On Process: The Iterations

Longest way round is the shortest way home. — James Joyce

I’ve discovered something lately about the process of writing: it’s more fun when it’s moving. It’s less fun when it stops. And regardless of how much I agonize over it, it takes many, many iterations to reach anything approaching the speed of light.

In the season or so since I finished my MFA, I’ve taken the liberty of focusing on process. And I’ve discovered something: bringing a single work through multiple different forms, or iterations–from the spoken word to handwriting to the digital page–keeps the process moving for me. It keeps me from getting stuck.

This may seem crazy, and frankly, I’m not sure that it isn’t. Why trade the bullet-train of word processing for the wending footpath of the pen, or the ancient art of bushwhacking that is composition via the spoken word? Maybe for the same reason some of us like to walk to the store when we could just as easily drive. Because we see more. Because we like to stretch our legs. Because, in the end, it’s not just getting there, but how we get there that counts.

For me, there’s something horribly un-fun about staring at words on the screen, trying to imagine some way they might approximate what once appeared with such clarity inside my head. The words on the screen seem to have acquired a kind of rigidity I don’t find in my own loopy handwriting, and certainly not in the rambling musings of an audio recording. These, to me, are reaching, searching forms. They are seed puffs blown from the mind. By working with the ideas of the story before they’ve set up, so to speak, I feel far freer. Certainly freer than I did during the course of my MFA, staring untold hours at that damn screen, relying on what I’ve come to think of as the Brute Force Method to make those thoughts align.

For me, writing is a tremendously iterative process. It does not seem to matter how long I take on any one draft, or how much I agonize over it. It will still take at least five more. So why not work in a way that acknowledges that?

I like to tell stories. I like the shape of my own ridiculous handwriting, forever a testament to my childhood obsession with calligraphy. Truth to be told (geek that I am), I even really enjoy typing–the feeling of words unfolding through this muscle memory, this QWERTY language I internalized as a teenager, lying in bed at night, typing whatever thought ventured to mind, like a cat chasing butterflies in her sleep. (You can do it yourself right now, whether you’ve got your fingers on the keyboard or not: “like a cat chasing butterflies in her sleep.”) The only thing I don’t like is staring at the screen, trying to imagine how the hell this thing is ever going to reach the speed of light.

I seem to have found a kindred spirit on this subject (and various others) in Brandi Katherine Herrera, a poet/artist friend who happens to be obsessed with vintage typewriters. She told me recently that she enjoys the process of retyping the drafts of her poems on good old fashioned paper, as does the poet Matthew Zapruder, who had this to say in the course of an interview with The PEN American Center:

“…at first I used a computer, but found it frustrating, mostly because of my limitations as a poet. The computer was in a way too powerful a device…I started writing poems only on the typewriter, so every new draft I wanted to write—even if it was just to change one word, or a line break—I would have to retype the poem again. So for each poem in my first book (or at least most of them) there is somewhere a pile of anywhere between 50 and 250 individual sheets of paper, each with a version of the poem, usually only barely changed.”

Why engage such a maddening process? Possibly because it’s actually less maddening than staring at the screen, hour after hour, trying to make something happen that won’t. Because however little is actually changing during that process of typing and retyping, something is happening. The poem, like most things we think of as alive, is moving, however slowly–and therefore so the mind.

Brandi and I have both been starting the composition process lately with dictation (via a digital recording device for her, and the Garageband app for me), and I have to say, I’ve been startled by what has bubbled up for each of us through this process. A poem she shared recently hit me on an emotional level that poetry rarely does. A story I believed far on the periphery of my own consciousness turned out to be right there on the tip of my tongue.

I’m not sure that either of these artworks would have come to exist this way if they’d started out in response to that cursor on the screen, blinking like the eye of some great digital librarian asking us, can I help you? (Do you, in fact, have any idea what you came here for?)

Often, the answer to that question is no. But just as often, we can reach beyond what we think we know to those liminal truths at the far edge or great depths of our consciousness by keeping it loose, light, and searching–by taking the scenic route, as opposed to the short cut.


One thought on “On Process: The Iterations

  1. Pingback: Hot Robot Love: This Novel Via Dictation « SDeFreitasTimmons

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