TRACKING THE MUSE
Sandra Beasley | Part of the Process
Piet Mondrian—he of the sleek, colorful, highly-pressurized geometries—sometimes sketched his ideas on the back of cigarette packs. An X-radiograph of his Trafalgar Square shows that those carefully structured lines were really repainted freehand, over and over, in minute and somewhat random increments. White over white; bands of color unencumbered by black masking. “More boogie-woogie,” Mondrian said to a gallery owner, in explanation of his revisions.
We’ve all heard the stories of process, both subtractive and additive: Ezra Pound slashing and burning those opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland; James Joyce drunkenly slapping overheard phrases into Finnegan’s Wake. In a college literature course I was taught that William Faulkner had intended to clarify the Benjy sections in The Sound and the Fury by printing the text in multiple colors of ink, coded according to chronology and voice. When the publisher explained that that the four-color process wasn’t financially viable, Faulkner shrugged—and left the chapter in its monochromatic tangle.
Write about process, they asked. Should I tell you that I write directly at my laptop? That the laptop sits on top of a walnut desk I bought secondhand, then convinced my boyfriend to help me haul up four flights of stairs? That the vintage joint-glue dried out long ago, which means I have to lean down once a day and slap the drawers back up and into place with the palm of my hand?
I could tell you that my favorite hours to write are between midnight and 4 a.m. when I know I will not be interrupted. That I drink scotch as I draft because I like the way the flavor changes with the temperature of the room.
Except none of that is process, not really. It’s just the material particulars of a modern life. So why does it creep into most essays of the genre? Two reasons:
One, we’re writers. We know a beloved coffee mug makes for a much stronger image than a generic cursor flickering on a screen.
Two, we’re writers. We don’t want to make ourselves look bad.
Because the process stories that matter are the ones that reveal. I’m not talking about mellow, feel-good images of longhand script on a legal pad. I’m talking about the Wizard of Oz cowering behind his curtain. I’m talking about our selfish but understandable need for a tiny bit of proof that Ezra was ruthless; that Eliot was in love with his own voice; that Joyce was sloppy; that Faulkner was lazy. The glow of satisfaction in knowing that Mondrian, an icon of minimalism, sometimes required a thousand imperfect gestures to add up to one straight line.
Real process involves telescoping from our small, everyday lives to a grander scale of craft. Process stories are about turning the telescope around again. Taking the big work and making it . . . human. Smaller. Digestible.
So, I’m torn here. Because I want to do the job assigned. But the stories that come to mind aren’t the flattering ones. There’s the story of a poem that ended up with artificially short lines because I was saving the draft straight to a Blogger window, and couldn’t stand the forced enjambment of the web formatting. Or the story about the poem that got such an enthusiastic response based on a particular gloss—a gloss nowhere in my mind at the time of conception—that I gave up and said that was what I had meant all along. Or the story about the week when any pride in poem-a-day-drafting nosedived, after I saw that three out of the seven poems ended not just on the exact same word, but using the exact same verb construction leading up to that word.
Can you forgive me, reader? Because for every poem that might have a lightning strike of artistic vision in its past, there is a poem where I might have just been lazy, or confused, or poaching from myself. Because process is not pretty; it leaves my hair greasy and my feet fallen asleep, as I sit here at my walnut desk at three in the morning. If you’re going to tell the story of process, then you can’t hide behind descriptions of cozy nooks and teahouses. You have to be willing to admit the times you needed a heavy edit, a new ending, or just a little more boogie-woogie. You have to admit your less-than-ideal poems if you want to be known for your good ones.
Or, as the great artist Piet Mondrian said, gazing out an apartment window: “Trees! How ghastly!”