quotas, you're just setting yourself up for a nervous breakdown.

    I would venture to guess that she spends less time in the wall-staring phase than you or I do. I've even painted my walls an attractive Italian amber, just to make the staring more profitable.

    I think we all need to give ourselves permission to write things we will never publish. That's part of the cooking process (he said, on Julia Child's 100th birthday). And while the continued wall-staring is tempting, some vain attempts are necessary. I had a note taped to my desk for a while that said, "Err on the side of action." That's just one way I slap myself, get that baby breathing, so it can have a chance at life.

    I wonder sometimes if a writer is a contemplative who has figured out how to get over being so contemplative.

    Good stuff once again, Leigh.