Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 8 July 2010

I don't want to say too much in case I jinx it


Men become superstitious, not because they have too much imagination, but because they are not aware that they have any – George Santayana

I want to talk about my current work in progress but I don’t want to say too much in case I jinx it so I probably will say very little. I’ve never been very good about sharing. Sure I’ll share a bar of chocolate or a can of juice (Scottish euphemism for soda) and I’d give you the shirt off my back if you needed it but don’t ask me to talk about what I’m writing.

I drafted two poems last night while watching the telly. I keep notepads all over the place even though I am never more than a few feet from a computer. I’ve been putting the final touches to my forthcoming collection This is Not About What You Think but I keep getting new ideas for poems to fill in some of the gaps in the narrative-that’s-not-actually-a-narrative. Anyway, I jotted down my notes while we were watching a biopic about Georgia O’Keefe not that what I was writing was inspired by or had even been triggered by the film but the words come when they come.

I noticed my wife watching me write. But she never asked me what I was writing. Even when I’d put the pad aside she still never made any inquiry. This doesn’t mean she’s not interested but she’s learned that I don’t like discussing my work in case I jinx it.

I’m not going to talk about the poems now either. They’re not finished. I went to get my pad a few minutes ago to have a look at them in the cold light of day and then I got this idea and since in my mind I’m behind on my blogs (despite having a stockpile of seventeen of the buggers) I decided to go with this; the poems won’t go off.

I’m quite happy to talk about the writing process after the event. I wish more authors would share. One of the biggest gripes I had when I was young and trying to find my way creatively was that writers kept their work close to their Paris Review chests, at least that’s how it felt at the time. In reality I just didn’t know where to look. The Paris Review with its wonderful interviews would have been a start but I never even knew the journal existed until fairly recently.

From the start though, I also kept what I was working on to myself. I would only present polished pieces to the world whether they were poems, musical compositions or works of art. Did I think someone was going to steal my idea? Nah. There was no one around me who was remotely interested in the creative arts. Most of the time they only showed an interest in what I was doing to be supportive or at the very least polite.

When I was working on my first play when I was nineteen I actually took the manuscript with me to the loo, not so I could work on it while in there but so no one would try to take a peek at it before it was finished. I wasn’t so much bothered by then that I was going to be ripped off; I was more concerned that they might see it before it was ready and judge me based on something that wasn’t right.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve never shared. I have. And I’ve found that to be like giving my creativity a lethal injection; I lose interest in finishing whatever it is. So nowadays I never share. There is also the thought that if I take advice from someone that the work has been diluted; it may improve the piece but it’s no longer my piece. Is that a big thing? Yeah, I’ll say it is. I’ve always believed that an artist should do all the work himself. Can you imagine a runner taking a break for a lap or two while someone else fills in? No, if my name is going to go on the cover then I want what’s inside to be mine: good, bad or indifferent, I want it to be mine.

Of course not every idea I come up with is mine. I pinch ideas from people, from books, from the TV, from the back of cereal boxes left, right and centre; no one is safe. But the people behind those ideas have no direct creative input. They’re providing ideas blind. It’s not like they’re looking over my shoulder and suggesting I make the daughter older or younger or move the action from here to there. No, all of that’s me. Me, me, me, me, me, me, me. Me.

So, I’d like to talk about my current work in progress but I’m not going to. It’s a novel, that’s no big secret, and I’ve been writing/not writing it for over three years which may seem a while but I’ve never pretended to be a fast writer. What I can say is that I’ve come up with a fresh angle on the piece and although I’ve not scrapped everything that’s gone before this, in truth the 23,000 words that currently exist have just been turned into working notes.

What I am willing to say is that this is the hardest book I’ve ever tried to write. I have already scrapped one version, written a second (in the third person) which I then rewrote (in the first person) and am now rewriting addressing a single individual rather than everyone and anyone. It’s all part of the game. If this were my first book I’d be despairing now but I know I can finish it. I just don’t know what it’ll be like when it is finished. I’m certainly not writing the book now I began writing.

