Arcane Process

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Many writers I know wonder most of the time about what other writers, both young and experienced, are doing. The whole process can seem arcane and magical, like you need to find a key locked in a silver box to master it. One day, you will find it. The reality seems closer to a vertical wall that you have to clamber up with a death grip on each hold.

Every writer has a different process. I’ve been hearing advice about how to “really engage” in the process for some time now. Wake at dawn; work after you return from work; clear all distractions; start nothing without getting your junk pages out. No: work at a normal job for six months, then take six months to indulge your creative work, so you don’t go completely mad. Or: it either comes to you or it doesn’t, and you just need to wait. It turns out to be grotesquely  hard to do what you do well.

One writer I know stays up until five or six in the morning, sleeps until three, wakes, drinks an entire pot of coffee, then works in a manic frenzy until he has to sleep. Another writes a diligent two pages a day, every day. You have to put on your clothes; you have to write. One very successful lady I know can’t go to sleep without writing. Another, I’ve heard, lives alone in a house on an island and doesn’t see people for days and days and talks to the postmaster once a week. She Skypes with her parents on Fridays, if at all.

The rule seems to be is that there is no singular formula, because there are no rules. That’s a gem from one of my favorite fiction writers, who told our class, “Art has no rules.” (That mantra still gives me courage to write what I’m not ready yet to write).

She also told us that she was the slowest writer with the worst process, and that we shouldn’t listen to any of her advice.

Depictions of writers don’t help clarify the mystery at all. The solipsism of writers writing about writing aside, who better to get insight about the dark arts from? The unwilling heroes are usually suffering writers’ block and trapped in Los Angeles, a nightmare of a city for writers, who, if we’re trading on stereotypes, tend to avoid sunlight, surface, and people.

In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman is a sweaty trainwreck of a screenwriter, flopping backwards onto his bed, in thrall to his terrible internal voice telling him he can’t do anything right. Barton Fink’s Fink, a lauded playwright, holes up in a creepy hotel room where the wallpaper is peeling to finish his script, and is in real danger of becoming a permanent Looney Tune:

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When they finally break through the eighteenth wall of suffering, they both produce works of genius in long stretches of manic creation. This sequence is pulled off with gusto: they sweat over their typewriters, then emerge triumphant. They slam down two hundred pages, bound by a binder clip, on their agents’ desks. Their eyes start out happily from pink-grey concentric rings.

Today’s depictions of writers are no different. Take Hank Moody, the rock-star novelist in the sordid Californication, who lives the life he thinks artists lead: completely miserable, soaked in  booze, acting out violently. When not wallowing, he looks like this:

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In season one’s end, sick of himself, he sits and produces a novel in under a couple of weeks.

The process is torture, but nothing else feels better once you are all in. I feel most like myself when writing. When I feel the worst, it makes me feel the best. And it is both a constant trap and a flight out of here to better, truer places.

Last fall, I got to overcome my nerves about public speaking by reading a story I spent the previous summer on. The story, “Cardinal,” was for the fall issue of Conjunctions, one of my favorite magazines. The theme was “A Menagerie,” and the editors sought out writing about animals of all kinds, along with our relationships to animals.

I got to read “Cardinal” at a salon hosted by the lovely and most talented Christine An – an artist, writer, and comedian based in Cambridge. There was a question and answer session, and people seemed interested in how I got the idea for the story, which is about a little boy with attention deficit disorder, his teacher, and a cardinal. One lady asked how long it had taken to write, and I told her, technically, five years.

But the core image it hinged on – a bright red cardinal in the trees above snow – was actually from my childhood in Virginia. So, the material was from a lifetime. I spent a lot of summers bird-watching from a kitchen window and I befriended a few cardinals by imitating their chirp. It was as weird as it sounds. The boy was loosely based on a student in the Presbyterian school my mom worked at in Washington, D.C., in the early Aughts, and on another troublemaker from middle school.

Ten years later, living in New Haven across from a shuttered arts charter, I saw a cardinal in the snow. I also saw two mounted cardinals, male and female at the natural history museum on Whitney Avenue. They’re in the photo up top. I wrote a rough draft.

The story didn’t take took root, though, until I saw a friend’s eerie Facebook cover picture, of an Emergency sign at a hospital. The metaphor of a cardinal as emergency, and a final sentence for the story, came through. The image of brilliant red against snow, of an animal in unabashed color, without camouflage, stayed with me, and I held that in my head and resolved to build around it somehow.

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Each of the images in the story took from some singular experience in the years after: listening to tapes of birds from Cornell’s Ornithology Lab; watching a documentary about attention deficit disorders; talking to someone with anxiety and depression issues and hearing about their roller coaster experience with medication; going to a Tom Sachs exhibit based on the Mars landing; my own experience of teaching.

And then there was the cobbling: I wrote four other stories in between that year and now, toggling back and forth between their different drafts, taking scenes from one and dropping them in another. This all made for twenty or so single-spaced pages that needed to be broken apart, line by line, last summer.

So, without the five years of wandering, picking out images from experiences I had no control over, I would have no story to tell. So I’ve come to this being my process: living and observing, and hoping it all comes together, somehow, on the page. This is not very encouraging as there are no magic key solutions; but, it is also, very good, because it means life is long and full of gifts, the arcane process being the best gift.

3 comments

  1. “Nothing feels better once you are all in.” What a great line. Among the writers you mention, their definition of “all in” seems to differ. Every day, only with inspiration, terrible deadlines…

    Today in the newspaper here in Bogota, I read of an artist who said that writing is not easy. For him it is like pulling a dead whale from the bottom of the sea. For me, if I can give five minutes, I get lost and suddenly an hour has passed. Two, sometimes. Diametrically opposed.

    • Nora Khan

      Hello! Thank you for reading and commenting. That’s a fantastic quote, about pulling a dead whale or some kind of enormous weight up through water. Getting the bends in the process, too. My hope is that the whale is more alive than dead! It’s definitely interesting to hear about different types of “all in” – and of your own experience of getting lost. That’s exactly what it is. You have to give the first few minutes, then there’s a feeling of sliding into another place that is eternal, that is always there…a bit like a personal Narnia where you can roam for days with no one knowing.

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