Writing with abandon
Since it’s National Novel Writing Month, I wanted to share my thoughts on the creative process that is at its core: writing with abandon. This is a reprint of an essay that originally appeared in Poets & Writers.
A few years ago I grappled with a simple question I had never before bothered to ask myself: Did I decide on my writing process, or did it decide on me?
Despite an adult lifetime of reading innumerable author interviews, biographies of artists, and essays on creativity, I realized I’d basically approached writing the same way for years. And I didn’t remember ever consciously choosing my process, let alone experimenting with it in any meaningful way.
My approach formed itself around what I’ll call “ponderous preciousness.” I’d conceive of an idea for a story and then burrow into it deliberately. I’d write methodically, ploddingly, letting thoughts percolate, then marinate—refining and refining—sometimes over the course of years. It was as if I held a very tiny chisel and carefully maneuvered it again and again through the practically microscopic contours of my story world.
I distrusted the idea that anything of quality could be written quickly. A story, a novel, or even one of my pieces of flash fiction had to be as finely aged as a good bottle of wine in order for all of the nuanced tannins and rich aromas to fully develop. My writing moved slowly from one sentence, one paragraph, to the next, and I often looped back again and again with the idea that I needed to achieve a certain perfection before I could move forward.
But as I hit middle age, the golden age of reckoning with all things, I decided I needed to shake things up, just for the sake of shaking them up. If I viewed myself as a creator, I needed to approach my own creative process with a sense of experimentation and outright dare.
And, truth be told, my writing had veered toward being as much of a job as my day job. My publishing goals had stifled any sense of playfulness. My stories hewed to narrative rules as if I was trying to be a good citizen in a suburban neighborhood where I felt like an outsider.
I thought back to the reason I became a writer in the first place: that ineffable impulse to explore matters of the soul, the need to put words to the hidden spaces of life, the desire to probe life’s mysteries. I concluded that my labored approach had smothered my verve. I wanted to cavort through words again, to invite the dervishes of rollicking recklessness back into creation.
Cavorting with words
Around this time a friend invited me to join him in National Novel Writing Month: the annual challenge to write a fifty-thousand-word novel during November. I knew about the event, but had never thought it was for me. The object was to write faster than I was accustomed to—to produce approximately seventeen hundred words per day for thirty days straight, a word count at least double what I was used to.
I feared writing a novel littered with unconsidered words and loose connections. I feared writing something flimsy.
I remembered, though, that when I first decided to become a writer in college, I’d been interested in Kerouac’s automatic-writing approach. Kerouac’s “spontaneous bop prosody,” as Allen Ginsberg called it, drew from jazz music, the trance writing of W. B. Yeats, and the automatic style of Surrealists such as Joan Miro and Andre Breton. Kerouac was attracted to automatic writing as a way to tap into the uncensored depths of his unconscious, to find his true voice.
“Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion,” Kerouac wrote in his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.”
The notion of automatic writing was actually spawned in America’s Spiritualist movement of the 1800s. Spiritualists believed that spirits could take control of the hand of a medium to write messages, letters, or even entire books. It was a way to conjure the “other side” of life.
Mark Twain felt similarly. He conceived of the artist as one mesmerized and possessed by one’s creations. Twain saw himself writing words dictated by some other person, imagining the mind as “a machine of which we are not a part, and over whose performances we have nothing that even resembles control or authority.”
I’d exerted myself as the authority over my mind’s performances, but I realized my authority wasn’t even entirely my own. It was made up of others’ voices, others’ dictates: the voices of editors, agents, reviewers, readers, not to mention friends and family, and even people from the past—people whose opinion I didn’t even care about.
Control can neuter writing; it can become as malevolent as a schoolmarm who rigidly upholds strictures of right and wrong in disregard of expression.
I remembered how at fifteen years old I unwittingly stumbled upon Crime and Punishment, the first “great” novel I’d read. Dostoyevsky’s embrace of the dark and paradoxical messiness of life, his polyphony of voices, have always guided my aesthetic sensibilities.
It’s no surprise that his creative process was a sprawling and enthralled immersion in the subconscious soup of his material. In the initial stages of writing a novel, Dostoyevsky furiously wrote notes on every aspect of his ideas. Those notes didn’t serve as a way to pin down or outline his novel, but as a sandbox, a way to hunt for the soul of his work.
Perhaps Dostoyevsky voiced the nature of his process through the sensuous Dimitri Karamazov, who said, “When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I’m even pleased that I’m falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.”
I jumped into the abyss of my novel that November—a novel fittingly influenced by Notes From the Underground—and tried to write with the kind of “shame” that embraced vulnerability and accepted chaos. Only therein would I find those deep connections of life that form hymns.
How to be messy?
