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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The only thing that is constant for me when it comes to creating poetry and stories is that the first thing that comes to mind (most of the time) is the speaker or narrator. After that, it feels like I'm just writing what they say. On the technical side, I approach a piece of writing almost in the same way that I approach a research project: find my working thesis, support it, edit until it feels right.ReplyDelete
Ah, you are truly the story-teller, whether in verse or prose! I find this approach fascinating, because it's so different from my own process. Although ... sometimes for me it seems there's a fine line between inspiration and channelling, and your writing what the narrator says sounds very similar.Delete
I am intrigued by the clustering approach. I tend to just start typing and type what comes. But the times when i tried to follow prompt directives to jot down words and phrases, actually have resulted in better poems. I might try the cluster thingy. Smiles.ReplyDelete
The way you say "cluster thingy" makes it tempting to try. I like thingies. Grins.Delete
It can be fun to work with. Rico said that at a certain point there comes a mental shift and you suddenly know what you want to write; at that point stop and start the writing.Delete
"How can I know what a poem will say until I've written it?"ReplyDelete
That quotation fits me exactly, usually. I'm a lot like you, Rosemary: Often a poem will come based on one or two lines that just occur to me, fully formed. The lines beg to be incorporated into a longer piece, sometimes several.
My favorite time to write is the morning, but anytime I let myself sit down to write has the potential to be fruitful. I like to write in cafés but also in my house.
Yes, you are a lot like me! (Smile.) Everything you've just said, I could truthfully say too.Delete
I could be odd (okay, I'll admit it) but my stories usually start as dreams and I run with it. Poems come to me during my hour+ commute in the mornings. I then polish, update, change and sometimes never become satisfied. I've thrown a lot away, which probably explains a few things.ReplyDelete
I like how Bob Dylan, in an interview back in the 90's, described his writing as he picks the words off the wind. The words came to him just like anyone else and he didn't think he's special. Interesting thought.
Oh yes, I do like that Bob Dylan quote! (Do you think the wind loves him more than most of us, and blows him the best words? (He may not think he's special, but many people do.))Delete
I wish I could remember my dreams well enough to write from them! But I think you are far from the only one to mine their dreams for source material. I seldom throw things away, but there are plenty that I don't make public. I keep them on file in the hope that I can make them work some day – or to cannibalise lines and phrases for new work.
Thank you, Rosemary. I identify with Dylan for many reasons, one of which is I cannot sing as well as he can ;) I think the wind does favor him and others as well. He has been blessed with words instead of a songbird's voice. I ask the wind to deliver the words to me from time to time. Maybe the winds could deliver the words to us all.Delete
(Smile.) I guess we have to put ourselves in the way of that wind.Delete
Rosemary, may I use your words: "I guess we have to put ourselves in the way of that wind?" I might have caught a few words worthy of that.Delete
Be my guest!Delete
(And do share the results with us! Maybe in a Sunday Pantry?)Delete
I've had something evolving but I think I have it ready for tomorrow. Thank you for these words and your encouragement, Rosemary.Delete
An excellent moonlight musings, Rosemary 🌰❤️ with a subject matter that's dear to my heart. I find that my muse prefers to come out at night .. when it's quiet.. sometimes she comes during completion of household chores.. and it's usually the opening line that appears first. (I have learned it's best to listen and write the poem down rather than delay the process. The muse is like a lover. Once disregarded, may never return.)ReplyDelete
For instance: when I was writing for the Weekend Challenge today at the Toads.. we were introduced to an intriguing format. A poem by Wendy Cope known as "The Uncertainty of the Poet," in which one is required to restrict themselves to a couple of chosen words and try them out in different combinations in couplets.
