For the past several weeks (predating Christmas, actually, if the born-on date may be believed) I’ve been chipping away at a poem. I finished it just a few days ago. It’s not a monstrous thing (just twenty lines, all told), but it involved a problematic process of composition.
I originally sought to describe a common procedure in this post, to explain how a project normally unfolds. I’ll begin with a situation (I planned to say) and, given the point of view, characters, and setting, see where that situation takes me. It’s a premise Stephen King describes in On Writing, and it’s extremely generative and often surprising. Endow a character with enough history and agency and she’s apt to do things you didn’t anticipate. When I examined my own practice, however, I realized there’s nothing common or normal I can refer to as Standard Wandlessian Procedure. I come at projects in a dozen different ways, some more challenging than others.
The recent poem was difficult because it had a beginning and an ending from the get-go; I knew the pairing belonged together, and I had to develop a line that would travel the distance between those two points in an engaging way. Sometimes, however, I’ll have only an ending in mind and no sense of where or how to start; sometimes I begin at a beginning and have to trust that I’m writing my way toward someplace worth going. Sometimes I use the situational procedure described above, which is a great head filler. (When I exercise in the morning, especially if the activity is essentially automatic, I’ll think about characters, the lives they’ve lived, and the way they might respond to various developments.) In the case of some poems, I’ll begin with a well-crafted, satisfying line, even if I have no idea where it will appear in the poem it belongs to. Sometimes, especially in the case of short stories, I’ll combine two superficially unrelated ideas and see what happens at the site of the collision. All these methods (and others) work, but each involves a different set of demands.
The next two projects I plan to tackle appear to be hybrid types. The first, a short story, originated in a context, developed an ending, and gave birth to corresponding characters, yet the elaboration of those characters in my imagination has yielded changes to the context and ending I hadn’t anticipated. In my first crack at a draft, for example, the protagonist adopted a stray dog, but as I began to understand the father figure in the story I realized that he would never let her adopt a stray. With adoption off the table, I had to consider the other ways she might come into contact with that dog and map out probable responses from the father. That may sound like banal business, but the story has become denser and more intense as a result. The second, a poem, involves a seriocomic inversion of method: an image occurred to me, and that image gave rise to a corresponding premise, but as I considered the image in light of that premise I knew it no longer belonged–the premise was electric, but the image was weak. Instead of having brushstrokes to build on, I’ve now got a concept and a blank canvas. It will involve a different kind of composition.
Perhaps three years ago I would have tabled these projects, turning instead to options with a clearer sense of procedural predictability. This time around, with a stronger commitment to completion, I’m going to go where these roads lead me, by whatever means they seem to require.