I’ve been happily revisiting the stories of Flannery O’Connor, usually getting through one or two (if they’re short) before going to bed. I read most of the stories a couple of years ago, although at times it’s hard remembering which ones since the world she creates is so recognizable, vivid, familiar, and consistent from story to story. In any case, I’ve been hooked on her work ever since I read “The Violent Bear it Away” as an undergrad.
Last night I was glancing through the introduction to the new(er) edition of O’Connor’s complete stories and found this quote, from a letter to a friend, commenting on her creative process:
“I must tell you how I work. I don’ t have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again. I am working on the twelfth chapter right now…Of the twelve chapters only a few won’t have to be rewritten, and I can’t exhibit such formless stuff. It would discourage me to look at it right now and anyway I yearn to go about my business to the end.”
It seems to me that composers, and probably artists in general, lie somewhere along a spectrum between having a complete concept of the whole at the onset and, on the other hand, starting from the very smallest idea and working outward. I have found myself at various points along this spectrum, and I know that other composers will also tailor their processes to whatever task is at hand. And sometimes it’s just fun to try to do things different way. In other words, there certainly isn’t (nor should there be) any orthodoxy on the matter. Still, it’s somewhat comforting to find an account of the creative process that’s so similar to my own. So often I find myself exploring one idea, tinkering with the details, trying to let it play and grow without regard to any formal design, until finally (and hopefully) it suggests the bigger picture. I, too, really don’t know what I’m thinking until I see what I’ve said. Or maybe: I don’t know what I want to say until I say it. Often, badly. So then it’s time to rework and re-say what was just badly said, hoping that this new improvement, too, will suggest new directions (this, as one might imagine, falls easily into an infinite regress, or some kind of mad spiral, which accounts for about about 97% of my stress and the fact that the vast majority of any given piece will actually be written in the last sliver of time I spend on it). As O’Connor’s flustered tone implies, this approach can be maddeningly frustrating and tedious, but there is always that sense of gratification and excitement as the work gradually takes on its identity and begins to emerge.