But that’s all I’m going to say in case I jinx it.

It’s an interesting expression, ‘in case I jinx it’, isn’t it?

I'm currently back in the past again, 1819 to be exact, but this book is soooo close to my heart U don't want to say too much in case I jinx it! Catherine Johnson, writer

I am working on a new book, about Oxford, about friendship and love and – I find - about the strangeness of Christianity if you happen to be looking at it from the standpoint of being Jewish. But I don't want to say a lot about it in case I jinx it. – Naomi Alderman, writer

Saying nothing more right now in case I jinx it, but I’m on chapter two and I’m just beginning to enjoy myself. – Erastes, writer

Title: No idea whatsoever. I have a terrible habit of saving my novels as "Book", "Book3", "Newbook" and things like that, and I usually only think of a title right at the end. So the title is to be confirmed. Blurb: Too superstitious to share, in case I jinx it! – Andrea Eames, writer

I found those four in about ten minutes.

The thing is I’m not superstitious in the slightest. I tend not to walk under ladders because something might fall on you. That has nothing to do with luck, merely probability. I don’t chuck salt over my shoulder if I spill any and I have no idea if a black cat crossing your path is a good thing or a bad thing except that a cat is something to pet and I love petting things no matter what colour they are.

Supposedly writers are generally notoriously superstitious creatures. Cormac McCarthy bought a typewriter, a portable Olivetti manual, in 1963 in a Knoxville, Tennessee pawCormac-McCarthy_1535417cnshop for $50 and has only recently parted company with it after writing nearly all his novels and screenplays on it. So why would anyone want a fifty-year-old machine? The rare-book dealer who is handling the auction, Glen Horowitz, has his thoughts on the subject:

When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife. – The Times, 5 Dec 2009

I have no idea if McCarthy believed that. It may have simply been that he was comfortable with the machine, the old ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fixUnderwood Universal it’ mindset. In the same article in The Times author Erica Wagner found one author though who definitely believed in his machine:

Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote for more than four decades on an Underwood portable. For him, his machine was a kind of first editor. “If this typewriter doesn’t like a story, it refuses to work,” he said. “I don’t get a man to correct it since I know if I get a good idea the machine will make peace with me again. I don’t believe my own words saying this, but I’ve had the experience so many times that I’m really astonished. But the typewriter is 42 years old. It should have some literary experience; it should have a mind of its own.”

To a certain extent I get the typewriter thing. It used to be pens. And I love pens even though I virtually never use one anymore. I spend hours and hours every day with my hands on this keyboard. It’s intimate. I treat it with respect. I don’t hammer away at the keys. My fingers flit over them. My wife bought me a new laptop a few months ago but I’m not comfortable with the keys yet. The ‘Delete’, ‘Home’, ‘Page Up’, ‘Page Down’ and ‘End’ keys are in a vertical column on the right hand side of the keyboard and I keep hitting the wrong ones. It’s not a big deal but my hands knew where the other keys were; I didn’t have to look and now I do. I imagine I’ll whinge about my next keyboard too. I don’t believe that this lump of plastic and metal contributes in any way to my skills as a writer other than making the experience of writing a reasonably comfortable one. That’s it.

I’m not sure who the award for the most superstitious writer of all time would go to but I suspect that Truman Capote would be a contender:

I suppose my superstitiousness could be termed a quirk. I have to add up all numbers: there are some people I never telephone because their number adds up to an unlucky figure. Or I won’t accept a hotel room for the same reason. I will not tolerate the presence of yellow roses—which is sad because they’re my favourite flower. I can’t allow three 2 nuns cigarette butts in the same ashtray. Won’t travel on a plane with two nuns. Won’t begin or end anything on a Friday. It’s endless, the things I can’t and won’t. But I derive some curious comfort from obeying these primitive concepts. – ‘The Art of Fiction No.17: Truman Capote’, The Paris Review.

