Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Process

That, I've decided, is what I like. Process. Results, while important, are not the point. The point is process.

I've been thinking about this lately because of my extra-literary activities: with school out and my novel finished, I've been taking lots of photos and recording some music. Now, there are simple ways of achieving these goals. Digital technology has made recording and photography simple; anybody with a good idea and some basic skills can take a decent picture or record a good-sounding song.

But in spite of these advantages, I keep putting things into my path--problems I have to solve, obstacles I need to overcome. The last song I recorded, I tracked it to a 4-track reel to reel made in the seventies. Then I transferred the material to a computer and added to it. And the last pictures I took, I didn't take with my fancy new DSLR camera--I used a film camera and lens made in the late sixties, and shot on black and white film. And then I developed the film, using four different chemicals, and scanned the negatives onto a computer, where I processed the photos further.

What's the point, when I might have gotten it all right instantly with a digital recorder, a digital camera? Obviously--the process.

If you're a writer, you like process. Occasionally I'll meet a book enthusiast who has an idea for a book. "Now all I have to do is write it." That person isn't a writer--a writer is somebody who likes writing. Ideas--those are a dime a dozen. You can find more ideas in one day's morning paper than you can ever write in a lifetime. The idea is merely a method of getting to the process--and if you're really cooking, the process will often overwhelm the idea, will change it into something else. I like to say that the novel I'm starting is ruined the moment I write the first sentence. What I mean is that my original idea begins to die when I start writing--the writing creates the idea. The process determines the content.

In music, and in photography, the medium we use determines our results. We may compose an image differently knowing we've only got a dozen exposures left; we might only shoot B&W because we don't feel like paying the supermarket to develop color. We may be more accepting of error in our music when the medium is hard to edit--our song might well be rougher, stranger, have more personality.

Similarly, when we let process dictate what we write, we write something more interesting. The process helps us forget our outer selves and dig more deeply into our thoughts, feelings, and motivations. The process can make you forget about publishing, about what your mom will think, about what your kids might be doing at the moment.

If the medium is the message, then the process is the point.

11 comments:

rmellis said...

I would like my story ideas to float from my head to the page with no effort from me. Then I could enjoy them, and cackle over them, instead of being reminded how bloody difficult the whole process was.

You and I are kind of like opposites.

Alicia said...

There is nothing like being in the dark room. It can be a tedious process, but it's a beautiful craft. I took three photography courses over past summers just for the dark room access. I lived with my folks who weren't keen to let me create my own in the basement. The dark room process is very close to writing. You fail a lot. Often, you have to keep re-trying exposure times or may have left the print in the developer for too long. Also, it's a place of experimentation like making photograms or tinting or sponging developer.

In the "Writing Life" by Annie Dillard, she talks about a time she went to hear some famous writer speak and a person in the crowd asked the writer what would make a person a good writer. the writer tells the questioner that "you have to like sentences" and it was similar to a painter needing to love the smell of paint.(um, it may've went something like that) Anyway, I really thought deeply about the need to love the process, to enjoy the constant struggle in rearranging words.

myles said...

Hmmm... I like writing, but I really like having written. The two things are pretty much simultaneous, or at least very close together, so I don't have to distinguish. What I really don't like is the not-yet-writing, the knotty feeling I get when I'm still trying to work out what it is I'm trying to do, and why, etc.

Still, it beats working.

jrlennon said...

Hey yeah I remember that Annie Dillard thing! I've always liked that, "You have to like sentences."

I don't have a darkroom--oddly there are no rooms in our house without windows. I just load the film in a lightproof zipper bag, develop it in a small tank, and send out scans for printing. But I'd love to get an enlarger someday.

As for Rhian...you know what they say about opposites...

rmellis said...

I do like sentences, though. A fresh, strong, funny, clear sentence is sometimes enough to make the world seem worth it.

james said...

YES! I'm in a writing group of post-grad writers, a few of us have MFAs, and I try to stress the process rather than the end result. I feel like young writers especially focus so much on getting published, whether it be freelance work or pushing forth work that they feel isn't up to par, simply to see their name in print.

It sounds a bit hippie/bohemian-ish but I remind them of the early French poets who used to write poems and then burn them because they were more concerned with creating a piece of art every day rather than the end result.

Lisa R. said...

I dunno. I really love that initial flash of an idea and then I get kind of depressed over the reality that now I have to write it...then I move into elation as I do the writing, thinking I'm getting it, only to discover upon reading the rough draft that it doesn't live up to the original idea at all. Then I put it away for a long time, vow never to write on that topic again, curse myself for having had the idea in the first place....and then I get another idea....and the whole thing starts again and somewhere along the way I pull out the horrid draft of the first idea, and begin revising, rewriting, shredding if necessary, then rewriting -- and along the way I find I'm having a ball -- until the bugger's done, and I can't remember any of the angst.

So, yeah, process is the biggest part of the "fun" of writing, but then again, I love that initial burst of an idea, which if only I'd be smart enough to leave alone....

Did anyone say "vicious cycle"?

Pale Ramón said...

I think the writing process is the best antidote for being a control freak (and what writer isn't a bit of a control freak?). Once you give yourself over to following the words, you take yourself by surprise. That's the best part for me.

Writer Reading said...

I think that process is that state of flow that you have to be into for your reader to get into it. If you don't, the reader won't. But then of course there is that detached, analytical non- or semi-process step of editing. It's a different part of the brain.

KATE EVANS said...

Just because writers love process it doesn't mean it's always a pretty love. Sometimes it's the gotta-go-brush-my-teeth-even-thought-I'm-wiped-out-before-bed-so-I-don't-stink-like-garlic-for-my-spouse kind of love.

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