Natalie Goldberg instructs us to, in the beginning, simply keep our hands moving, whether with pen in hand or two hands quivering over a keyboard, no editing allowed, not even punctuation or correcting spdrelling, just keep moving, don’t stop, even if you haven’t an idea, just go…if all you can come up with is “I don’t know”, well then write I don’t know over and over again until you have something…leave your critic mother-in-law in the car with the windows rolled up and the engine idling, just write…remember that Allen said that 99% of what he wrote no one ever saw because he threw it away and given his output, that is amazing so the idea is no idea, no critic no judgment nothing held back, approach this writing practice in three parts first being to really get it out, just vomit syllables and sentences onto the page, projectile paragraphs go “Splat!” on the floor without any self-consciousness or guilt, just gag it out, just choke it out, just let go of it, perhaps for hours, until you are done, dry, drained, give up the notion any of it will ever see the light of day other than yours, least of all that it will get published…just get free of all that shit and go…in time this can become easier, even therapeutic but this is the engine this is the heart this is the universal storehouse this is the source and you cannot access it if the editor or the critic or the judge or your damned mother-in-law is in the room, trust that fucking thing, trust your guts, trust every little thing that bubbles up and write it down anyway.
Who are you to know?
Step two is harder more difficult. From that written explosion ejaculation core dump we need to sort through to find anything usable or inspired we can work with. This is the work craft. This is the heavy lifting. Is there a story here? How much can I take away and still end up with a kernel nugget? Perhaps it’s all junk crap detritus shite. Knowing the difference is the secret.
Time to sharpen the pencil, take the hand planer to the log, and pull out the Chicago Manual or the Strunks. We’re not making art yet. We’re not making a final product. We’re just catching the obvious junk. There will be a lot. Most of it.
At this point it’s easy to fall in love with our creation special little offspring. How can we not love that little thing tyke? At times it’s necessary called for to drown the helpless bastard in the bathtub and completely scrap…
Now we have some usable building blocks, if lucky, a box of exotic mosaic tiles we gathered that time we lost our passport in Medina or the story the old man told us about abandoning his grandchild beside the dirt path as he fled with the Kuomintang outside Shanghai in 1949. Or some passage about how our vision blurred when we learned our Dad died.
Erroneously, Hemingway is credited with saying to write drunk but edit sober. Historically accurate or not, this is the sober part. Perhaps the last part is drunk again.
Once it’s time to polish this thing, sound and rhythm become as rich as meaning. Meaning can become a hobgoblin for creative writers. Adjacency of words by sonic quality can overshadow meaning, like who sits next to whom at a dinner party. Will they get along? Will they have anything to talk about? Will they grope one another under the table during the salad course or get into a ferocious row? Do these words vibrate when placed next to each other? Beyond rhyme and alliteration, is there a song we hear? Do they land with a soft plop or do their edges bleed? How do they feel to you down below your belt? I mean, Ob la di ob la da, life goes on, bra. Nothing extra there. And nothing to remove.
Of course there is meaning in great writing, but it may be more complex. We’re not suggesting we write gibberish.
Dylan used to sound evasive or purposefully enigmatic when asked what his songs meant. He was simply being honest. You decide what it means, man. I don’t give a shit. A famous painter was asked if he could put into words what one of his paintings meant. He said something like, “Madame, if I could tell you what it meant I wouldn’t have needed to paint it.”
Creativity has little use for literal meaning. A poem, a song or a painting are at their best when we have no idea what they mean, when they age with us like the leathery bottoms of my feet or my worn-out, syncopated heartbeat, when their presence and intimacy and physicality are all the meaning we need. What do my feet or my arrhythmic ticker mean? Do my meaning and hers need match? Is meaning allowed to shift shape? To age and become wizened? To be empty or to disappear altogether?
So thank you, Natalie. Here is one from Michael McClure from 1961 for you:
IN DARK HELL IN LIGHT ROOM IN UMBER AND CHROME I feel the swell of
smoke the drain and flow of motion of exhaustion, the long sounds of cars the brown shadows
on the wall. I sit or stand. Caught in the net of glints from corner table to dull plane
from knob to floor, angles of flat light, daggers of beams. Staring at love’s face.
The telephone in cataleptic light. Matchflames of blue and red seen in the clear grain.
I see myself — ourselves in Hell without radiance. Reflections that we are.
The long cars make sounds and brown shadows over the wall.
I am real as you are real whom I speak to.
I raise my head, see over the edge of my nose. Look up
and see nothing is changed. There is no flash
to my eyes. No change to the room.
Vita Nuova–No! The dead, dead, world.
The strain of desire is only a heroic gesture.
An agony to be so in pain without release
when love is a word or kiss.
Michael has this right. Reading his piece, we must read it aloud. It’s a somatic experience, an aural experience, like jazz. It’s not static. It’s alive. It’s cinematic like a kaleidoscope.
What does it mean?
More importantly, how does it feel?