In In Cold Blood Capote points out how superstitious Perry was:

The compulsively superstitious person is also very often a serious believer in fate; that was the case with Perry. He was here, and embarked on the present errand, not because he wished to be but because fate had arranged the matter; he could prove it-...

I don’t believe in Fate. I do believe in free will . . . up to a point:


What are lies but truths gone rotten
and secrets lie in that no man's land
between the two.

Guilt is the aftermath,
the mushroom cloud descending
falling irresistibly toward us.

No, I don't believe in destiny
but I do in inevitability.

7 April, 1996

What do I mean by that last stanza? I mean that I am a writer and I will inevitably write. I may or may not finish my current work in progress – that is not inevitable – but unless “time and unforeseen circumstance” step in I will write some time in the future. Probably in about ten seconds after finishing this sentence. Or less.

Why writing though? Why not composing or painting. I might have even been happier being one of those. I wasn’t destined to write but I was born with a predisposition towards artistic creativity. I don’t care whether or not there are more powerful beings in the universe. I certainly can’t believe that what I’ve written up until now could have been part of any grand plan but I guess it would be a pretty inefficient plan if I was self-aware. What I certainly don’t have are any typewriter gods.

“Typewriter gods?” you ask incredulously. Yes, typewriter gods.

When Betsy Lerner was in Junior High she took pottery. Her teacher sounds like a bit of an oddball I have to say because he instructed all his kids to make little clay finger puppets, kiln gods, to “protect and bless” their firings. To show what she thought of the project she produced a little man giving the finger. And you would think that would be the end of it. But no:

Since then, I have had a series of typewriter gods, little effigies that do absolutely nothing but protect and bless my keyboard. Among my totems: the smallest, peanut-sized Matryoshka doll, a white Porsche, a brass penguin, a polished stone, a pair of smiling strawberry salt & pepper shakers, and a purloined monkey covering his ears, from a set of three each the size of a walnut: see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. – ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’, The Forest for the Trees

These sound like the households gods used by the ancient Romans, gods that supposedly channel creative energy. Now I’m all for having things around me that make writing comfortable but that’s it. I have three soft toys draped over the monitor in my office – a dog, a frog and a hippo – the dog was a present from my daughter, the frog my mother-in-law and the hippo from my wife. Seeing them pleases me but that’s the length and breadth of it. And I have a few other knickknacks around the room that make me feel comfortable, my die cast model of Supercar, my Alien3 queen Daleks, Death and his dog (from Family Guy), my Alien3 figure. But it’s not as if I can’t write unless my Cyberman is looking due north.

In his article, How Superstitious Writer Habits Get Started, software developer, David Michael opens with this wee list:

  • The first time, it’s a happy accident. A serendipitous “A ha!
  • The second time might not be even recognisable as the second time.
  • The third time you do it on purpose.
  • The fourth time … well … even if it sneaks up on you have to admit you were waiting for it, even as you kept busy with something else and/or some other approach.
  • And when you get to the fifth time … Just learn to live with it.

And that really is it, isn’t it. But the bottom line is that you are attributing some of your creativity to some lucky charm. That charm can be a thing or it can be a person, a muse. Between 23 March 1989 and 19 October 1989 I dedicated fourteen poems “For B.” but that was only because I didn’t want to make it too obvious that I was besotted with her. Once the relationship came to an end so did my words:


I don't know where all the words have gone.

Perhaps they've all been used on someone else.
Perhaps there's nothing left but me
to hold you in the dark.

But we don't need them anymore.
We only thought we did but we never knew.

There is so much time.

20 May 1990

Seriously there is nothing more damaging to a writer’s craft than being in love or at least thinking that he’s in love. First the quality went and (I would refer you to the previous poem) then the words themselves. I didn’t have a fresh idea until 5 June 1994. In 1991 I did dig into my notebooks and scrabbled together a few old ideas but they weren’t very fresh. For the record, it was another woman who got me out of that mess and, yes, another muse. Me and my women!

