I was watching the Tom Petty Documentary on Netflix the last two nights (it was four hours long). First, it was really good. Second, I didn’t know the man was such a bad ass – when he wrote “I Won’t Back Down,” he knew of what he spoke!
At one point near the end he was reflecting on ideas and where they come from. Like most artists he was rather vague about that. He was explaining how he had the basic guitar part for a song down (I can’t think of the song right now) and he’s playing the part in the interview. And he says he just had that, only that for weeks. He knew it was good and so he just kept playing for weeks on end at night, so much so people were banging on their walls for him to please play something else!
Then weeks later something came to him and the rest just snowballed into place.
Now this is normal, I have heard that said by numerous people. But he also said he never wanted to examine that aspect – about what exactly happens – for fear of scaring it away. His point was that there is a mystery to it, and if you look into it, it will go away.
[Note: I think I may be combining many different interviews during the documentary into one, but they belong together even if he never said them together.]
I used to be of the exact opposite opinion. Back when I was an Objectivist there were these tapes that Ayn Rand had made in the 1950’s called the The Art of Fiction. This was basically an informal gathering of her acolytes as she pontificated on the artistic process. The tapes were made available for sale from the Ayn Rand bookstore and I purchased them. Her view was entirely the opposite of the “mystical” view or even the time-honored “Muses” view.
Her view was that you should know exactly where your inspiration comes from. That you purposefully and explicitly stuff your subconscious to get the results you want.
Rand was an avowed enemy of what we generally mean by inspiration which has at least some part spontaneity. And there was certainly no such thing as just sitting down and jamming something out. No, you had to have something first, you had to have a plan. She deliberately mocked some writer for saying she liked to take a group of characters and toss them in the air and see what they say and what they do.
I grant that such a writer would probably produce some loose, not very interesting stuff unless extremely talented. But there has to be a happy medium there somewhere.
It was the front end that was bad in her advice. You had to have a purpose, a theme, a plot. You had to have your miners cap on and your microscope piercing every single aspect of your project.
The problem with her advice was she made the pre-writing stages mechanical like preparing a dissertation. Art is not essay, although there may be an art to the essay. So mechanical that I rarely reached the stage where her advice was rather good – actually the only way you can actually execute writing itself.
The whole twelve hour course had this good piece of advice:
“To master the art of writing, you have to be conscious of why you are doing things — but do not edit yourself while writing. Just as you cannot change horses in the middle of a stream, so you cannot change premises in the middle of writing. When you write, you have to rely on your subconscious; you cannot doubt yourself and edit every sentence as it comes out. Write as it comes to you — then (next morning, preferably) turn editor and read over what you have written.”
Now this is entirely true. Whatever preparation you have or have not done, whatever research you have done or not done, how clear you are on what you are doing or how confused, when it comes time to clack that keyboard you have to go with what you have or you cannot write.
At some point the crowd and the band are waiting and you have to take the stage or fail the grade.
Knowing the difference between preparation and execution was the only good piece she offered in that. The rest served to stifle the mystery that is the spark itself.
It was not until years later that I noticed (and this was not until after I decided that I didn’t need a fucking pre-thought out theme and plot to start writing) that no one that packed that apartment of hers in the late 50’s ever achieved anything at all in the field of fiction writing. Not a single one. So-called Objectivists releasing fiction didn’t occur until the 80’s and they were too young to have attended those courses. And I read some of those books and they were AWFUL. They were as awful as the 598th hair band of the 80’s!
It was many years before I rejected her teaching on this subject. It was too self-focused. Too process focused. Not enough diving into the river and being driven by it. Too much self. Not enough giving over of self to that which drives. Which, at this point in time, I am happy to say is the Muses. Why not?
I know endless people that have the same approach in regards to others. I call them the eternally lonely. So possessed are they of their own proclivities and likes and dislikes they can never connect with another person. They cannot be taken. Others are always giant intrusions to the buffeted self, the important self.