This evening will mark a week since I returned from my Florida trip. Yet I've not written a blog post until today. I've had things I might write about, but they were either too grim or too personal. So much of what I do is by feel and writing this stuff didn't feel right. People are taught when they have the desire to write an impassioned email to suppress it, lest they feel regret for having sent it sometime later. That's where I was mentally. Yet I get so much out of the activity of constructing these pieces that I was missing a part of me in the process. If writing is a way for me to reattain personal balance, I should have been getting at it posthaste.
This got me to think a little about what it is that I do in my process and why writing matters to me. There is an incoherence in this based on the difference between the piece as it exists in potential form when the process is all about my thinking, vague or inchoate as that might be, and later when the piece is complete enough for me to click the Publish button, where it becomes an object that might be read by others. I do not keep a private journal. Perhaps I should, but I don't. I could have written those darker pieces last week if I had and purged them from my innards that way. Writing for an audience in this sense acts as a constraint. There are things that shouldn't be said. I believe that constraint helps creativity, by encouraging focus and reducing indulgence. Sometimes I cross the line, but it is not my regular habit to do so. I value reasonableness. I hope that value comes across in the writing.
Ideas can come from anywhere, reading a particularly important source for me but direct experience mattering a lot too. Then I do something that I wonder whether is common or not. I juxtapose the two. Here is a simple example. I recently finished reading Flow. Near the end of the book there is a discussion about making Flow an approach to life. I am aware that I come up short in this dimension - too much down time spent in idling. Some of this, I know, is needed time for ideas to gestate. The fallow field exists in the mind as much as in farming. Yet I overdo in this regard. One near term reason is that I'm a terrible traveler and feel disoriented after returning from a trip. Vegging out for a while is a way of managing that. But there is a different reason as well. It is giving into fear, of not being able to produce stuff up to my own standard from taking on things that are new that I may be unable to master. Finding myself short of the mark I start to ask myself whether I know of others who have embraced the Flow idea and how they have done so. I'm thinking about this in my mom's condo in Florida, as I'm doing the mindless task of going through the paper files, in search of a few documents that I need and throwing out the rest that I don't. I find somebody almost immediately and may write about her in my next post, though I'm still not sure of this, not because the piece wouldn't be interesting, but on whether I'd invade that person's space were I to do so.
With writing the idea is the starting point. It needs to be followed by motion of thought. An interesting path needs to be found and then followed for a while. In advance, how does one know it will be found? The answer is not particularly satisfying. Persist and the path will appear. Finding it takes as long as it takes. The key is enjoying the time looking for it, not feeling desperate but instead absorbed by following down the possibilities. There is no big gestalt ahead of time where it all unfolds. There is a partial view, then a couple of steps in some direction, then another view followed by more forward motion or some backward steps. This becomes habit, one that is compelling to indulge in.
Or does it? There is the issue of whether distractors destroy this harmony of thought and instead one is ruled by incessant babble. This morning the particular vexation for me is that my Outlook client can't connect to the Exchange server so I'm using Webmail instead. Webmail has an auto log off after a short period of time if there is no activity in the interim. I sent something to the Help Desk earlier this morning and am waiting for a response. So I'm checking mail more frequently than I usually do. This particular situation is unusual, but there is always something. The question then is whether all this noise can be filtered out with attention concentrated on the interesting thought. Writing at its best is done in a bubble where there is only the idea and the author's exploration, the minutia of real life entirely outside. One wonders if the real ailment of modern life is not the grim economy we live in but rather the mass ADHD and ennui brought on by the proliferation of such distractors, creating an addictive impulse for more and more banal information.
Then there is the issue of the dictionary - rely on it or not? Does word look up also break the continuity of the thinking? My answer is yes and no. Ideas can't exist separate from their expression. In trying to say something with at least a bit of originality, a word occurs in the crafting of the sentence. It seems apt, but am I saying what I intend to say? I can't leave that question unanswered and move forward. The princess needs to remove the pea to get some rest. Why the princess is disturbed by the pea, I can't say. In some things it is enough to accept the facts and accommodate them. It is then not the look up that is disturbing but that the word occurred to the writer. That thoughts occur is reward, not punishment. The look up of the word is then akin to taking steps along the path.
Here is one last point on process. The journey is the goal. The end point of the journey is unknown at the outset so can't possibly be the goal ahead of time. This is particularly unsettling for people who are task oriented and want to pre-specify what they will produce. I'm afraid that doing that will entirely block that learning inherent in writing. All that can be said up front is something quite general on the topic.
I have a fantasy that everyone will try to be a writer in this way, working at it daily for about six months, long enough for the habits of mind to set in. Perhaps they will then reflect on whether they are being true to themselves while engaged in their other activities as well as asking whether the writing itself becomes a time of enjoyment. Students mostly produce writing based on an external deadline, often on a topic not of their own choosing. There may be some benefits to writing to a deadline. Early in this piece I talked about the benefit of constraint in writing. The deadline surely provides constraint. But I sense that most students entirely miss the sense of exploration in producing pieces for the courses they take. When I queried my class on this a couple of years ago, many affirmed the benefits of procrastination. That they could do so without remorse surely means they cared not about the journey. In that sense, they didn't get it. In my fantasy, everybody does.