Power can be wrested from us. It can be given up freely. Once it’s been handed over it is very hard to get back and you never get it back intact. I wrote every single word in this post, every one that I haven’t credited to someone else. It’s important to me that I can say that. In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I couldn’t remember who gave me which of the three stuffed animals; I thought two came from my daughter but even then I couldn’t remember which two and had to check with my wife. But that’s just research. Research is okay.

I pride myself that I can write anywhere, with a pen or pencil – last night’s poems were written in pencil – or on a keyboard, manual, electric or electronic. I still accept that the process of writing is a delicate one that can be disrupted easily enough. And there are loads of things that get in my road. I noticed that my office desk is a bit dusty the other day. I’ll tell you here and now I won’t be able to write there until I’ve cleaned it. I don’t think it’s unlucky to work on a dusty desk, it just annoys me. If I wake up in the night and need to get something down I’d write in the dust if that was all that’s available to me. (It’d have to be a short idea because there’s not that much dust but you get the idea.)

So, now’s the time to fess up: which of you out there are superstitious writers and which of you aren’t?

P.S. I just mentioned to my wife that I’ve written a 3000 word blog and the first thing she said was, “Was that what you were scribbling on the couch last night?”


Art Durkee said...

I'm not the first to stipulate that Capote wasn't just superstitious, he was obsessive-compulsive. In the end, I think it's what stopped him from writing anymore. The conditions were never right, and never could be. A case of dysfunction leading directly to permanent writer's block. (Did it drive him to drink? or did the drinking create some of the problems?)

The pathology of that is obvious, and enough to make some writers become superstitious about being superstitious.

I for one have never believed that being dysfunctional makes one a better artist—all those stereotypes and archetypes of the Wounded Artist, the Drunken Writer, the Starving Artist—and even if living on the edge of society does provide one with material for writing about, I often wonder about how more creative artists might have been if they *hadn't* been drunks or addicts or whatever. Even if a writer writers out of some deep existential suffering, all too often the suffering chokes off the creativity. Do Suffering Artists commit suicide because they're Suffering? I think it happens more often when they finally realize that their Suffering is keeping them from doing the one thing love doing, Making Art, and they fall into deep despair, and that's it. They end it because they realize it's already been ended. Of course this is tragic, but it's perhaps the inevitable result of thinking that if one is to be an Artist, one must also be addicted, or damaged, or something similar. It's a stereotype that's actually deadly. And I think it's deadly to creativity, too.

In my experience, the psychology of peak experiences also produces good art. Good art comes not only from the dark and hard-fought: I've come to realize that that is at least in part a High Modernist assumption, or belief, a last lingering vestige of the Moderns embracing the Romantic stereotype of the Lone Hero-Artist. What colors High Art with despair is the High Modern's belief, which at the time seemed reasonable but which now has become ridiculous, that ugliness and suffering are somehow more realistic than joy and tranquility.

Transpersonal psychology (prefigured by some of Jung, developed by Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof, and some others) offers a completely different narrative for creativity, one which does not require the artist to be suffering in order to make art. While not denying that suffering has produced great art, it questions the assumption that suffering is *required* for producing great art. Simply put: it's not.

This alternative, transpersonal narrative of creativity is the one I openly subscribe to. I can write anywhere, anytime, using any medium available to hand; although I do find that typing on my laptop gives a poem a different "flavor" than writing it by hand in my journal; sometimes the (mechanically) slower medium gives more time for the poem to dictate itself to you, and not get overrun by its own wordy brilliance.

I'm the least superstitious of writers. But I'm not an intellectual rationalist. I'm an intuitive mystic who uses intuitive logic and follows those inner voices that rise out of the collective unconscious to be heard—if the artist will only listen to them. There has been more than one occasion in which I felt I was taking dictation.

