A few days ago, while tentatively considering returning to “serious” blogging, I asked a few friends what they would like to see me write about in my first few posts. Among the first responses was one from my pal Gregg Fraley, suggesting that I write about creativity and, in particular, my creative process.
I am always a little wary of writing about how I work. I’m not the superstitious type, but there is a part of me that thinks that to examine the process too closely is to run the risk of not only killing the goose that laid the golden egg, but also of chopping it up into nice bite-size pieces and stir frying it. A thorough job, you know?
But Gregg asked, and, to be fair, my work has taken something of a back seat just recently (mea culpa), so now is actually a rather good time to re-examine the particular methods I use—as I slowly and cautiously return to what I probably do best. So here goes …
I suppose I’ve always been of a similar mind to the ancients (don’t even think about it, I’m warning you!) A rather grand claim, I know, but the notion held by many ancient cultures that art is in fact a process of “discovery” rather than “creativity” especially resonates with me. Embarking on a new novel is an exploration of themes and experiences—an imitation of the peculiar world I inhabit, but (and I think this is the primary defining feature of what I do) also a refinement of that “world”. I don’t in any real sense, to my mind, build the world of my novels; I find a way into it and listen to what the characters have to tell me.
All very romantic and mystical, I know—but, of course, how this is achieved is far more prosaic.
The road to discovery for me has always been about hard graft. As some of you may already know, I never have much time for those writers and artists who fall back on the rather lame excuse of being “blocked”. That’s not to say that there are not times in our creative lives when we simply cannot work. Life and its vicissitudes simply refuse to be ignored on occasion. But if everything is going fairly well with your life and you still can’t work … well, you’re not trying hard enough.
Inspiration only rarely strikes (it does happen: The Legacy of Lorna Lovelost, for example, came to me almost fully formed at 3 o’clock in the morning—but this was very much the exception that proved the rule). Nine times out of ten, inspiration is something you have to go after with an elephant gun. It is elusive and cunning and resistant and capricious. If it comes to you unbidden, you can bet your life it was purely accidental—probably because good old inspiration was trying to avoid someone else. If you want it, you have to be prepared to suffer a little.
Now, I’m not going to suggest that creativity/discovery is an angst-filled process where every artist or writer becomes some drunken neurotic (ahem). The vast majority of us, while we might like the occasional tipple, are actually rather well adjusted. And, of course, it’s not as if we are heading down the pit for a twelve hour shift six days a week. But let’s be honest about this: in order to look at that world out there and discover aspects of it that have previously only rarely been explored, the writer or artist has to all too often look into himself/herself. And that can take a bit of effort and a lot of getting used to.
The practicalities of how this is achieved vary from writer to writer and artist to artist, of course. For me, though, it’s very much a case of “getting on with it”. A project usually begins with my looking for ideas that might hold my interest long enough to become a full-length project. How I do this is different for each project. It may require lots of surfing of the Web, bouncing around and following different threads, or sometimes conversations with friends and family might start the ball rolling—but only, only, if I am receptive and working at finding those ideas.
Once I have a fairly clear impression of what I want to “discover”, I go to work on the initial outline. Most of the time, I will outline the whole project in great detail before starting the novel itself. Occasionally, if I want to keep myself on my toes and guarantee spontaneity, I might only outline two or three chapters ahead. Either way, once I’ve made a commitment to working in a certain way, I do it.
One of the most important lessons I think I have learned as a writer (probably around the time I got my first word processor, way back) is that just because you put words down, it doesn’t mean you have to keep them. Write without worrying that what you are writing might be nonsense. Sometimes the sad truth is you have to write five sentences of nonsense just to get to something worthwhile. Put everything down. Leave nothing out. And then go back and “discover” the kernel of truth in the work by removing what doesn’t stand up.
Finally, I think it’s important to stress one major point: whatever we might call it—creativity, discovery, whatever—it should be fun. Hard work, yes, but rewarding and fulfilling hard work. If you look to the prospect of doing what you do and more often than not dread it, it’s pretty unlikely that anything worthwhile will come of it. Writing, it’s true, puts me through the wringer at times. It demands much of me. But it also has the capacity to lift me where nothing else has. It helps me make sense of the light and gives a manageable shape to the dark.
Without it, I run the risk of mislaying a part of who I am. And that would just be careless, now, wouldn’t it?
© 2014 Gary William Murning