How do we write?

“I developed from very early on a habit of writing something every day, good or bad…and I think if we ourselves as writers get out of the way and let the flow happen and not get uptight about it, so to speak, the muses will carry us along.” -John Williams1

              “How do you write?” This question is typically asked from several different directions:

  1. A person who does not consider himself to be creative, but is curious about the process,
  2. A person who wants to create something, but is frustrated with his efforts,
  3. An experienced creator who has hit “writer’s block,” or
  4. A new creator still learning his artistic language.

              Many answers to this question focus on the technique of an artist. What type of paintbrush to use, how to mix colors, which instruments the orchestrator should score for, the underlying structure of a statue, and many other aspects of the grammar of an artistic language. However, none of these answers get to the core of the question being asked. After all, children create drawings, paintings, constructions with blocks, and many other works of art without any real training in technique.

              Most of the time, the question does not mean, “What are the technical aspects of your artistic language?” Rather, it means, “How do you come up with the ideas that your language expresses in the first place?” In other words, “How do you go from having nothing to having something? How does a composer write music that has never been heard before? How does an artist draw or paint a picture that has never been seen before? How does a writer dream up a story that has never been told before?” I think the real question, and the hope behind it, is:

              “I have an inner world that is vivid, and that I must express, but how do I find the key that will unlock it?”

              After hearing this (in so many words) from many students, and after encountering numerous “writer’s blocks” myself, I began to ponder it. I imagined myself creating a new work, and then, when an idea sprang to mind, I froze that exact moment in time and studied it. I asked questions such as:

  1. What brought this idea to mind?
  2. What was I thinking about immediately beforehand?
  3. How can I make this happen again?
  4. How can I explain it to anyone, even someone who believes they are not creative?

Thus, I have found it helpful to think of it in this way:

              The key to some artists’ inner worlds works like a dog: loyal, reliable, and predictable. It comes when beckoned, produces a result one can count on, and sometimes even surprises its owner. However, it must be taken care of and exercised regularly.

              Others have a key that behaves more like a cat. It rarely comes when called, does not obey commands, and, at times, actively ignores its owner. Its moods shift from moment to moment. It is self-maintaining and fiercely independent. It respects no schedule but its own. Though it is unreliable, the results it produces are often surprising and could even be called ingenious.

              Most artists I know have a “cat-like” process. However, while the inner world is patient, the outer world waits for no one! Deadlines abound. The company you are contracted with needs a new logo by next week. The ad agency needs a 30-second musical composition by tomorrow. You are about to perform an improvised monologue onstage in front of 1000 people in fifteen minutes. But the ideas simply do not come! We wish we could make our creativity more reliable. We wish it would come when called. We also wish that, even if our process had this predictability, it would retain the spontaneously ingenious quality that we have seen from it in times past (“sudden inspiration”). We wish we were master over it, rather than the reverse.

              But cats do not come when called. Cats do not obey commands. Cats do not care about what we need them to do. They find their naps, toys, and, most importantly, food, far more interesting. What we want or need is utterly irrelevant to their existence. So, how do we get what we need from this creature?

              We have to bait him. Isn’t it remarkable how quickly a cat comes when he smells catnip? Or his favorite food? Or hears the sound of his favorite toy? (Our cat comes when he hears the clinking sound of a spoon inside of an ice cream cup.) He may not care at all about what the owner actually wants or needs, but he absolutely does care about the reward. The most hyperactive fuzzy rocket becomes the most patient, obedient, and utterly well-behaved feline upon the slightest enticement of his favored treat.

              All one must learn is what this favored treat is. Are you a painter? Perhaps the favored treat is a set of colors, a favorite paintbrush, a texture, or the thought of a vast landscape. Do you write music? Perhaps a rhythm, a series of several notes, or the sound of a particular instrument is inspiring. Are you an author? The key may prove to be a character, an event, or a concept. And of course, these may all cross-pollinate. A composer may hear a melody in his mind upon looking at a painting. A writer may be inspired by a melody. An artist might paint the character she imagines as an author describes him.

