Fall 1991, Volume 8.2


The Right to be Chaos:  Writers and Other Artists on the Creative Process

Like many writers and writing teachers, I have long been interested in the subject of writers on writing. By word or example, I want to be comforted or inspired; to hear a principle that is muddy in my own mind articulated clearly by better minds; to hear a good story.

Often, though, I come away from my reading disappointed. Freshly inspired by a new quotable "find" from the desk of Henry James or Virginia Woolf or William Stafford, I return to my own writing the same feeble worker I was before, nervous and fumbling, my fears about writing entrenched as ever. Even the most outspoken writers seem to have a certain diffidence about discussing their work habits, a diffidence that is alien to crazier denizens of the art world such as sculptors and painters. Sculptors and painters, not having literary reputations to uphold, seem less self-conscious about their literary style when they write about their habits, and so their comments are somehow fresher and more forceful. In the introduction to his 1937 book The Painter's Object, an anthology of writings by visual artists, Myfanwy Evans summed this up nicely:

Artists don't usually write unless they have something to say, and they have a directness of approach and lack of literary prejudice that makes their writing extraordinarily exciting to read. (12)

Large and complex as the subject is, writers can profit by reading what visual creators have to say about the creative process. They can also learn from mathematicians, historians, and sociologists. So thinking, I resolved to discover what I could about writing not only from writers but from non-writers—primarily painters and sculptors.

Beyond curiosity and personal need, I also have a pedagogical motive for this study. As a writing teacher I spend hours warning students away from the so-called "perfect first draft" strategy of writing. In my most authoritative voice, calculated to convey the wisdom of experience, I tell them to go through the process; prewrite, brainstorm, make lists and outlines, draft, revise, redraft, etc. "If you don't like the way your writing looks at first," I advise, "throw it away and start over. Be reckless."

But in secret, alone and unseen, I lapse into the very vices I condemn. The last thing I want when I write is to get involved with processes; I want my writing perfect on the first try. I'm terrified of rearranging paragraphs and making messes, and too often my waste basket is not my best friend but my implacable enemy.

At such times the words of Hokusai, master nineteenth-century Japanese painter, bring comfort. Hokusai suggested, at age 75, that he was just beginning to learn how to paint (Sampson 142). Anyone viewing one of Hokusai's paintings would suppose the painter was joking; but Hokusai was not being falsely modest. What he meant was that every creative artist—whether he or she has been at the job for sixty years or six weeks—faces essentially the same struggles: making a beginning; inventing forms or ideas; generating material and focusing it; revising; finishing.

With these struggles in mind, I have organized my findings around the following major elements of the writing process:

1) Beginning
2) Discovering a Subject
3) Inventing and Focusing
4) Revising
5) Finishing

In 1900 the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a restless traveler who desired nothing more than to be "centered" in his work, visited Leo Tolstoy at the latter's ancestral estate of Yasnaya Polyana. Rilke was then 25 years old and had an impressive array of publications to his credit which had done almost nothing to assuage his anxieties about writing. In a letter composed well after his visit to Tolstoy he unburdened to a friend:

I still lack the discipline, the being able to work, and the being compelled to work, for which I have longed for years. Do I lack the strength? Is my will sick? Is it the dream in me that hinders all action? Days go by and sometimes I hear life going. And still nothing has happened, still there is nothing real about me . . . . (Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 1: 122)

At Yasnaya Rilke shared his malaise with Tolstoy. To Rilke's plaints about the trials of writing and the writing life, Tolstoy gave what must have been a totally unexpected response: neither sympathy nor condolences, but a single burning word of admonition: "Write!"

Rilke heeded the advice—and soon forgot it. Two years later he relearned it from Auguste Rodin, whom he served as a private secretary. In 1906 he began relearning it from yet another mentor, Cezanne. Rilke's brooding, ecstatic, fascinating letters offer numerous other examples of his struggle with this "simple" problem, the problem of beginning, which writing teachers often dispense within a single class session.

Beginning: the subject has been discussed exhaustively in books, essays, interviews, and workshops. One of the most incisive comments is offered by the great twentieth-century British sculptor Henry Moore, who once observed that he sometimes began a drawing "with no preconceived problem to solve, with only the desire to use pencil on paper, and make lines, tones and shapes with no conscious aim" (Qtd. in Ghiselin 72).