It sounds easy, but it wasn’t. My brain had grown rigidly around the rhythms of my creative process. The messiness of my writing felt uncomfortable—a little like when I do an art project with my kids. My proclivity is to try to make sure nothing spills. I’m uncomfortable with paint dripping from my fingers. My kids glory in the fracas of making, though, because their minds are entirely in the flow of creation.
Letting such a tumult enter my process took practice. I trained by writing in five-minute sprints, not letting my pen leave the paper and not worrying about word choice, plot, or punctuation. Sometimes I’d give myself an audacious word-count challenge: to write a thousand words in an hour, or five hundred words in fifteen minutes. I recorded my escalating word-count totals as if tracking my training for a marathon.
Beyond my training techniques, though, I had to shift my fundamental mindset toward writing. I embraced dramatic improvisation’s one key rule: “Say yes and…” It’s a protocol that allows for anything to happen. No matter what your fellow actors present to you, instead of negating it or belittling it, you say “yes” and accept the scenario as it’s presented rather than stiff-arming it in the direction you want it to go.
The nature of our process gives rise to the textures of our creations.
I let words spill, and instead of narrowing the flow into a tributary of a storyline as I might have previously, words flooded my narrative lands, changing boundaries and pushing characters into new realms.
It was fun, if nothing else. It made the trudging of my former process seem stiff and stodgy. But what struck me most when I returned to the clutter of my novel to revise was how many more ideas there were to work with. Not all of them were good, of course, but many held promise, and I’d certainly explored terrain I wouldn’t have normally.
Quantity and quality can go together
My “ponderous preciousness ” was akin to making a ceramic pot. Once a pot has a structure, it’s difficult to change, and impossible as the clay dries. My tendency to endlessly smooth and shape essentially kept ideas out instead of letting them in.
In Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, coauthors David Bayles and Ted Orland recount the story of a ceramics instructor who did an experiment in his classroom. He divided the class into two groups. The first group was graded on quality, represented by a single ceramic piece due at the end of the class. The second group was graded on quantity, literally the amount of work they produced.
Who produced the highest quality work? Those who threw pots “with abandon.” Why? Because they tried more ideas. Instead of creating one overwrought pot, they produced pots that held more moxie because they’d banished the limiting framework of “quality.” They might have created more botched pots, more embarrassing pots, but they were astute enough to learn from those failures and build on them.
As Thomas Edison said, “The real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into twenty-four hours.”
The word to emphasize is experiment. A rough draft is inherently an experiment, or, rather, a series of experiments. Each novel, each piece of writing, is a new thing with different possibilities that demand to be explored. Many of those experiments will fail, but failure is necessary to find those wondrous and magical moments of success.
In an interview published by the Daily Beast in 2013, novelist Karen Russell said, “I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy ‘writing badly.’”
One can enjoy “writing badly” knowing that the roughest stuff of a rough draft is where you might find the diamonds.
William Faulkner wrote as many as ten thousand words a day during his most prolific period, and generally averaged three thousand words. Writers such as Charles Dickens and Henry James pushed their word counts in haste to be published in the most prestigious publications of their day, those that serialized stories. Such tornados of writing have often riled the literary community, though. Consider Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of Kerouac’s style: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
I suppose you could say that Jackson Pollock didn’t paint, he spilled, or that John Cage didn’t compose music, he just randomly collected noises.
The nature of our process gives rise to the textures of our creations. I’d argue that Faulkner’s multiplicity of voices, the layers of history he excavated, and the poetic synesthesia of his language arose because he let himself be pulled by his words with such force. I’d argue that he found his voice—and the voice of a region and a time period—because of such a process.
Kerouac certainly found his voice through the mysterious openings he created through automatic writing. Kerouac was actually insecure about his linguistic capabilities. He grew up in a working-class French-Canadian neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, and spoke joual, which his biographer Joyce Johnson called “a wild and rich anarchic soup” of mostly Francophone influences that “neither Montrealers nor Parisians would consider correct.”
He later learned to speak English at a Franco-American parochial school, but never felt entirely at one with English. Like most writers, he tried on the voices of the authors he read, straining to match their lyricism. Only by dramatically changing his process—banishing the controlling dictums of authorities—did he find the distinctive syncopations of his own voice.
We don’t possess a voice as much as we create one, find one. I don’t write on a spool of paper, as Kerouac famously did, and I don’t aim to write bop prosody. I’ll always tend to write in the slower rhythms of a walker because I didn’t train as a sprinter in my youth.
Still, it’s nice to sometimes jump out of my more methodical process, whether in a rough draft or a fifth revision, and open a vein to search for something more unbridled and authentic.
Because a quote
“Do not fear mistakes—there are none.”
Because I’d love you to read one of my books
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