From Mon Mar  3 18:13:49 1997
Date: Thu, 20 Feb 1997 18:37:51 -0800 (PST)
From: Jason Lamport 
To: [...]
Subject: Re: a writing question (part 1 of 2)

>                I don't know how to reconcile the
> need for authenticity (spontaneity) and the need for order. Do you start
> with an idea and then fabricate a narrative context to voice that idea? Or
> do you write associationally and then go back, see what you've got, then
> re-arrange it into some kind of structure? Writing before idea, or idea
> before writing? I guess that's the crux of the issue.

For me, writing is such a complex process that this question seems almost
meaningless.  To ask which comes first, idea or writing, seems to me like
asking whether a choreographer starts the dance with the left foot or the
right, as if that would explain the entire process.

I suppose, at some level, everyone starts out with an idea.  I mean, when
I started to write "Counting", I knew I was going to write about my lovers
and not about ancient Greece.  I don't think anyone ever just sits down to
write without some idea of where they want to go. (I was going to make an
exception for schizophrenics and "automatic writing" excercises, but I
think even in automatic writing some part of you has a reason for doing
the excercise, and schizophrenic thought isn't goal-less so much as its
goals keep changing too fast to follow.)  But once you start writing,
unexpected things come out, which changes your idea of where you want to
go, which changes what you write... in an ever tightening circle, a spiral
dance which reaches its conclusion at the precise point where you can step
back and say "it's finished!"  

There's a great part in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in
which Pirsig talks about the relationship between a craftsman and his
material, or a motorcycle mechanic and a motorcycle: we often think of the
relationship as one-way, as the person imposing his or her will on an
inanimate piece of matter; but really the relationship is two-way: the
material is affecting the artist at the same time that the artist is
affecting the material.  When the form of the material "isn't right", the
artist will feel agitated, "not right", and this is what drives the
creative process forward.  Completion arrives at the moment when both the
artist and the material are "at peace".  Both the artist and the material
achieve their proper form simultaneously.

So I guess the simple answer is that for me "idea" and "writing" are bound
together so inextricably that I can't even imagine separating them enough
to ask which comes first.  And even if I could, the question doesn't seem
that important to me: there's so much more to writing than either of

For me, writing isn't just about ideas and words.  When I wrote, in
"Counting": "I am sitting on a bench at a high school. A few strips of
weathered green paint still cling to the worn gray wood."  I really was
sitting on that bench, with my notebook and pencil. For me, writing isn't
something I can do out of my head, by "just imagining" things.  The
process is something I have to throw my whole self into.  When I began
"Counting", that meant making physical pilgrimages to places from my past:
the bench where I received my first kiss, the ski lodge where I first felt
a woman's breast.  It wasn't exactly about jarring loose memories.  I
don't think visiting these places caused me to remember any more than I
would have otherwise; the experience in the ski lodge (#2, for those who
may be interested) never even made it into the story, as it exists now
(though of course it is still very, very far from being finished).  But
somehow the ritual of visiting these places was a necessary part of the
process; the pilgrimages allowed me to immerse myself in a way that I
couldn't have done sitting at my desk.  I immersed myself in these
memories: not in the sense that I relived them; rather I immersed myself
in the process of remembering, and in the process of writing what I

For me, "process" is not just conceptual process, the ordering of thought
patterns.  For me, writing is a process of flesh and bone.  It matters
whether I write with a computer or with pen and paper; it matters if it's
raining outside; it matters whether I use pencil or ink, a ballpoint or a
fountain pen, the size and texture of the paper; it matters what I had for
dinner.  Edward Abbey could never have written Desert Solitaire sitting
in a New York apartment; Tolkien could never have written The Lord of the 
Rings if he had been living in California. 

I don't mean that conditions have to be "perfect" in order to write. 
Sometimes, you have a great idea that seems to call out for vast pages of
creamy, 30-lb. paper and a fine fountain pen, and all that you have
available is a grubby bic and the back of some napkins.  So you use the
bic, and the napkins, and at some point you realize that really, those
were the perfect conditions under which to write.  That idea had to be
written first on the backs of some napkins with a grubby bic, regardless
of what you may have thought at the time.

I don't mean conditions have to be perfect: what I do mean is that, for me
at least, writing is not something I can do "in my spare time."  If I
really want to write, I need to devote myself entirely to writing. Even
when I'm not physically writing, I need to make every hour of every day a
part of the process of writing.

A question to ask yourself is: do you want to write because you have
something to say, or do you want to have something to say because you want
to write?  If you have only a burning desire to write, but you don't know
what, you're not ready yet.  Wait until there's something inside of you
burning to get out, something you feel you need to shout from the
rooftops.  Then you're ready to write.  I don't mean that to discourage
anyone.  If you don't have anything to say yet, simply practice your
craft.  Write short stories, essays, rants, poetry, anything.  Hone your
skills.  But know that this is only practice, training, so that when you
do have something to say, you will be ready and able to give that thing
voice.  And in the meantime, Live!  Go for a hike, watch a sunset, make
love, hug a tree, hug a friend, dance, laugh, cry, go for a swim. Artistic
visions are not created ex nihilo in some dark recess of ourselves -- they
are distilled from what is around us, from all that we have touched and
seen and smelled and tasted and felt and heard.  If you have nothing to
say, don't lock yourself in a garrett and try to think of something:  go
out into the world and experience all that there is to experience; 
familiarize yourself with all of the beauty and anguish of being human.
Soon enough, you will find that you have something to say, something that
you must say, at all costs.  Then it's time to write.