When I talk about writing at white heat, it's a particular state of mind that I've learned to recognize, if not be able to activate at will, and my experience has been that anything I write at white heat is almost always better than anything else I write, and usually needs little revision. Is it superstition to believe that one can count on a certain state of mind in which one's usual level of inspiration is heightened? I don't think so. I think it's experience coupled with learned awareness of one's own inner life.

Kass said...

Did you watch the Joan Allen movie about Georgia O'Keefe?

I don't know if talking (or writing) about a project jinxes it or if it just uses up some of the energy that drives it. I feel like once I've explained to someone what I'm doing the explaining becomes "the thing" and I lose some of the motivation to move forward.

I love the poems here. The rhythm of the first line of Shadow Play is genius. And the whole of Forever is Just Another Word makes me want to sing it. Just put a "that" at the end and it can be sung over and over and over again into infinity.

Jim Murdoch said...

A fascinating response, Art, really worthy of a post in its own right, but the gist of it for me boils down to this: Man’s preoccupation with needing to understand no matter what the cost. In all seriousness I don’t give a toss what it is that makes me write or even what stops me from writing when I really want to. I know full well that, given enough data, there’s nothing that can’t be explained. I used to ask a lot more questions. I used to want to get to the truth. It doesn’t always help which is why I’ve reconciled myself to living with . . . if not lies then at least incomplete truths. And how I write is something I don’t know the truth of. I’d like to think if I understood it then I could control it – that’s the scientist in me talking there – but that’s not the way it would work. I don’t want to reduce writing to a science. I may write intellectual poetry but I write it intuitively – that’s why it’s poetry and not a list of rules or truisms.

Talking about truisms let’s consider the old one about not being able to step in the same river twice – well that’s true when it comes to writing as well. We can try to replicate the conditions or the state of mind that we were in when we created our greatest piece of writing but the very fact that time has moved on means that’s not possible. We are never the same and so nothing is ever the same. And why would we want to do the same thing over and over again? Because even if the result is a great poem then it’ll likely be the same – or as near as damn it – poem that we originally wrote. No, the joy is in taking different routes and seeing where we end up. So sometimes it’s a dead end. It’s better than driving a bus from Here to There and back again.

And, Kass, yes, I did watch the film. Carrie and I enjoyed it very much.

I don’t think ‘Shadowplay’ is genius but it’s a poem I was very pleased with and have continued to be very pleased with ever since I wrote it. I think the final stanza is one of the most profound things I’ve ever written and the poem always leaves me with the same uncomfortable feeling that I first got when I read ‘Mr Bleaney’ all those years ago.

Please feel free to wander around singing the other poem to your heart’s content. It’ll never be anything other than a terribly sad piece to me. I’ve written a couple of times recently about poems being like icebergs. Only the tip of the poem ever appears on the page, the rest is never seen buried deep within the poet. I’m connected to that poem in a way no one else ever could be.

As for the whole jinx thing, I’m not very good at reworking stuff. Most of my poems are first drafts written in a few minutes. I have loads that lie around unfinished and they probably never will be. It’s the old ‘strike while the iron’s hot’ adage. There’s a moment when you should write. Up until then you’re just warming up the ideas – they’re not ready to be shaped on the page yet – but once you get them to the right temperature then you need to work quickly to get the basic shape right which is what I imagine Art was talking about when he says he writes at “white heat”. If we talk about a piece before its time then it can be misshapen in our heads and it’s not so easy to remould it when it’s like that. The only solution I have is to put it aside until you can barely remember what it’s about and then start again. Which is what’s happened with this novel. I talked about it and I started it before I should have. And I’m paying the price.

Art Durkee said...

Certainly the river moves on, and so forth. And time and experience changes us, so we keep changing and moving on.

