Is it possible (or desirable) to write a work of fiction with complete spontaneity – that is, without premeditation at any point in the process – and produce art?
Are we talking steam of consciousness writing? Free writing? Is it possible to produce "art" in this manner? Depends on what the work is, and depends on who you ask.
Personally, I think it's possible. Maybe. But you'd have to get really lucky. And I certainly don't think it's desirable. It's lazy.
Writing for days on end juiced out of your mind is admirable at best, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're producing "art." It means you're desperate, and scared to death.
I think Kerouac's On the Road is the most overrated book of the last century. The fact that it's still so widely celebrated merely demonstrates how easily people are swayed into believing what "art" actually is. Of all the Beats, Kerouac was the most beaten. Selby Jr. and Burroughs are the better representatives.
I'm at a loss for examples of literature produced in this fashion that succeeded in being recognized as art. Somebody give me some.
Another fantastic question, Edward.
My quick answer is that, yes, it is possible (and for me it is desirable), and, yes, it can be art. Spontaneity is the mysterious something that keeps me writing.
As for leaving the writing at that--as the spontaneous burst on the page--that is a different matter. Meticulous editing is the rational yin to spontaneous writing's whimsical yang. Editing is so, so, so important.
I think of spontaneity--in life, not just in writing--as a divine nudge, a little gift, an angelic wink. An idea, a line, a title--whatever--pops into my head, and I know when it's something to follow. I know because it's followed by other moments of spontaneity, more bread crumbs leading down deep, quiet trail. All that is required of me is to say, "I'll bite. I'll go. I won't fear what might be at the end." Those moments are the best. That's when writing is easy. When I sit down and try to craft something is when I run in to trouble.
But then there's the inevitable moment of coming to terms with what is on the page and what isn't. What you want there and what needs to go. What other people want there and what multiple readers criticize. And here is where skill comes into play. Editing and rewriting, I believe, are spontaneity's helpers that turn flashes of brilliance into art.
Excellent point about editing and revising, Katrina. I went into this topic with the belief they were absent, that the string of spontaneous writing was to stand on its own. However, if editing is in fact allowed, then the work becomes a different beast and is much more conducive to wearing the "art" moniker. I'm not saying that messes can't be beautiful, whatever that "mess" may entail, but once you start shaping the stone the nuances of true beauty shine though.
Can spontaneous writing stand on its own untouched? Would it even be read?
I would say yes - though I must confess that I'm approaching this from a poet's perspective. I would use a writer like Kerouac as a prime example: On the Road & Visions of Cody. There is only the writing, without being overtaken by the need to get to a certain place or bring characters & setting into a certain form. It arrives. The truth of the moment.
That being said - I consider writing to be a separate creature from editing / revision. I shouldn't mix the two
I don't premeditate at all when I write (except nonfic). I sit and wait for whatever will come. Whether I produce art or ever will I can't judge. In any case, I'm under the impression many people write this way. I've heard it said many times, I think, that so and so fiction writer doesn't know what he/she will write until he/she writes it. To me, this isn't the same thing as "automatic writing," which attempts to rely solely on the unconscious, without filter from the conscious, if I have it right. It's more letting the back brain have its lead while the front brain is its editor, or something. Are we talking about the same thing?
I use a mixture of spontaneity and premeditation, with a healthy dose of editing on the backside. Nice to write without thought to the through-line or the narrative push, frees you immensely to begin, but at some point the next movements become clearer, usually about half to 3/4 of the way through for me, and then I am writing to an end that is in my head (though it wasn't there when I started).
the subjectivity of art though is perhaps too gigantic to be judged here, art is something different for every person, so the success (or lack thereof) is a very subjective thing.
RE: other people's comments, You mean without editing after the words are out either? Not sure why someone would not edit later, but you might get lucky and have "art" in that situation, and in any case there very well could be brilliance in the rough.
I think spontaneity is necessary to starting any piece of writing. But it doesn't necessarily translate to good writing. Kill your darlings, Faulkner said.
the thing for me works like this: i have some lumber, some pipe, some wires, some nails, some hammers and wrenches, that's the premeditated part i guess. but a lot of this is found stuff, oddball stuff lying around, from other jobs. then i take some of it and start hammering, gluing, cutting and pasting, cannibalizing some of my unused stuff i keep in a file, plus maybe some ambient noise from over there where that barista is looking, well, fine?
dunno what is premeditated really, except, with faulkner, i try to stab it
that quote seems to be attributed to different people at different times, but if it is faulkner then so much the more ironic. thank goodness he loved his darlings.
I write as Joe does, or try to. I rarely have anything planned when putting pen to paper (or pixels to screen). Generally, when I have something in mind, I work too hard to force things the way my brain thinks they should go, rather than just letting the characters tell me where it's going.