Moore's remark is appealing. "Without any conscious aim" seems to summarize exactly how the writing process should begin if the writing is to go well: simply with putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, without thought or worry. Also suggestive is the priority Moore places on "desire": he starts work "with only the desire to use pencil [on paper]," implying a physical pleasure in the mere act of using one's tools—whether pen, pencil, typewriter, word processor, brush, or chisel.

One wonders whether this physical pleasure isn't vital to writing or to any creative work. Personally, I like to write in bed in the early morning when still too mentally numb to know what I am getting into. But even then crabbed handwriting sometimes makes the process excruciatingly uncomfortable. Perhaps every writer needs to cultivate ways of making the composing act as physically pleasurable as possible. Moore is not alone in suggesting this. William Faulkner was said to have had a "visceral need" to push a pencil across the page; and Nabokov, I am told, devoted a whole chapter in one of his books to the pleasures of the pencil.

Fear of the blank page is assumed to be nearly universal among writers. Is it possible, however, that blankness itself can be alluring rather than intimidating? The Swiss painter Paul Klee reveled in the act of wedding his own unsettled emotions—and deliberate craft—to the untouched canvas. "I begin logically with chaos," he wrote, "it is the most natural start. In so doing, I feel at rest because I may, at first, be chaos myself." "It's convenient," he added, in a memorable phrase, "to have the right to be chaos to start with" (Diaries 176). Similarly, to Wassily Kandinsky, parent of modern "non-objective" art, a blank canvas was already alive and throbbing with intensity. No inert and snowy blankness, it was a dramatic field of Shakespearian intensity, with the principle parts played by dots, lines, and circles—which exerted such force upon the painter's emotions and vision that all he had to do, essentially, was respond—not compose the drama but simply applaud it . . . and the painting was done. "An empty canvas," wrote Kandinsky, "is a living wonder—far lovelier than certain pictures" (Evans 53).

Discovering a Subject.

"I can't think of anything to write about. My life's pretty boring." Writing teachers repeatedly assure students and themselves that they don't need to solve the problems of war and peace, death, or the mystery of being in their papers; that apparently "small" topics can assume large importance if considered carefully. To paraphrase the bestseller of years ago, small can be beautiful—and significant. The key is less the size of the subject than how it is viewed.

In his introduction to the Selected Poems of Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot has something to say about honoring the small topic. Marianne Moore, or course, was a famously eccentric poet who fed her talent on such patently inconsequential topics as snails, fish, chameleons, and monkeys. Eliot writes:

For a mind of such agility, and for a sensibility so reticent, the minor subject, such as a pleasant little sand-coloured skipping animal, may be the best release for the major emotions. Only the pedantic literalist could consider the subject-matter to be trivial; the triviality is in himself. We all have to choose whatever subject-matter allows us the most powerful and most secret release; and that is a personal affair. (xi)

In saying that the "minor" subject calls forth the "major" emotions, Eliot is only suggesting what we all consciously know: that it is not so much the subject that is important as how it connects with the writer. In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande says the same thing a bit differently. She notes that "in one's writing life, there is just one contribution that each of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us" (Brande 120).

Inventing and Focusing.

Two of the more difficult tasks of writing—inventing and focusing— are made harder by the fact that they seem to work at cross purposes. Inventing involves generating and expanding, and, in general, making a mess; focusing has to do with organizing, trimming, and tidying. On the one hand, writers need to get the "grey" matter on paper and release a flood of material so that they don't dam up creativity at its source. They have to be making a mess. On the other hand, they need to produce finished products that are pared down and coherent. In other words, they need to chisel and cut away at the same time as they add.

The question then is: To what extent can one bully the "grey" material into some sort of shape, and to what extent must one relax, be patient, and let it organize itself? Bullying or pressuring the material too hard can destroy it; yet not pressuring it hard enough can lead to the writer's nightmare: an unfinishable project.

The classic essay on this dilemma is by Henri Poincare, nineteenth-century mathematician, who wrote a descriptive account of his creative processes called "Mathematical Creation" in 1908. Poincare relates how he was striving to develop some mathematical theorems. Pursuing his subject directly and doggedly, he filled many notebooks with ideas that led nowhere. One night in desperation he put his materials aside and went for a walk. While walking and momentarily unconscious of his work, he had a sudden illumination which clarified the problems he'd been agonizing over for days. He returned to his study and wrote them down.

