Process and Product
I was having a facebook chat with Jasmine Logan (whom I featured here recently) when she accidentally sent me a photo of a whiteboard she was working on, mapping out a new poem. (She only meant to snap it for her own records.) When I say mapping, I mean mind-mapping.
I've known of this technique since first encountering it decades ago in the book 'Writing the Natural Way' by Gabriele Lusser Rico. She called it clustering. Here is an example from her book:
Since then it's taken off, been used for many different purposes besides writing, and is taught in schools. It's decades since I tried it as a writing tool, and then only briefly. I did the exercises in Rico's book, and they worked, but somehow the method didn't stick.
I guess that's because, when you've been making poems since age seven, by the time you're an adult you tend to fall back on what's already working. (Much as, having learned to two-finger type when I was nine, I never learned to touch-type later. Every time I tried, I became impatient and went back to what I already did quite well enough for my needs.)
Nevertheless I exclaimed to Jasmine, 'I love the way you work!' It looked so active and immediate.
I find process fascinating – especially the fact that we can have very different processes, yet all of them can produce excellent poems.
For me, poetry tends to occur as phrases, lines, even whole verses already formed. This happens whether they just bubble up into my consciousness, apparently from nowhere, or whether I decide to write on a particular topic (be that a prompt, or something else that engages me). So I start with what comes into my head, and go from there. Those original words usually do form the beginning of the poem, but sometimes they turn out to be at the end of it or somewhere in the middle, and sometimes they don't stay in the finished poem at all.
I'm like the late Australian poet Judith Rodriguez, who was famously quoted as saying, 'How can I know what a poem will say until I've written it?' Even when I work to a prompt, I don't know where it will take me until I get there.
I've been intrigued to discover that some of my poet friends work quite differently from that. They start with an idea of what they want to write about, and also have a pretty clear idea of what they wish to say on that topic. At least some of them then explore it in prose until it's expressed coherently, and only then begin to shape it into verse. Some very good poets work like that. It puzzles me, but I can't deny that for them it's an effective technique.
Then of course there are many other aspects to process. Some people need quiet in order to create. Noise doesn't bother me; I can tune it out. Some people like specific rituals to help them get into a creative frame of mind; others (including me) dive right in. Some find that listening to music somehow helps the words to flow. (Classical music seems to be what works best for them, I observe. Which may be one reason I don't do that, as I prefer other kinds of music which might not be so conducive. Blues could work; not so sure about heavy metal.)
Some write best first thing in the morning, others late at night.
There are those who like to do a lot of thinking before they put pen to paper – even, in some cases, to go for a walk before they start writing, or to sit and meditate. And of course there are plenty of us now who don't put pen to paper any more, but fingers to keys.
There are fiction writers who save newspaper cuttings to get inspiration for plots and characters. There are poets who fill notebooks with lists of words that appeal to them. There are people who go out to cafés to write; others who must have their own desk in their own room; others again whose most productive spot is the kitchen table.
All methods work, but only some of them work for a particular individual. What do you favour?
Please tell me in the comments. I'd love to know your thoughts, and read your descriptions of your own processes.
I'm currently (at the time of preparing this post) reading Patti Smith's latest book, Year of the Monkey, and just came to the part where she describes herself and her late friend Sam Shepherd, towards the end of his life, working together on revising a manuscript, '... me reading and transcribing, Sam writing out loud in real time.'
She says: 'There are several changes and new passages which he verbalizes to avoid the struggle of writing by hand.'
He's in a wheelchair at the time she writes of, and can no longer play his cherished Gibson guitar.
She says: 'Some time ago he told me that one must write in absolute solitude, but necessity has shifted his process.'
That would be a good place, aesthetically and philosophically, at which to end this. But wait, there's more! It's an important more.
'Sam adjusts and seems invigorated by the prospect of focusing on something new.'
Over to you!
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