Friday, June 09, 2006

Reflections on the Artistic Coma - 1

As I said on Wednesday, I have some thoughts about the Artistic coma that I wanted to share. Here is part of the quote from Wednesday's post:

"[The writer] will only know that there are times when he must, at all costs, have solitude; time to dream, to sit idle. Often he himself believes that his mind is empty...That strange, aloof, detached period has been called "the artisitic coma" by observers shrewd enough to see that the idleness is only a surface stillness. Something is at work, but so deeply and wordlessly that it hardly gives a sign of its activity till it is ready to externalize its vision..."

I have very definitely experienced what is being described above in my writing life. Nearly every time I start a new scene, or a new chapter I begin the "strange, aloof, detached" period. My mind is blank. If I try to make myself think about what I want to do, it slides off to other things. If I insist, I will only come up with vague notions that have nothing to do with anything. It all seems dead, lifeless, dull. I wonder why I thought this was something I should develop. I think maybe it's not really something I should develop. I start putzing around.

Suddenly I find myself checking the email. I read blogs. I walk through the dining room to let the dog out and see a magazine, which I start reading. Suddenly I get an idea for a blog post. Or another book. Or an email I want to write. I become consumed with curiosity about some bit of trivia that floats into my mind and go to the internet to find out about it, or dig through the closet to find a photograph. I start reading a novel I've already read...Then I feel guilty and try to make myself get back to work.

Only to repeat the process. Used to be, by day's end I would be quite upset with myself, consumed with guilt -- I have no discipline! I should try harder! I have wasted the whole day! If I am not going to write, I should at least do some chores.

The only thing is, when I'm actually in the day, at the time when I could go do the chores, I never think that's really what I should do. It always seems like if I'd just concentrate I could get something going with the writing.

In the last few months I've really begun to come to terms with the fact that this is not so. That what is going on with me during these times is this period of detachment Dorothea Brande describes. My brain feels empty as far as the work goes, yet I don't feel free to leave it and go off to do other things. Chores are, for the most part, not periods of idle leisure. They are purposeful and when I do one, I immediately start thinking about the next oneI have to do and the next. My mind is never free enough from the accumulating list to do's, to get around to playing with the story.

So I'm thinking now that it's about time I recognize this and stop beating myself up about it. It's not lack of self-discipline, it's lack of understanding the process and accepting it. I really am working, even if externally it looks like I'm just reading Internet Movie Database or Powerline or some article about Russell Crowe. It's okay to just sit and stare out the window at the pigeons while listening to music and let your mind wander. In fact, it's more than okay. It's a crucial part of the process and if I don't allow myself time to do it, I will do it anyway...but in a less productive vein.

Yesterday I started ch 30 and ran right into whatI described above: the material was dead and dry and empty. I had a general idea of what was to happen, but it bored me. What had seemed interesting to me a couple of days ago, now seemed completely pointless. Aha! I thought. This is the period of detachment -- not from society, as I'd assumed before, but from the work itself! The period of withdrawal and indifference! To the work itself. That's what's going on here. The very state of dryness means the nameless faculty is at work and I should rejoice.

So I took my note pad and my notes and I went to the other room (away from the computer and email and blogs) and I sat and watched the pigeons and listened to The Man from Snowy River and Dan Fogleberg and John Denver instrumentals. I did some crocheting... I let my mind wander. A lot. When I thought of other things to do that had nothing to do with the work, I just went and did them. And then came back.

And slowly things began to come, piece by piece, layer by layer. I still have no pages written. I don't even have an outline... but I have images, and I have incidents and events and characters. I have a good idea where I'm going to start and what has come before and where it's going to lead. And I also have a pretty clear picture of a progression of events that will probably be a scene in the next chapter or two. So, though I don't have any pages of prose to show for what I did yesterday, nor even any coherent outlines... but I still think a lot of work actually did get done.

Kinda like with the work that God does behind the scenes when we think He's doing nothing at all. And then one day it all breaks open and we're amazed at what is there.

Tomorrow: Reflections on the Coma -- 2