After pursuing this vein for awhile, he reached another "wall." Then, while boarding a bus, he experienced another flash of insight which took him another quantum leap forward in his investigation. What was miraculous, Poincare noted, was that so long as he consciously strained over his work he made no visible progress. But after he had "let go" of his work for a while, after a period of hard work and conscious effort, ideas and organization came to him, without effort. Without the long foreground of many hours spent in seemingly fruitless toil, he concluded, these insights would probably never have occurred:

[Unconscious work] is possible, and of a certainty it is only fruitful, if it is on the one hand preceded and on the other hand followed by a period of conscious work. These sudden inspirations never happen except after some days of voluntary effort which has appeared absolutely fruitless and whence nothing good seems to have come, where the way taken seems totally astray. These efforts then have not been as sterile as one thinks; they have set agoing the unconscious machine and without them it would not have moved and would have produced nothing. ( Ghiselin 27)

In The Courage to Create Rollo May says essentially the same thing as Poincare—that insight "is born from unconscious levels exactly in the areas in which we are most intensively consciously committed." May goes so far as to imply that an experience such as Poincare's may eliminate our need to worry over the kinds of creative dilemmas listed a moment ago—e.g., will working at something too intensively and consciously somehow stop the "creative flow"? Or will thinking too freely about a topic for too long result in a final aimlessness that will never achieve focus? The crucial point, Poincare suggests and May corroborates, is simply that a person work intensively on his or her project. If the intensity and commitment are present, the conscious and unconscious will find opportunities to do their work. Indeed, each seems to check and control the excesses of the other. As May writes, "The unconscious seems to take delight (if I may so express it) in breaking through—and breaking up—exactly what we cling to most rigidly in our conscious thinking" (63). If the conscious mind gets out of hand, the unconscious can correct it.


The act of revision suggests some of the best arguments for a crossfertilization among the arts. As "re-vision" literally means "seeing again," it is not surprising that some of the most impressive examples of revision come from visual artists. There is always a problem with learning about revision from writers: an essay, story, or poem only displays the final product of the writer's effort. Drafts, notes, outlines, revisions, false starts, etc. are in most cases lost, filed, hidden, or destroyed by the author once the work goes to press. Thus to look at the works of writers is, in a sense, to be reinforced in one's will to attempt the "perfect first draft." Only the most imaginative reader can glimpse, "behind" the final draft, the tangled morass of revisions that preceded the ultimate masterpiece.

The visual arts are a different matter. Touring a retrospective exhibition of works by a painter or sculptor, one often sees not just finished paintings or sculptures but whole series of preliminary drafts and sketches—sometimes intact, sometimes slashed out with a crayon or otherwise "changed." The finished painting (the famous painting you've always wanted to see "in person") hangs at one end of a wall, while extending for many yards to the right or left of it are the drafts, sketches, and notes that preceded the final work. In their own way, these "starts"—false and true—become more mesmerizing than the masterpiece. Behind the masterpiece are the sketches; but behind the sketches seems to lurk the artist himself, sweating in the studio, or cleaning his brushes for the umpteenth time to avoid starting work. Viewing the painter's failed efforts alongside his successes reinforces an awareness of revision in a way that simply observing a writer's published work does not.

Visual artists are also exceptional for the singularly ruthless detachment they seem able, as a class, to bring to their work. Hear a few painters speak for themselves:

My wish is to work so unassailably that one could let one's worst instincts go unanalyzed. (Arthur Dove qtd. in Anderson Galleries n.p.)

I begin a painting with a series of mistakes . . . . Ultimate unifications come about through modulation of the surface by innumerable trials and errors. The final picture is the process arrested and the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view. (Robert Motherwell qtd. in Sandler 84)

Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. (Mark Rothko 84)

To find any comparable sentiment expressed by a writer, one would have to turn perhaps to Henry Miller, also a painter, who said that, "In the ultimate sense, the . . . great writer is the very symbol of life, of the non-perfect" (Ghiselin 187), or to Paul ValZry, who insisted that "disorder is the condition of the mind's fertility: it contains the mind's promise, since its fertility depends on the unexpected rather than the expected, depends rather on what we do not know, and because we do not know it, than what we know" (Qtd. in Ghiselin 105)

One could find few better models of reckless behavior in the workshop than Jackson Pollock. Any peruser of Life magazine in the fifties remembers the photographs of the Brandoesque tough guy in blue jeans dancing and emptying paint cans over canvasses. What's the canvass doing on the floor? Where's the easel? What's with this guy? For many, the image of this crazy man gyrating has symbolized the "anarchy" of contemporary art, which "doesn't say" anything—which is, at best, esoteric, and, at worst, a meaningless mess by which a few painters and collectors amass large and undeserved fortunes.

