“Can you tell us about your process?” For a long time, I cringed with disdain, even contempt, whenever that question was asked at an author reading. Unless the work in question is Oulipo-inspired, Surrealist, Bourroughsian, or another piece incorporating its method of creation into itself, then the manner in which it was created has no bearing on the meanings and significances it contains. Gabriele D’Annunzio composed Notturno, a book-length poem, on scraps of paper, while essentially blind. It was an astonishing feat of composition, but that sense of astonishment isn’t related to what we think, feel, and believe when we interpret the piece. Though, obviously, his condition affected his composition, there is no guarantee a reader will know of his condition before reading. Personally, I never read introductions to books I haven’t read yet because I want to discover what speaks to me first, before seeking guidance and historic perspective. Ultimately, when we interpret, we only have the words. Even from a craft perspective, I’m not sure the idiosyncratic techniques one writer develops over the course of her writing life are transferable. Knowing Nabokov composed on note cards, which he assembled into works, tells me something about his creativity and writing, but I sure as hell won’t write anything that way. What, I always wondered, did people get from that goddamn process question? And then one day, I came across a book about the studios of contemporary artists. I flipped through the photographs of paint-splattered walls and floors, mason jars filled with dozens of types and sizes of paint brushes, easels, drafting boards, and mysterious paraphernalia and apparatuses. I was fascinated. It is fascinating to see someone practice their craft, especially when they’re doing something you can’t. And then I got off my goddamn high horse and now (even though I still think it’s irrelevant to interpretation and that writers have no obligation to explain themselves or their works) appreciate a reader’s curiosity with a writer’s process.
The alchemy of invigorating distraction.
Books. Notes. Dishes. Mail. Scraps. Notebooks. Drafts. I’m a piler. A tower builder. A detritus shifter/shuffler/scroocher. It’s an easy, compelling visual. It is satisfying to think of the creative mind as defined by bounded chaos and to see all the clutter and crap on and around my desk (and the desks and studios and spaces of so many other artists) as external extensions of a creative relationship with disorder. The image is accurate, but easily over-interpreted. Do I derive inspiration from the stabilized insanity on (and around) my desk? Do I find it comforting to match my surroundings with my containings? Do I express an identity through those teetering towers? Sure. But most of the time, I can’t be bothered to put something away. The dishes are at my desk because my dishwasher is on the other side of the apartment. The books are piled because shelving books is, like, a two-step process. And I’m sure I could develop a system for filing all those scraps and notes, but right now I’ve got an idea, I’ve got a deadline, I’d rather just read. Cleaning can wait. Which I guess still counts as a relationship with the fettered madness of creation.
Sometimes Soul Asylum. There are more interesting process confessions, but sometimes I need to listen to Soul Asylum.
We think of our brains as a place. We surround thoughts with metaphors of environment. We get “faraway looks,” we are “miles away,” we develop the “thousand-yard stare,” we “go to our happy place.” The place we write is interior and everything I arrange in my exterior, from the desk, to the coffee shop, to the music, is designed to control, as much as possible, the subconscious furniture of my true hermitage. A doctoral thesis I will probably never write: “Lost in Thought: How House of Leaves and The Raw Shark Texts Interrogate the Metaphor of Consciousness as Environment.” I could also title this canto: “Why Josh is the Only One of His Friends Who Never Listens to NPR.” Talk radio, of any kind, breaks into my writing hermitage and messes up the place.
My desk. The kitchen table. The couch. The Downeaster. The kitchen table at my parents’ house in Lewiston. True Grounds. Diesel. Muddy Waters. Charlie’s Kitchen. The Rosebud. The Abbey. The Foundry. Russell House. The commuter rail to Providence. The regional Amtrak to NYC. All flights anywhere and the airports they flew from. When I’m in Lewiston and my brother, whose room I sleep in, has gone to bed, and it is late enough that keeping the light on in the living room screws up the dogs, the upstairs hallway. At the bookstore when the best I can do is jot down the quick, “I’m at work” version of my thought. Long walks. Montieth’s brew pub in Hamner Springs, New Zealand in a flurry of creative anxiety. Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Summer St. Green St. Main St. Saint Michael’s College. Bradbury Rd. All place is place.
I cried a little, on my upstairs porch, its railing perpetually strung with white Christmas lights; surrounded by container gardens of herbs and tomatoes, the detritus of gardening, a few folding chairs, and empty beer cans; looking through the leaves of the tree that threatens the power lines into my one-way street with its two and three story Victorian houses converted into apartments; with a glass of celebration port; at something like 2:45 in the morning; when I finished An Exaggerated Murder for the first time.
At the sink washing dishes. I mean that, actually, in terms of this very moment. I tend to work in the evening and my partner works the standard 9-to-5. The way our schedules line up, my partner usually makes dinner and I wash the dishes the next morning. (OK. Aptitude and inclination contribute to this division of labor along with the schedule.) Since I do most of my writing in the morning, the chore that most often coincides with moments when I need to step away from my desk is washing dishes, which means, frequently, I rush back to my desk, drying my hands as much as possible, to write something down. I needed another canto in this location and I had no idea what to write. Identifying this moment as a “good stopping point” I stepped away from my desk to wash last night’s dishes. This is the sound of moist hands typing while soap residue dries.
The convective past. The incomprehensible present. The aspirational future. Time’s fourth entity that flows in dreams. Time’s fifth entity that conducts the other four, at least enough for us to usually function and often create.
I do my poetry edits in a lined journal with a black and orange print of a honeycomb with bees on the soft, cardboard cover. My in-progress essay project on The Maltese Falcon goes in a journal with an awesome green and white dinosaur print. The black, hardcover, lined, pocket-sized Moleskine is for the reading notes about the current draft of my next novel. The long-term, side-project novel goes in the notebooks distributed for free to attendees of the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute. Imagine a catalog of every notebook I’ve every used; the ones I stumbled into through gift or chance, the ones I purchased specifically as a way to organize my process, the ones that have followed me for years, and the ones that get filled in a matter of months. Include in that catalog all the computers and laptops and data storage devices I’ve used, concluding with a consideration of my USB buckle-spring keyboard making that mysteriously satisfying typing sound and how, by this time in our relationship, my current laptop has earned the privilege of decoration. A catalog is just a collection of cantos compiled while the poets are on vacation.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.