My point, though, was that it's possible to repeat the *state of mind* within which one writes, while still writing afresh from within that state of mind. Not to repeat or replicate the writing itself, I agree.

Elisabeth said...

I thought of you and your blog a great deal while I was away, Jim. I knew I'd miss out on a lot and I knew it'd take me time to catch up, if ever at all.

Your post here intrigues me. I wonder: am I superstitious. I think not. There are certain conditions that facilitate my writing but they are mostly to do with time. Unless I'm in a workshop or seminar dedicated to the process of writing, I find I write best first thing in the morning before anything happens to distract me away from that hazy state of mind that lends itself to the written word.

Therefore I tend to write on weekends and during holidays, to write the writing that matters to me.

I can otherwise write anytime and blogging has given me access to words I never dreamed I had even late at night.

I've given up on hand writing. I prefer the familiarity of a key board, preferably mine but any other Mac keyboard and screen will do.

I'm not very superstitious over all and yet I like to play around with ideas. I have no trouble with certain other people reading early drafts. I'm happy for certain other people to offer ideas early in the piece.

Unlike you, I do not need to lay claim to every single word that is written.

To me a piece of writing goes beyond the actual words into the
essence of the thing.

Maybe that's why I'm not a poet. In poetry I understand every single word counts.

I can write at a desk covered in dust and littered to almost non-existence. Unlike you and my beloved Gerald Murnane I don't mind mess.

It's good to be back in touch.

Jim Murdoch said...

If I understand what you’re talking about here, Art, it’s a certain preparedness, a state of mind, a set of preconditions that need to be in place before one can write. Although that state of mind may be the same each time and not dependent on a specific place or physical condition what results will be different, like rolling dice – the physical act may be exactly the same but the result cannot be guaranteed. And so we never write the same poem twice. I’ve always been keen to demystify writing, to strip it of magic. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it as a beautiful experience and one I admit I’ll never fully understand or need to but I also never want to get to the stage where I’m attributing my successes to external elements like stuffed toys or the like.

And, Elisabeth! Nice to see you’re back home safe. It feels like you just left. Never have I known time to fly by as quickly as it seems to these days.

I think all of us have natural rhythms that the sooner we get in tune with the better. I personally hate to be at the beck and call of . . . I’m going to say moods but it’s much broader than that. I would love nothing better that to sit down, write out a daily schedule and stick to it. But I’m not that kind of writer. My nature works against my nature. I should explain that. In my head I’m a very orderly person, the kind of guy who gets a kick from two columns adding up, but clearly what my body finds natural is to go with the flow, to sleep when it’s tired, to read when it’s interested and to write when it’s got something to say. I think that I can disrupt that – ‘disrupt’ is a better word than ‘jinx’ – by trying to make natural what clearly isn’t natural. You would think after so many years of writing and not writing that I would be more in tune than I am. Yes, I know that not writing for a couple of months isn’t going to kill me – I’ve got the bigger picture in my head – it’s micromanagement that’s my problem and if I don’t get a handle on it I’m never going to finish my book although to be fair new ideas are coming to me all the time shifting the book’s focus. What I have in mind now is something completely different from the story I first conceived.

When I was a teenager and just starting writing I took over my parents’ front room; it became my office. Everything in it was covered with my stuff, whatever work I had in progress. So I have worked in a messy environment. I think the change came for me when the office I was in decided on a ‘clean desk’ policy; the only file you were to have on your desk was the one you were working on and they made sure we all had filing cabinets close to hand. Like everyone else I was used to having a set of in-trays over our desks packed with files (we called the trays ‘duckets’ but I have no idea where the word derives from) but I soon got used to, and found I preferred, the new system. As did everyone else actually. But even back in the old days I was the most organised person in whatever office I was in. I was the guy who could always put his hand on whatever form you needed there and then. And I was proud to be that guy.

