Saturday, November 5, 2005

The "Process of Process"

Among School Children, Part VIII
William Butler Yeats

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? 

The last line of that stanza is one of my favorite lines in all poetry, ever:
"How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Let us stick with acting, which I don't know very well, but have done a bit of.


What is acting? When does it begin? If I feel the same things that I am supposedly "creating" for my audience to see, is it "art" or is it real? If I rehearse, alone, my part a dozen or more times, and it is bad, at first, and then better and better... until finally it is great... at what point did it become art? Is the rehersal craft or part of the art? Is the performance itself also, if repeated again and again, craft? What if it gets worse with repetition, because I am less interested in it? What if my craft decays? What if I find, after time, that I dislike the play, my part, my lines, my co-actors, the theatre, the audience, my costume, my props... all those things that contribute to the whole of the production. What if I "phone it in" one night?


What if the fat lady, the one wearing too much perfume that smells of peaches and white wine, keeps catching my eye one night and distracting me. Because she looks, for all the world, like my fifth-grade teacher... the one who was always (inadvertently?) flashing us glimpses of her tits and crotch through her inappropriately flimsy, hippy outfits. And, because of her, my performance suffers greatly. Is my overall "art" diminished? One show, one matinee out of eighty-seven performances...


I don't know.


Sometimes, for me as a writer, the words seem to come from nowhere. I look at the screen (almost never a page anymore) and I think about... nothing... and the words come. And they bring other words with them, and I follow them (her) down a chaotic path and then, at some point (usually) I start leaning on the tools, the craft, the history, the order... and they are what bring me through to the end of the piece.


Other times, I begin with the craft/order/tools. I start by saying, "I will write a piece about death. It will use metaphors of water and the color grey. It will rhyme and have clear meter." And then, while working in an orderly fashion, chaotic paths will cross my level, straight road and I will wander off to pick up words, phrases, ideas... and come back to the main street again.


Tick and tock. Yin and yang. Black and white. Order and chaos.


I distrust art that relies too heavily on one or t'other. When I work with writers (on and off-line) who seem to do more of one... I like to push them the other way. For example, one young writer I worked with recently was all about chaos and randomness when I first started reading her stuff... and yet, burried within, were the seeds of craft. She showed real promise, and so I started leaving her lots of comments, bullying her into trying some more ordered routes across the same terrain. In some cases she resisted. But she's very young, and I'm a very good, very gentle bully. She improved very quickly, too. Dreadfully smart kid. Once she started looking at her own stuff with an eye towards the  "art" of it, she got a handle on how to eliminate some of the randomness that didn't fit. Which is a big part of great art; removing the chaff and leaving the wheat. Ezra taught us that.


So... the process of process. When I feel myself at a loss, I try to go "the other way." If I'm feeling random, and am hoping/praying for help "from the muse," searching desperately for a new idea or metaphor or theme... I intentionally "go ordered" and make myself write something more "formulaic." I force myself to pick a theme, a pattern, a rhyme, etc. If, however, I find myself becoming too ordered... I jump away into the sea of chaos. I write with much less fear (or try to). I get jiggy wid it.


Does it always work? No. But it doesn't always not work, either.

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