The gestation of a project or a body of work—how it starts, forms and then comes into existence—is mysterious and unpredictable.
Some jump into their fullness quickly, in a flash. My poet friend Nicole Long describes this process as egg-like: A whole thing that emerges out of us only when it is complete and perfect.
Other birthings need to rattle around inside us for a long time. Some make a number of attempts to emerge, only to fall back into the inchoate place of churning restlessness. Then, at last, it happens. A final form manifests.
One of my favorite bloggers, David Marshall, published a post this weekend on Signals to Attend that speaks eloquently to this. In response to attending a reading by the author Chad Harbach, author of the bestseller The Art of Fielding, David had this to say:
The audience seemed most intrigued, however, by the history of this his first novel, and how it took almost twelve years to complete…for all that time, he carried his characters around. His account of those years brought to mind a man with a bag of snakes, thoughts crawling all over each other, knotting and unknotting and never taking a shape allowing him to withdraw them whole.
And the split of his life into “living” and “my novel” may have become an agitating status quo. Perhaps people casually asked him, “How’s the book coming?” but satisfactory answers couldn’t have been so casual. Maybe he just shrugged and said “Oh, good,” as, meanwhile, those snakes writhed…
Outcomes change a process. With art particularly, results often seem destined and make the making more purposeful and deliberate than it was at the time. When the work reaches completion, everything aimed at an appointed end. During composition, any sense of destiny relies on faith…Harbach couldn’t have believed in his book all twelve years, and a brain carrying plots, characters, scenes, images, and accreting fragments of prose likely became onerous at times. So much imagination imprisoned—how did he deal with keeping his written world secret? How do you coexist with an alternate reality that’s yours exclusively?
I wrote a previous post about Gillian Welch and the slow gestation of her award winning album, The Harrow and the Harvest. Here is an excerpt:
I was moved to hear Gillian Welch, musician extraordinaire, talk frankly and openly about times when her process just wasn’t working well. It’s a bit like a politician going public with an admission of depression for an artist to acknowledge that there are long, dry spells when nothing comes together. Her new release, aptly named The Harrow and the Harvest, was eight years coming.
Eight years. The thought of being in my studio, painting, and not feeling connected to my work for nearly a decade IS harrowing.
But Welch talks of this difficult phase of her life without drama. When asked why she felt stuck, she doesn’t have an answer. But she is forthcoming about her circumstances. “It wasn’t writer’s block. It was creative block. I was writing songs. I just didn’t like any of them.” She had to wait until she loved what she was writing again. The turning point came just last year. Something shifted and the songs just started to flow again.
“A creative dilemma is a spiritual dilemma,” says Welch.