Yes, I think it's entirely essential, actually. That's why I think genre detective work sometimes fails - the plot & action is so premeditated that characters sometimes lack room to become complex, to make mistakes.
The "feeling" of spontaneity is important to a great many writers, the need to work off the cuff free from any oppressive inner editor. I would argue, however, that given the way the brain works means that in many ways, a writer probably has premeditated on some level about the words that come out. Whether or not they've consciously thought about it or not, feelings and words are always there waiting to be expressed. I'm not sure anything is truly spontaneous, but we can consciously TRY to avoid planning.
I agree with Ben about the feeling of spontaneity as important - which Katrina also points out as well. That feeling, like the tools Gary mentions - are the values, ideas, obsessions etc. that each writer brings to the blank page, whether s/he is aware of them or not.
I find that my best writing, and the writing people seem to appreciate the most is the spontaneous writing that just pours out of me. That is very interesting to me. Sometimes I think we try too hard with editing and reviewing and revising. This is not to say that those elements of the writing process are not important but sometimes the creative process benefits from less process and more creativity.
Hm. Just to play devil's advocate, Roxane, and to touch on Ben's point, once you've brought yourself to your desk and opened a blank document, isn't it fair to say that the seemingly spontaneous writing that follows has already been corrupted by premeditation? The act of writing isn't a natural phenomenon. It's not like rain. The creative mind by itself is, I think, something to be considered natural, cosmic even. The act of writing is the means by which we attempt to channel that creativity into something tangible, ie the written word. In this way, I don't think any artistic production is ever truly spontaneous. Only our lives can be that, and to me, art is not synonymous with life. It's just the closest facsimile we can conjure, and if done well enough, with the right mixture of creativity and control, it becomes universal, but never the universe.
Lastly, as of this moment, I do not believe there is such a thing as spontaneous writing. "Free writing," yes. "Spontaneous writing," no.
Try to picture "spontaneous plumbing."
Or "spontaneous roofing."
I can't. If someone can, please draw me a picture and email it to me.
At the end of the day, writing is no different a trade than plumbing or roofing. Sure, there are varying degrees of natural talent, willingness, focus, creativity. But we, like any other tradesman, build with our hands. If a carpenter has a surge of inspiration about how to begin building a new home, can we honestly consider each blow of the hammer spontaneous?
There is no Santa Claus. I'll shut up now.
Thanks Mel for breaking my heart about Santa Claus. I... I had no idea.
It's been many years since I read On the Road, but there was a time—late teens, early twenties—when it was my bible. I went through a phase when I read all of the Kerouac I could find, including a couple or three biographies. The great myth about On the Road is that it was written pretty much in its entirety in a fairly short period of time in the Benzedrine-fueled spasm of creativity. While that may be true for the original teletype manuscript, the final published version was easily as heavily edited and "contrived" as his first novel, The Town and the City. That whole jazz-like spontaneous improvisational method of writing that was claimed for the novel was probably as much a marketing gimmick as anything. However, in subsequent later works, after Kerouac had become a brand, he actually could just sit down and type out a load of words and sell it. And it shows.
I haven't read Kerouac in years, and I have no idea whether I would like it now, at my advanced age, but to a teenager in the suburbs, with a father who was pretty much exactly Kerouac's age, it was stunning and revelatory, even if I didn't notice how much of a sexist Kerouac was.
Ben is totally on the mark when he puts quotation marks around the word feeling as it relates to spontaneity. And I think Mel is also totally on the mark when he points out the essential nature of a creative work as a contrivance, although he doesn't use that word. (I'm having a marvelous time imagining spontaneous roofing.)
There are some people who can think like chess players about writing. This may be conscious or unconscious, but they know what they're going to do several moves in advance. I'm not that kind of writer. I tend to have no idea what I think until I actually sit down and think it. Sometimes in the doing of that thinking, it feels a whole lot like spontaneity, but behind it also are years of training and practice and probably lots of unconscious thought.
I have no idea what spontaneity feels like for anyone else, but for me it feels like total absorption. Like spontaneous roofing.
There have been times in my work when I will sit down and wake up hours later and have had what felt like a fever dream in which I've written far more pages than my usual output of about ten words a day—it is as often as bad as it is good. And it always needs work. There are times when I feel like the end product, whatever it turns out to be, even if it's head and shoulders above how it started, has lost some sense of magic. But that may also be the contempt of familiarity.
It's like dance or music. What seems spontaneous to the spectator—the apparently uncontrived contrivance—is the result of countless hours of practice and work. And when the instrument is so much a part of the performer, whether it's a saxophone or a dancer's body or a writer's text, it is spontaneous.
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