Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Organic" Writing?

Obviously I use the term "organic" a great deal throughout this blog and throughout my discussions of writing process. It is, I must admit, a favorite way of talking about writing (and about life, for that matter), which should come as no surprise as it appears in the subtitle of this blog. But what is it? For me, the application of the term organic comes as an extension of viewing the writing process as natural, of wishing to see the act of creative enterprise as a true element of interacting with the larger world, including the world of ideas, as a natural expression of human nature. It means that one takes one's cues from what the world provides. It comes from a fundamental belief that humans have a need to communicate ideas and have evolved in ways ideally suited to doing so. Much of it has to do with trusting the writing process. I believe in trusting organic forces, whether one sees those forces as harmony or karma or faith or feng shui or chi or any other expression of a belief that there are natural states of harmonic convergence and that when we tap into them we are tapping something universal within human consciousness. It is this view that helps explain the frequent occurrence that accompanies writing in a very focused manner on a project where the facts one needs seem to appear suddenly everywhere--in what you are reading at that moment, on the news, in other people's conversations. Now, lets face it, those facts were probably circulating out there anyway, but now you're paying attention. Still, it can feel as if the world placed them for you to encounter.

Okay, that's all rather mystic and abstract and perhaps sounds a little ridiculous. Let me put it into simpler terms within the confines of writing. While I'm not saying to turn a blind eye to the hard work and the revision that is inherent in producing writing worth reading, I am saying that there are times where you have to trust the process of writing itself. It its most extreme form, sometimes this means getting the editor within you out of the way of the child, for there is something about employing the imagination that we associate with childhood and the editor in you is more likely to be telling you about things you can't do or shouldn't do rather than things you might experiment with. It is about trusting that there will be time to revise later but that you must have text in the first place in order to revise. It means trusting that the act of creation is a natural desire.

Organic can mean, as an example, trusting that writing tends to form a natural structure unique to the task at hand and that part of revision is learning to see such structure and capitalize on it. Take a look at a brilliant story like Tim O'Brien's "They Things They Carried" as an example. One doesn't have to be a brilliantly insightful reader to quickly recognize that the base form of the entire story is essentially a list and that the base rhythm throughout is the cadence of a march. Given that it is a story centered on a platoon in Vietnam, a ground unit "humping" (marching with every conceivable tool and weapon they might need) from checkpoint to checkpoint, isolated in the jungle, connected to comrades outside the platoon only by radio, the cadence and the list both make sense. They are alone. They are powered only by their own legs. They carry the weight of death with them always. They are convinced they will never return to the world they knew before Vietnam. Because O'Brien is the soldier poet that he is, and because he is nearly the definition of the literary crafts person, surely he saw these elements of listing and rhythm within his drafts and openly focused upon employing them fully. But we must also allow that both elements arrive naturally from the very thing being described, from the nature of combat in Vietnam, perhaps even from the nature of the place itself. It can be simpler than that too: isn't it natural that a writer trying to transcribe a languid dream falls into elongated,, serpentine sentences mired with funky syntax? Or that the writer attempting to convey a fist fight suddenly writes staccato? Isn't that what the subjects naturally lead the writer towards?

It is in this view of writing that what I speak about bears relation to Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of organic architecture. From early on, even in his "prairie house" period, Wright studied the lines of the prairie, the rolling hills, the expanse of sky, the way the sky squeezed the light at the horizon, the ways vertical structures like tree lines altered the sense of space, the notions of line and rectangle. These studies then infused his constructions, lowering roof lines, playing with angular light, taking away walls to open living space, using simplicity and minimalism. This was the world he walked within daily, and he began to extend those naturalistic elements as he encountered other sorts of geographies. He took what the world offered. Writers do something similar, for all material has its own set of natural inclinations and its own inherent restrictions, not just from setting but from character sensibilities, actions, historical context, and naturally occurring metaphors.

It can be deeper than this too, yet for me much or my obsession with the application of organics in writing is simply trusting that eventually the story will find its way to getting told. I am a writer who rarely knows the full scope of any story I am writing during the time of the writing. The ending is almost never known to me until I've exposed enough of the story to see it, rather like the archaeologist unearthing an object; not only must much of the object come into view, it must be taken into context with the other objects around it, within the facts of history and theory and other available evidence, all this before one might know the object and conjecture its purpose with any authority. Such blindness scares many but I actually take comfort in it. I believe that I must see scenes in my mind to have any hope of writing them, but if I can only see a scene or perhaps two scenes ahead, I'm perfectly content. Or perhaps I can only see a vague image on the horizon or I have some rather inarticulate sense of where, psychologically, I hope characters might reach, yet that is sufficient, in my experience, to trust that consistent daily writing, close listening, and careful reading will get me to the whole story.

Ultimately, while writing is about ideas and universal experiences and about the conveyance of honest emotions, the vehicle of writing is always language. Words. Words are all we really have as writers. But of course words are organic creations that arise out of experience and natural sound, and vocal recreation of shape and form, out of mythology and recounted history. Together words start to bump and grind. They create rhythm and sound and music. They are as elemental to humans intent upon expressing their experiences as are the other organic elements needed for sustaining life and soul. It is in this context that I employ the roots of the term organic within writing.

Organic suggests to me that there are reasons dominant metaphors exist across languages and cultures and texts. Metaphors like the garden and the river. We don't have to share the same language to recognize the presence of natural cycles in both or to see how those cycles help us to understand the metaphysics of life and death, rebirth and time, sewing and harvesting. Nature gives us the actual and nature gives us the metaphorical too. Creative artists in any medium can recognize the presence of both as well as the applications to their forms and to their ideas that become appropriate extensions of them.

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