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Flexibility and the Creative Process

November 24, 2012

By Debtaffa


My first two blog posts for the Nonfiction Now conference were meant to illustrate the mental leaps and emotional risks essential to the act of essaying. As I imagined the trip to Australia last week, I let my mind wander. What assumptions came to the surface when I thought about Melbourne? Furthermore, what did these associations say about me?

Samuel Johnson famously referred to the essay as “a loose sally of the mind.” Petrarch wrote about the essay as an exploratory ramble up a never-climbed mountain. Phillip Lopate once told me, “It is important for the essayist to imagine he has something in common with the world and then to track those obsessions and reveal them to the reader.”
All three of these writers interpret the essay as a type of movement, a mental journey across an internal landscape; the writer’s thoughts must pass through foreign terrain. Imagine the essayist’s mind as a creature tracking down its own scent. The writer hunts the edges of her own identity, the elusive and coy self that guards itself from knowing because an education always wounds.

No writer is raised in a vacuum. It is precisely where we rub up against society, in particular against the foreign, that our edges are revealed. The most memorable material exists in these edges, in the sharp side of us that is quick to bristle, the part we are taught to hide in favor of polite behavior. Successful writers must unlearn good manners in order to speak. The exposure may frighten us but its the only way to access the punctum.

The punctum conveys the emotion of personal experience with a precise image. Even after the book is set down, the image haunts the receiver. People read and travel in order to encounter these sharp moments; they make us feel less alone. The fact that scribbled letters, ordered correctly, can communicate and wound a reader across time is mysterious as it is difficult. When a writer accomplishes this task it makes the reader feel alive, connected to humanity in a way that alleviates grief and loneliness. Perhaps seeing the emotional life of another, gaining access to their internal landscape, shrinks a reader’s pain by redistributing the weight of personal burden. I know when I encounter a writer who is willing to bleed on the page, I always feel blessed. The willingness to share is admirable.

The ground I stand on when I begin an essay is the same ground I stand on when I pack for a trip to a foreign country. My vantage point at the beginning is limited. I cannot see my final destination. It lies down the trail in the future, stretches around the first blind curve and disappears. Though it is necessary to imagine where I would like to end up in an essay when I start writing, I must be flexible and humble,  and willing to backtrack if I get lost. I must respect the unknown nature of the journey if I am to arrive at an unanticipated conclusion.

Case in point, last week I set out to compile a list of my mental associations with Australia. Though I knew my limited perspective would be obvious in my first two blogs, I forged ahead anyway. My preparation for the trip to Melbourne would mimic the rough draft. My arrival in Australia and my time at the conference would offer the resolution. I was embarking on a trip to learn something new about my writing, my life, and my mind; no shortcuts were possible. The encounter had to be experiential. In this way, I trust the writing process and craft. By riffing on the topic of Australia, by groping blindly, I gain perspective. I become aware of my ignorance, discover an entry point for inquiry, and stagger towards an eventual discovery.

Preparing for a journey we take notes, buy guidebooks, conduct research and draw upon cultural references that deal with an imagined point of arrival. Before embarking on an essay the writer asks: what do I think I know about my topic?

Self-awareness is essential to nonfiction writing. Here are some questions I like to ask:

1. How important is memory or identity to the essay’s topic? Will the piece be journalistic, lyric, or personal in nature? (For the blog I decided to convey the following: I am well-traveled, a mother of five, and a non-traditional graduate student.)

2. What revelations are needed for clear self-representation, a unique voice, and a trusting relationship with my reader? (In the spirit of full disclosure I acknowledged my Native American heritage, my subaltern upbringing, and thus my political tendencies.)

3. What historic moments and/or existing literature feed my authorial presumptions about the destination? (“Our Country’s Good” and “Rabbit Proof Fence” were the titles I referred to.)

4. Am I sufficiently aware of my own bias, privilege, and subjectivity? Am I willing to amend an opinion if necessary? (Melbourne is a modern, diverse city and it is not fair to rely on those titles; the choice reveals more about me than it does about the city.)

5. If a writer develops a guiding philosophy, I’m thinking about my “time travel” thread, and follows up by compiling a list of things she wants to achieve or include in her narrative based on this philosophy, how does she avoid a didactic tone? (Though I believe a controlled direction is essential to the writing process, a lack of spontaneity can be harmful.)

Of course, the Melbourne I imagined back in Iowa City is not the Melbourne I encountered on arrival. No amount of reading could have prepared me for the reality of the actual destination: the black swans I spotted while walking around Albert Park yesterday. The tags they wore around their necks. The school children I passed on the playground wearing identical broad-rimmed hats for some celebration I couldn’t imagine. It wasn’t until I asked a teacher that I realized the kids here are supplied school hats because the sun’s strength is a very real danger in Australia.

Without these unexpected discoveries, the journey would lose its vitality. The writer’s voice depends on a sense of wonder.

Flexibility is central to the creative process. By letting my mind wander, by writing tangentially on my subject at the start, I can confront my own intent. My “associations,” as I referred to in my last two blog posts, can be dangerous if left unexamined. They can masquerade as meaning, seduce me with simplistic resolutions. They are often habitual, an attempt to control the story or guide it towards a lesson that pleases only me. If I continue with what I want to accomplish in my piece, if I stay blindly committed to the meaning I conceived of prior to sitting down, all is doomed.

As Brett Anthony Johnston, writing instructor at Harvard, said on his recent to trip to Iowa City, “At best, such [authorial] desire smacks of nostalgia and, at worst, it betrays agenda.” Why explore a topic if it is nailed down and immovable in the mind?

Just as expectations are a part of travel, they are a part of the writing process. Each time I sit down to compose I am seeking a relationship to a foreign place. What tools are involved in the initial scaffolding? How do they or weaken or help the frame in the end? The longer I write the more I believe that learning to cut and shape is the source of quality nonfiction. When one sees endless connections and limitless possibilities, the mind is working at its best. Yet art relies on selection and arrangement. When done correctly the essay reveals all that we DON’T understand about the place we thought we were going. Thus, at the start of every project I must loosen my grip, listen deeply, and keep my eyes open.

How is Melbourne not what I expected? How are my life, my persona, and my assumptions not what I expected? I must retain the ability to laugh at the limited nature of my own understanding.


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