Thursday, September 5, 2013


A conversation I had at lunch today about the habits of mind conducive to good writing sent me back riffling through my commonplace books tonight. Here's testimony I have collected over the years from writers, artists, and musicians about the role of exploration, uncertainty, and provisionality in their work:

The work I did is the work I know, and the work I do is the work I don't know. That's why I can't tell you, I don't know what I'm doing. And it's the not knowing that makes it interesting. (Philip Glass)

But poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know… (Adrienne Rich)

Like the novelist who finds that his characters begin to have a life of their own and to demand certain experiences, I find that I can no longer go to write a poem with a neat handful of materials and express those materials according to a prior plan. (Rich)

I'm opposed to the whole idea of conception-execution—of getting an idea for a picture and then carrying it out. I've always felt as though, whatever I've used and whatever I've done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation and control. (Robert Rauschenberg)

The point is, I just paint in order to learn something new about painting, and everything I learn always resolves itself into two or three pictures. (Rauschenberg)

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. (Thomas Mann)

Art is a journey into the most unknown thing of all—oneself. Nobody knows his own frontiers… I don't think I'd ever want to take a road if I knew where it led. (Louis Kahan)

Conception cannot precede execution. (Merleau-Ponty)

Vision, uncertainty, and knowledge of materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from: vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue. (Bayles and Orland)

From a welter of poorly understood substances, artists and alchemists make their choices more or less at random. In part they know what they want, and in part they are just watching to see what will emerge. (James Elkins)

Like poetry or any other creative enterprise, painting is something that is worked out in the making, and the work and the maker exchange ideas with one another… The state of mind at the beginning of the creation of a work of art is nearly inaccessible. What an artist knows is principally what will happen in the next second, not the next hour or month. (Elkins)

The artist is a man walking into space, and we cannot know by what miracle the solid earth rises up to support his feet. (Michael Seuphor)

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing. (William Deresiewicz)

When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment—once you have removed all that wraps experience into a shape you do not recognize and do not believe in—what you have left is something approximating the truth of your own conception. (Paul Graham)

What is the enjoyment of this art? [Printmaking] The source of joy of working in this field may be the participation in a process leading to the unknown, the opening of the mind, the surprise of discovery and the breakthrough of revelations. (Stanley William Hayter)

The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination. (John Schaar)

I’ve written five books and what happens is that you know less and less. Each time you realize that you don’t know what you thought you knew. It’s terrifying. The things you know you have accomplished are invisible to you and all you are aware of are the outer edges of your culpability and the darkness out there. So you always have the sense of yourself as an absolute beginner. I think that is the place to be if you want to continue: not sitting complacently in your own light, but off where it’s scary. (E. L. Doctorow)

I'm a writer, so I don't wait for something interesting. I write. Period. And if there's nothing interesting, I'll make it interesting. For me, writing starts with a line, or some imagination, or some notion, and I just go with it as far as I can. You set yourself afloat on the language. (Thomas Lynch)

We do not write what we know; we write what we want to find out. (Wallace Stegner)

When I write, I get pen and paper, take a glance out the window (often it is dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble—and this is where receptivity comes in. To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me… If I put something down, that thing will help the next thing come, and I'm off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started… For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what occurs to him, the world remains always ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment. (William Stafford)

If you're writing mystery stories or something, you might want to have an outline, because it all has to have a logic and fall into place and have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But if you're writing a novel, the best things just sort of come out of the blue. It's a subconscious process. You really don't know what you're doing most of the time. (Cormac McCarthy)

If you have other testimony to add, either in confirmation or contradiction, feel free to append it in the comments section. Mahalo.

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