Friday, March 16, 2012

Are You Sorry You Asked Yet?: Thanks For Asking, The Third & Final Part

[This post is in response to TangledLou's post "How Do You Do That Thing We Do?"]

When I first read the questions Lou posed, I was briefly transported back to the "essay questions" that plagued us all in high school. I rarely think of essay questions without being reminded of Miss Musselman's humanities class where Allen Hainsey famously1 answered the question "What is the basis of classical Greek architecture?" with the opening phrase: "The basis of the basis is based on the basis that..." Mr. Hainsey was a consummate bullshit artist and that was a masterpiece of the medium, to be sure.

Here's the thing. When I sat down to write about the writing process today, what popped into my head was "The process of the process proceeds from the procession of..." In part, this was because my brain is wonky like that--seizing on the wispiest of associations and clinging to them forever. But partly it was because the thought of coherently describing something as ultimately mysterious as the writing process seems a bit over my head somehow.

I can talk about the concrete aspects--the subtle and not-so differences between composing with a pen and paper and composing on the computer2. I can tell you about loving the hypnotic feel of pen on paper so much from an early age that as a kid, when I had "nothing" to write about, I would write out the alphabet, state capitols, lists of synonyms, antonyms, homonyms just to have an excuse to hold that pen in my hand. 

I can tell you about the easily flippable pages of legal pads and wonderfully smooth-writing Flair pens, which help me keep up when I get a good flow going. I could share a photo of the stacks of reference books I keep nearby--dictionaries, thesauruses, punctuation and usage guides that I refer to when trying to pick through a draft word by word with the beady little eye of a line editor. I can even tell you about donning my "Thinging cap"3 and sneaking off to the corner table in the adult fiction section at the library or off to the picnic table in the farthest wilds of the town park.

I could talk about the ways in which "blogging" and "writing" differ for me: In the nuts and bolts of it, not so much--though it is rare for me to compose a post on paper while essays and other work get started almost exclusively with pen and paper--but there is an informality to my approach to blogging that simply isn't there with the other stuff. Maybe that's because, as an old-fashioned girl, there is still something significantly more permanent to things that get printed and bound than there is to stuff that gets posted. Or maybe it's because I'm doing this every day now--Lou said something this week about the ephemeral nature of blogging and maybe that's what I'm trying to get at. It gets posted, talked about for a day or two and we move on. The essential transience makes it easier to relax at the keyboard--even knowing there are seven years of archives available at the click of a mouse. Even knowing that far more people are likely--and easily able--to see this post than to see that literary essay I sweated over in 2005, blogging still feels less weighty somehow, which is both its best feature and its biggest drawback, I think.

I could talk for hours about false starts and my horrible habit of editing as I go: write two paragraphs, hit a dead end, scribble, crumple, start again at the beginning hoping to find the right (or left) turn that will keep me going or hoping to gain enough momentum to hop the curb when the dead end comes at every turn. I do this even though I know in my heart it is less efficient than just keeping the pen moving and fixing everything later. I do this even though, at the same time I am doing it, Anne Lamott's words: "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people." are scrolling on the ticker at the back of my mind. 

Here are the things it is harder for me to write about, things I don't entirely understand. There were days--many of them--when the kids were small, that the compulsion to write was so strong that I would do it with one hand while stirring boiling pasta with another. I learned to type one-handed while nursing an infant at the same time so that I could meet self-imposed deadlines and quotas. I don't understand where that drive came from or where it goes when it goes away or how to make it come back.

I can't say much about the way phrases and even whole paragraphs are sometimes just floating in my consciousness as I awake in the morning or even in the middle of the night because I have no idea how or why that happens. Sometimes those snippets belong in a piece I didn't even know I wanted to work on; sometimes they fill a hole in a piece I've been struggling with for years; sometimes I can't figure out what the hell I'm meant to do with them, but I write them down anyway. I can't say much about the fact that I am always writing even when I'm not actually physically writing.

I can't talk about inspiration and how it is everywhere and everything and also nowhere and nothing you can put your finger on. I can't talk about what it is to write toward inspiration rather than to write from inspiration.

I can't talk about these things because they are too wide and wondrous to fit into words. They are some kind of magic. And like any magic, if you try too hard to see the sleight of hand behind them, they fall apart.



1. At least among the eight of us enrolled in that class.

2. Is it just me, or is that cursor blinking rather accusingly sometimes?

3. My "Thinging cap" probably deserves a post of its own, but for now, just a quick, illustrated note. It is a "Thinging cap" rather than a "thinking cap" for one two very simple reasons:

15 comments:

  1. I LOVE YOUR THINGING CAP! *ahem* I've stopped screeching at the top of my lungs now.

    I can't extract just one piece of this post and call it my favorite. But I can extract one that is among my favorites, "I can't talk about what it is to write toward inspiration rather than to write from inspiration." Loved it.

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    1. Thanks, Larissa. Inspiration is definitely a mysterious thing.

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  2. I, also, am a fan of the thinging cap. And yes, it does deserve a post of its own. Is it annoying that I keep suggesting topics for posts that are purely to satisfy my own curiosity? :D That drive you referred to...has been my constant companion these past 4 years. I know her well. And I'm a bit afraid she might leave me soon...

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    1. I love that you keep giving me ideas--daily posting means I'll take 'em where I can get them. Drive definitely comes and goes and comes again, I hope. :)

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  3. I have been curiously reading, with great interest, all of the posts regarding the subject of "How you do..." but in particular yours. I have now gained an insight and understanding of the difference between someone who writes (that would be me) and a writer, (that would be you and pretty much the rest of the community who have responded to this question.) This is what I have come to understand; the writers in the "group" have a powerful and compulsive need to create and express that creativity. I have to say it's very inspiring. But I also understand that it sort of comes naturally and is not something that can be forced. It is a Need, not just a Want.
    Personally, I write as a way of interacting, with myself and others. I don't aspire to become a writer, but I am inspired by you and the others to keep on writing.

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    1. I do think of the need to write as something that's hard-wired, but I also think that lots of "non-writers" can benefit from, as you say, the interaction and the more therapeutic aspects of the writing habit.

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  4. I enjoyed your piece, MM - as always! I think I am more in the league with Lyndagrace - I write to interact and don't have the patience or fortitude to think about writing for publication. Besides, if I depended on my writing for income, I would starve..... So I earn my way with a consistent monthly paycheck and save writing for the fringes.

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    1. I definitely could not make a living on writing--I have made maybe $3000 total in about twenty years of on again off again writing. I read somewhere that you might not be able to make a living with writing, but you can make a life. :)

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    1. Figured you might like it, Leah. ;)

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  6. Love that you included that particular Anne Lamott quote. I definitely relate to writing toward inspiration. Writing brings out my "thinging."
    Great post, MM. You amaze me.

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    1. Thanks, Melanie--and right backatcha!

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  7. No, I'm still glad Lou asked. And I'm glad you're still going. Love that thing you do.

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    1. Thanks! I'm glad to have found another interesting blog!

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  8. You have said what I've been unable to explain since I read Tangled Lou's post.

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