Several years ago I grappled with a simple question I had never before bothered to ask myself: Did I decide on my writing process, or did it decide on me? Despite an adult lifetime of reading innumerable author interviews, biographies of artists, and essays on creativity, I realized I’d basically approached writing the same way for years. And I didn’t remember ever consciously choosing my process, let alone experimenting with it in any meaningful way.
Control can neuter writing; it can become as malevolent as a schoolmarm who rigidly upholds strictures of right and wrong in disregard of expression.
My approach formed itself around what I’ll call “ponderous preciousness.” I’d conceive of an idea for a story and then burrow into it deliberately. I’d write methodically, ploddingly, letting thoughts percolate, then marinate—refining and refining—sometimes over the course of years. It was as if I held a very tiny chisel and carefully maneuvered it again and again through the practically microscopic contours of my story world.
I distrusted the idea that anything of quality could be written quickly. A story, a novel, or even one of my pieces of flash fiction had to be as finely aged as a good bottle of wine in order for all of the nuanced tannins and rich aromas to fully develop. My writing moved slowly from one sentence, one paragraph, to the next, and I often looped back again and again, driven by the idea that I needed to achieve a certain perfection before I could move forward.
But as I hit middle age, the golden age of reckoning with all things, I decided I needed to shake things up, just for the sake of shaking them up. If I viewed myself as a creator, I needed to approach my own creative process with a sense of experimentation and outright daring. And, truth be told, my writing had veered toward being as much of a job as my day job. My publishing goals had stifled any sense of playfulness. My stories hewed to narrative rules as if I were trying to be a good citizen in a suburban neighborhood where I felt like an outsider.
I thought back to the reason I became a writer in the first place: that ineffable impulse to explore matters of the soul, the need to put words to the hidden spaces of life, the desire to probe life’s mysteries. I concluded that my labored approach had smothered my verve. I wanted to cavort through words again, to invite the dervishes of rollicking recklessness back into creation.
Around this time a friend invited me to join him in National Novel Writing Month, the annual challenge to write a fifty-thousand-word novel during November. I knew about the event but had never thought it was for me. The object was to write faster than I was accustomed to—to produce approximately seventeen hundred words per day for thirty days straight, a word count at least double what I was used to. I feared writing a novel littered with unconsidered words and loose connections. I feared writing something flimsy.
I remembered, though, that when I first decided to become a writer in college, I’d been interested in Jack Kerouac’s automatic-writing approach. His “spontaneous bop prosody,” as Allen Ginsberg called it, drew from jazz music, the trance writing of W. B. Yeats, and the automatic style of surrealists such as Joan Miró and André Breton. Kerouac was attracted to automatic writing as a way to tap into the uncensored depths of his unconscious, to find his true voice.
“Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion,” Kerouac wrote in his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.”
The notion of automatic writing was actually spawned in America’s Spiritualist movement of the 1800s. Spiritualists believed that spirits could take control of the hand of a medium to write messages, letters, even entire books. It was a way to conjure the “other side” of life.
Mark Twain felt similarly. He conceived of the artist as one mesmerized and possessed by one’s creations. Twain saw himself writing words dictated by some other person, imagining the mind as “a machine of which we are not a part, and over whose performances we have nothing that even resembles control or authority.”
I’d exerted myself as the authority over my mind’s performances, but I realized my authority wasn’t even entirely my own. It was made up of others’ voices, others’ dictates: the voices of editors, agents, reviewers, readers, not to mention friends and family, and even people from the past—people whose opinion I didn’t even care about.
Control can neuter writing; it can become as malevolent as a schoolmarm who rigidly upholds strictures of right and wrong in disregard of expression. I remembered how at fifteen years old I unwittingly stumbled upon Crime and Punishment, the first “great” novel I’d read. Dostoevsky’s embrace of the dark and paradoxical messiness of life and his polyphony of voices have always guided my aesthetic sensibilities. It’s no surprise that his creative process was a sprawling and enthralled immersion in the subconscious soup of his material. In the initial stages of writing a novel, Dostoevsky furiously wrote notes on every aspect of his ideas. Those notes didn’t serve as a way to pin down or outline his book, but as a sandbox, a way to hunt for the soul of his work.
Perhaps Dostoevsky voiced the nature of his process through the sensuous Dmitri Karamazov, who said, “When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I’m even pleased that I’m falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.”
I jumped into the abyss of my novel that November—a novel fittingly influenced by Notes From Underground—and tried to write with the kind of “shame” that embraced vulnerability and accepted chaos. Only therein would I find those deep connections of life that form hymns.