the creative momentum

I think it is fairly known that many artists and even thinkers and philosophers tend to describe the creative process they usually engage in in terms that conjure up the image of a kind of passive genesis wherein the artist is seen as an agent less imposing than admitting, less pursuing than opening to the guidance of his/her object of concern. Writers, for instance, talk about participating in the birth of a work that as it develops begins to solicit its “author” in unplanned directions. Dictating its structural demands more and more “audibly” the text is, in effect, weaving itself with the assistance of the writer. This is, clearly, an exaggeration for there is plenty of work involved in the writing of a text. No doubt about that, nevertheless, I think, there is still some truth in the idea of self-assembling creative processes. A crucial factor in this is being sensitive enough and willing to leave control behind. In other words, to let things happen.

Let me quote a couple of beautiful renderings of the phenomenon in question. This is what Don DeLillo, a contemporary American author, says about the matter:

But the basic work is built around the sentence. This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look. The rhythm of a sentence will accommodate a certain number of syllables. One syllable too many, I look for another word. There’s always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn’t then I’ll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm, the syllable beat. I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence—these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced in a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger—I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.

Now, compare this to William Gass’ (also a contemporary author) description:

As an artist you are dealing with a very abstract thing when you are dealing with language, yet suddenly it is there in your mouth with great particularity—draw, lisp, spit. When the word passes out into the world, that particularity is ignored; print obliterates it; type has no drawl. But if you can write for that caressing, slurring, foulmouthed singing drunken voice … that’s a miracle … As a writer you are, of course, aware of the arbitrary relationship of symbol-sounds to their meanings; but no real writer wants it that way… When work is going well for me—which is rarely—I have a clear metrical sense of sound and pace. This whole problem is vital. When one section is singing it sings the rest.


More recently, in an essay titled “The sentence seeks its form” Gass, in effect, performs what he speaks about:

Even putting down these first few words makes me aware of an emerging rhythm, a pattern of repetition and consequently of an attention to what has been written that will tell me what to write, as if the first few words were seeds already intending the plant they would become, as if they were anticipating the earth they would occupy and own, if not adorn, the nettles they would form, the allergies they would eventually exacerbate. That is: the sentence seeks its fulfilling form.


As one last example on the notion of literary, belletristic self-assemblage, I would like to quote Sven Birkert, the American essayist and literary critic:

I believe that writing that is clear and varied, capable of sustained exposition as well as of detail and discrimination, cannot happen where there is not a sensibility equipped to generate it. And such a sensibility cannot exist without the kind of auditory inwardness that reading cultivates. For writing is so much more than just the transmission of ideas or information. Writing—effective, memorable writing—depends upon the writer hearing the language. One balances sounds, their values and meanings; one holds in readiness clauses and word-chains; one speeds up and slows down according to the needs of expression. The ear does the brain’s fingertip work—it joins and adjusts, adds and substracts. It hears the rightness of a phrase, rejects a dissonance. If you can’t hear words and their arrangements—the music that accompanies and enforce meaning—then you can’t write. (my emphasis)


Notwithstanding these assessments I think it is important to remind oneself that certainly this magic requires skill. There is no spontaneous sprouting forth and no creativity with abandon if the seeds of previous efforts are missing. These seeds are subconsciously accumulated over many years of practice and grow only gradually fertile in their capacity to fructify expressive groves. In an essay on art Gregory Bateson describes this quite aptly, “intoxication does not increase skill – at best it may release skill previously acquired. Without skill is no art”. For sure. And yet, the expressive  skill is never something achieved, it’s not like an object waiting to be obtained, but rather it is something caught within the never-ending loop of expression and impression, it is a process of articulation that evolves without any final goal in mind, much like in natural evolution where the organic forms that morph into existence are guided by the absolute contingency of material processes.

Of course, many parallels could be drawn between literature and other domains of expression. Instead of going into these matters let me just simply borrow one of Martin Heidegger’s pithy sentences here: “Every thinking that is on the trail of something is a poetizing.”


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