              And what is the key to finding the favored treat in the first place? The answer is quite simple:

Curiosity.

              Allow me to illustrate. Many times, I will look at an object, and my mind will transform it into something entirely different. A simple tree becomes a great spire that shoots past the sky and blossoms at its top into a gargantuan orbital spaceport. The blue sky transforms into a starry night, complete with the exhaust plumes of distant starships slowly navigating the dark. My eyes will see only a simple object, but my mind will ask, “What if it were this instead of that?” Similarly, a composer might play a few notes at the piano, and then ask, “What if I use an A-flat instead of a B-flat?” An artist might ask, “What if I use blue here instead of dark red?” A choreographer: “What if I reach with only my left arm here, instead of using both arms?”

              Children do this naturally, almost by instinct. No one has to teach them how to dig for dinosaur fossils in a sandbox. No one has to tell them that they are a space explorer on a distant planet in search of extraterrestrial life. No one has to convince them that they are a knight, clad in magic armor, wielding their father’s ancient sword, tasked with striking a fatal blow to a fearsome dragon. They already do this with the same ease with which they breathe. Curiosity and creativity are not skills that one must learn. They are instincts that one must recover.

              For this reason, creators often improvise randomly. They may not use or remember most of the material they improvise, but they do not need to. They only need to find the few notes, the fragment of a scene, or the character trait that will cause their mind to go, “Aha!”, and launch them into their inner world. Many of these artists find it helpful to create something every day, even if it does not turn out well. They are simply creating as many objects as possible for their mind to be curious about, which result in many opportunities to find the favored treat. The more “what-ifs” they can ask, the greater the odds of finding a great idea. The famous composer John Williams even says that he writes every day. (I found this interview with him to be quite illuminating.)

              Some artists find this key very early in life and are able to use it reliably for the rest of their days (thus giving their art an appearance of “canine reliability,” yet producing the results of “feline genius”). Others find it and use it for a time, only to find that it eventually stops working. Yet others seem to find it once, and then lose it, only to find it again, on and on, as though the shape of the lock constantly changes. These artists constantly reinvent themselves, whether out of necessity or simply out of a deep desire to explore (which is, of course, not a bad thing).

              Thus far, the key to my inner world seems to be rather complex: An entire scene will play out in my mind, often not making sense with any laws of physics. Music will play along with the scene, like a soundtrack. The composition process is simply a matter of transcribing the ideas, organizing them, and editing them so that they make sense to a listener. Where do these scenes come from? I have no idea. Sometimes, they are spontaneous. Other times, the music will come first, and the scene along with it (or afterward), as though the musical tones are foundational pieces of matter and energy that construct the world in which the scene takes place. Other times, I will look at an object or simply outside at nature, and will hear a tune in my mind (which I often scramble to transcribe before forgetting it). Many things inspire me, from paintings and sculptures, to scenes from nature, to people, to stories and characters, to raw emotions themselves. My inner world seems to possess many locks, and require many keys. A great bit of the fun of being an artist is discovering these keys. Perhaps this is one reason I enjoy teaching so much: I see great joy in my students’ faces when seeing them discover this for the first time. It is as though, like the children in C.S. Lewis’s famous Chronicles of Narnia series, they have opened a door that they never knew existed, behind which exist limitless, boundless, untethered possibilities.

              Many know they have an inner world. Some find its locks. I hope these ideas help you find the keys.

For Discussion

  1. Is your creative process more “canine,” “feline,” or a bit of both?
  2. What are your keys? How did you discover them?
  3. Have you ever encountered a creative block? How did you move past it?

Further Reading

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

*N.B. I have not read The Creative Habit, but I recommend it here because it is frequently referenced in creative circles. This means I should probably go ahead and read it.

Works Cited

1. “John Williams Lets His Muses Carry Him Along”, The New York Times Aug. 19, 2011 https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/19/john-williams-lets-his-muses-carry-him-along/

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