Some Comments on Creative Process
A fact or a theory that takes its meanings from a particular discipline interests me in the ways it might be useful outside that discipline. How might a biologist’s ideas about morphology transfer to literary form? Do literary texts have feedback loops, like thermostats or software? From architecture, Christopher Alexander and his thinking about Pattern Language offer possibilities for thinking about text production and reception. It’s a way to see an element in its place – as something like syntax; and by its use – something like grammar; but also, to carry similarity and difference out to increasing levels of complexity and abstraction., where the text has its environments and situations beyond the page.
Geography, especially place-and-space geography, is fruitful as a paradigm for writing, because it offers a rich language of associations. Think about shortcuts – various forms of alternative trails, cheats, beaten paths, wormholes, desire lines, and so forth. How might patterns in language, up and down the page, through sentences, passages, stanzas, paragraphs, and larger sections, offer similar journeys to meaning or apprehension of a text? Every creative writer should read (among other geographers) the books of Yi-Fu Tuan as a way into this realm.
Mainly, these contrastive ways of looking at language and texts help me renew the problems of creativity and of writing. They are necessarily incomplete and imperfect: thought experiments that help my brain get moving as I write.
This tendency in my mind to violate boundaries between disciplines comes from two influences. The first – one key thread in Fayettenam –is the transient upbringing I experienced as a military brat. Moving frequently, re-starting my sense of self every year or two as a child, forced me to consider intersections, juxtapositions, paradigm shifts, competing sensibilities, conflicting modalities. This was true not only of the world around me as it changed, but of the world inside: could I re-invent myself in the new social environment after a move? (I always tried, generally failed).
The second influence was my four years at Sarah Lawrence College, where students were encouraged to explore the overlapping, cross-fertilizing possibilities of their curriculum of study. You take three classes each term at Sarah Lawrence, which allows a more in-depth exploration in each subject, but also the opportunity to carry a project from one course into another. My freshman year, I wrote a paper on how science had influenced seventeenth-century English poets for my mathematics professor, Edward Cogan, and my poetry professor, Jean Valentine. Both read and commented on the project, in different but overlapping ways. That third space of thinking was the important element.
The cross-connecting was something students experienced in many ways, at varied levels of learning. Probably the most valuable form of this integrative learning was in the ways social and emotional life at Sarah Lawrence penetrated academic life: shaped by the ways the environment itself – the grounds, the trees and boulders, the prospects from various windows in buildings, the criss-crossing of paths to and from class or the dining hall – defined the overall learning and living across those four years. Sometimes, lacking a singular sense of home in memory, that campus serves as the primal space of my thinking: ideas orient themselves as if within those greenswards and winding paths between the brick buildings and repurposed houses. It’s evolved across the years into something altogether different, I suppose – larger, more complicated, more Arcadian; more like a distant country than a college campus. (That mental space has the sense of languor and sweet sadness I experience when re-reading Robert Duncan’s “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.”)
All of this is a very-roundabout way of describing some of the creative context for my hybrid memoir due out next February, “Fayettenam: Meditations on Missingness.” I want to explore, in the weeks and months to come, the ways a book might come to be, and also how it might continue evolving even after it has been set down in print and launched into the world. The inter-linking of themes or tropes in my book, including those that were eventually removed, will appear in alternate forms – with extensions, ancillary anecdotes, revisions, parsings, and so forth. “Fayettenam” is itself a hybrid: a place that does not exist, a wormhole between two far-apart, though intimately and tragically-connected nodes of the earth. Missingness itself is, among its many other meanings and iterations, the passage through such a wormhole.
But next week, before I get too heady, I plan to come back down to earth in order to share my thoughts on the memorial ceremony for my stepfather, James Lewis (the main subject of “Fayettenam”) my family and I attended a few weeks ago in Arlington. Stay tuned!