I’m not sure that my laying claim to every single word, as you put it, is incompatible with your looking to spread the essence of something throughout your writing in fact I’d say that the latter is far truer of me these days when I don’t obsess quite as much as I used to. I think how a thing is said is more important than what is said but you don’t need to drill that down to every word. ‘War is bad’ is accurate and efficient - we all know that war is bad - but when Edwin Starr wrote:

        War, huh, yeah
        What is it good for
        Absolutely nothing
        Say it again, y'all

we got the point. I think the best writing is like a slow crescendo. It builds not simply in volume but in intensity – it its broadest meaning – in meaning, in sense.

Art Durkee said...

Not really, no.

THe preparedness to be able to write is merely the act of having a laptop, or a pen and journal, at hand at all times, so when the words come forth they can be caught in the net. That's just the discipline of any creative process: have your tools at hand, sharpened and ready, for immediate use at any time.

That's all I need to be able to write. None of that requires a state of mind. I write in many different states of mind, from quiet and contemplative to sad to enraged to loving to cool calm and rational.

I do know that you like to demystify (and perhaps codify in a rational way) the process. To strip it of magic. But that's just not possible. For me all my creative processes ARE magical, are mysterious, are mystifying. There will always be a mystery to creativity—which is the mystery that links us to the divine, with which we share the ability to create.

No, what I'm talking about with writing at white heat is a *particular* state of mind that comes over me, at times, during which I feel on fire, like my mind is filled with white fire and high heat, and I write as fast as the pen will fly. (Or the keyboard.) It all tends to come out very quickly, too, much faster than usual.

It's a particular state of mind which I recognize from experience of having been in it several times. In no way is being at white heat a requirement for writing. It's not a prerequisite or precondition; or I'd never write, because I don't control when it happens, I can't snap my fingers and make it happen, I can't even meditate my way into it. When it's there, it just comes on like an unstoppable force over which I have zero control. Preparedness, or even being prepared for it, is irrelevant. On more than one occasion I've had to drop everything else I'm doing to get it down. Sometimes I'm already writing when it kicks in. The one thing about writing at white heat that I can describe with certainty is that I know that is happening during and after it happens, and when I read the result of the moment. All of the Spiral Dance essays were written that way; some poems were written at white heat; occasionally another essay was written at white heat. With practice and experience I can recognize it happening more than I used to, and it does happen more than it used to. And more often than not, when I show the product of writing at white heat to people they think it's a late draft or a finished, polished piece, because they wouldn't change a word—even though it's a first draft. Sometimes when I tell them it's a first draft, they don't even believe me.

Again, this particular state of creative mind has no external requirements or indicators. There are no requirements or preconditions. It just happens. Tying it to the use of a particular pen or keyboard or arrangement of inkwells on the desk would indeed be superstitious, and would indeed end up blocking it. But I don't need or do anything like that. And I don't MAKE it happen. It happens. Period. Again, the test is the quality of the result.

Jim Murdoch said...

When that happens to me, Art, I just think I’m on a roll. It’s like exercise, which I don’t do enough of, it’s always best to warm up first. Most of my writing is warming up. I wonder about those people who sit down and write for an hour every day. Okay, they fit the writing in where they can, but my best prose writing has come when I’ve been at it for several hours and the words just flow. I move up a gear. The guts of all my books were written in hours. Typing everything together and tidying up the language takes months but I know exactly what it’s like to write in a flurry like that. It kills me that I can’t tap into it at will. But then that’s what I was going onto Elisabeth about, the different natures I have to contend with.

I suppose what we’re really talking about here is stream of consciousness writing. Probably more you than me. Even when I’m on a roll I’ll still stop and fix a typo. The red line under a word just drives me batty and I’m not that fond of the green ones either. I should really turn my spelling and grammar checkers off when I seriously get down to it.

Writing is mysterious. If it were not I don’t think it would have such attraction for any of us. The simple fact is that as I write, even now, I haven’t a clue what’s going to come next. And that’s exciting. I’m just not sure it’s magical.

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