It was then that the opening line came to me.. "My love for you is a rose almond." I resonate with Judith Rodriguez's quote;'How can I know what a poem will say until I've written it?' It's absolutely a hundred percent true in my case. Until and unless I allow my muse to write the first stanza or couplet I have no idea what direction the poem is going into. It's only after I have written a few lines is when I understand my I want to say.🌰❤️
Oh, I love that: 'The muse is like a lover. Once disregarded, may never return.' However, when my kids were little I did find that if I couldn't get to pen and paper immediately, memorising the lines by reciting them over and over in my head was sufficient for the rest of the poem to come when I did get the chance to start writing. (I did have to be firm with it, and stop it from continuing in my head in the meantime!)Delete
That is a most intriguing – and challenging! – prompt at Toads. I had a look at it myself and hope I may find time to to write to it.
Hmmm... I can't say I have a specific process. I have to find an idea (or vice versa) that hits me in the right way, then I'm off to the races. Now if I'm stuck figuring out just how I wanted to approach a new poem, a walk or a shower usually helps me figure stuff out. I have lots of little notebooks running around the house so I can jot ideas down on the fly. I sometimes thumb through those too if I feel stuck for an idea.ReplyDelete
The idea of the little notebooks around the house delights me! Yet I have never succeeded in keeping any form of writer's notebook. (I have tried, now and then.) I also know writers who have lots of scraps of paper they scribble on, and then don't so much file as stash. It seems to work for them; I can't imagine it.Delete
My late husband Andrew used to meditate before writing, with wonderful results. I do sometimes go for a walk before writing, but that is when I have the specific aim of finding material for a haiku or a 'small stone' ... or several.
My process? I think about the poem for awhile. I walk around with a word or phrase in my mind for a bit. I have a mental file cabinet with ideas in it. After I mull over it a bit, I sit down and write. The process is different with American Sentences. It out down a few words and work them into the 17 syllables. I then read it and change words, syllables until I get it where I want it. I actually work more on my American Sentences than I do my regular poetry. It can take me several hours to write one.ReplyDelete
I put down...ReplyDelete
Oh-ho, I like the mental filing cabinet of ideas! I don't have one of them (as I said, it's the words which tend to arrive, then I have to discover the ideas in the writing). So I find prompts useful, lol.ReplyDelete
It makes a lot of sense to me that you work hardest on your American Sentences. Anything so brief needs to make immediate impact. Also they must convey so much in the unsaid. A wonderful challenge, however.
I too find prompts useful. Some of them however I file in the circular bin in my area of mental file cabinets and a very few I outing the "to be kept" area. I find too many of us rely on prompts. We need to use our own inspiration.Delete
The clustering technique is very interesting; it looks like a serious brainstorming process. I think it might work for me with prose writing. When it comes to poetry a word, phrase, verse, prompt, etc., can inspire a poem. As a result, I have jottings all over the place; notebooks, on my phone, sticky notes, and grocery lists, less I forget them.ReplyDelete
The actual writing mostly takes place in the mornings, and I prefer quiet in order to create but sometimes I don’t have the luxury, so I just tune out.
Another wonderful musing. Thank you, Rosemary!
I'm glad you liked it, Khaya. I'm having fun imagining your 'jottings all over the place'.Delete
Interesting musings, Rosemary.ReplyDelete
I think no two writers have the same way and process of approaching a work. because writers are pretty individual people. perhaps a workshop or a program may instill some discipline, it shows direction, and established methods, but i am not sure.
i have little notebooks to jot down ideas or little phrases, and then i may revisit these words sometimes in the future and i see a poem or a story staring at me. yes i know, it's kind of chaotic or haphazard, it seems to work for me (and my short attention span) but once i am set to write one, i will fuss over it. i am working on a series of 20+ short poems/haiku about battlefields (quite a hefty project), so i can be quite a disciplined writer at times. i have tried mind maps, but it does not seem to work for me, but i still think it is a good way to birth a poem. :)
I smiled at the thought of you 'fussing over it' once you start writing. I can relate! I'm actually a committed anti-perfectionist in every other sphere, considering perfectionism very bad for people – but when it comes to my poetry, I am a relentless perfectionist.Delete
Perhaps your battlefield haiku will become a book?