When I write, I try to distill some order—drip by drip—from the chaos that is me. It means first unmasking that façade of certainty that so many of us weave about ourselves. And by “unmask,” I mean in the manner an EF 5 tornado swoops down and noisily, elegantly rewrites our possessions into two categories: large, widely-strewn piles of the inessential, and trembling, almost invisible wisps of the essential; the way it edits with unassailable punctuation, the long, meandering sentences we have labored over in our years of daily semi-sleep.
I do not say this to myself when I sit down to write. Not, anyway, if I hope to get anything done. No, instead I say, “What if I looked at this like that?” or “What might happen to a person who was both x and y?” Or (and this is the best way for me) I gather a group of words whom I have never seen together before under quite that set of circumstances. And if they almost get along but also happen to rub each other the wrong way, I ask them to tell me more. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they tell me to fuck off. When it really goes well, they tell me fuck off and I ignore them and keep listening; and they forget that I’m there (or pretend they have) and keep talking and talking and talking.
Usually when it goes wrong—which happens during at least part of every day—I have come to the page (screen, whatever) with a Capital Idea. Foolproof. Guaranteed to generate at least a couple thousand words in no time. I know because I thought it up and I told myself so, and I would never, ever lie to myself, right?
Everything I do when my process is working is just a trick to get me to arrive at the page empty. With nothing. All the reading and notes and thinking and talking are only exercises to get it all out so that I sit down to write without any foolishness that I know what to say or do.
And the emptier I can make myself, the more the language rushes in to fill the void in ways I could not have imagined. Of course, then it only takes the next couple of weeks/months/years to do the editing. Or I can insist on bending the writing to my will from the beginning, in which case it’s pretty much permanently unusable. I think I prefer empty.