Into his "paintings" Pollock introduced such unrelated, un-artistic objects as cigarette butts, ashes, bits of glass, tin cans, scraps of cloth, and rusted rings. Pollock's method was to make several sketches of the object he wanted to paint—starting from scratch each time—until he hit upon one that had "feeling." "I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc.," he said, "because the painting has a life of its own" (Qtd. in Sandler 102). In his process he may have been influenced by Navajo sand painters, whose works were produced for ritual purposes and afterwards destroyed (Sandler 102). Imagine being able to take that kind of attitude towards one's own precious creations!

An exemplary reviser who is perhaps more remarkable and more accessible than Pollock is the twentieth-century's most famous painter, Pablo Picasso. Perhaps the following quote—surely among the most evocative on the subject of revision and creation generally—could only have come from this artist, who was able to sculpt the head of a bull out of spare bicycle parts:

Heretofore pictures moved toward their completion by progression. Each day brought something new. A picture was a sum of additions. With me, a picture is a sum of destructions. I make a picture and proceed to destroy it. (Ashton 8)

One way to interpret this rather puzzling statement is by considering its opposite. What does it suggest to say that art is a "sum of additions?" It implies saving and protecting what one has done; it suggests a series of days in which one makes discreet advances in the work and piles one item on another until the entire process is complete. Creation is cumulative: nothing is lost, and the final product is exactly equal to the sum of its parts (i.e., each day's activity). In a writer's terms, this is essentially the "perfect first draft" strategy paraphrased: one cannot make any mistakes on a given day, for that will be to forsake the "sum of additions" and begin making "destructions." The total will no longer be equal to the sum of its parts.

A "sum of destructions," on the other hand, means a license to destroy anything and everything one has done. Where "sum of additions" implies constraint and caution, "sum of destructions" implies license and freedom—to keep something or to throw it out, to retain things in a certain order or to jumble them around into a shape completely new. Put another way, Picasso's creed suggests that art is nothing if not dynamic and shocking.


It is a wise artist who knows when to cry 'halt' in his or her composition—and also a brave one. If anything is as hard as facing the blank page it is putting the finishing touches on something and declaring it "done." At the point of "finishing" the writing becomes a "work"—no longer a piece in progress, forgivable for its faults, but public property, and vulnerable. No amount of post-New-Critical thinking, it seems, can rid us of the innate psychological belief and fear that once a piece of writing is finished, it is indeed "finished."

One writer suggests that the problem here is really, at bottom, one of expectations. In his 1978 prose collection, Writing the Australian Crawl, poet William Stafford attributes the anxiety many people have about finishing work to their setting too high standards for themselves. These standards are socially-grounded; they represent what the writer imagines to be the standards of a crank teacher, a hostile dissertation committee, a harsh editor, or Posterity. The solution? Lower your standards. "I think that anybody could write if he would have standards as low as mine" (104). Where Robert Frost froze generations of would-be poets in their tracks by saying he would never play tennis without a net, Stafford advises taking the net down if it gets in the way. One should "lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It's easy to write. You just shouldn't have standards that inhibit you from writing" (118). He adds:

There are worthy human experiences that become possible only if you accept successive, limited human commitments, and one such is the sustained life of writing. It is far from an austere, competitive, fastidious engagement with the best, as outsiders might think. A writer must write bad poems, as they come, among the better, and not scorn the 'bad' ones. (67)

Stafford's unique psychology makes writing both easier and harder. In the title of his second and latest prose collection (1986), Stafford echoes a Rilke poem to suggest that a poet or writer really needs to do only one thing: You Must Revise Your Life.

Stafford has clearly benefitted from his own theory, if success is measured by productivity. In 1978 he was rising daily before dawn, positioning himself before a dark window, and producing four poems a day (Crawl 153). Critics who assail his work for what they perceive to be unevenness and self-repetition are, presumably, telling the poet nothing he doesn't already know—"some people don't have the nerve to write bad poems, but I do" (150).

A strong contender for the definitive case study on the subject of finishing is Merrill Moore, an American physician who lived from 1900 to 1956 and who moonlighted as a poet.

Merrill Moore was a compulsive writer of poems—or, more precisely, of sonnets. During most of his adult life Moore composed, on an average, five sonnets a day. He wrote an autobiography, M, which consisted of 1,000 sonnets, and in its prefatory statement he wrote:

These thousand sonnets are part of a larger work begun some years ago, still in progress, and which may never be completed. At present the unfinished work comprises 50,000 sonnets, most of which (the reader may be assured) will never be published. (M n.p.)

Intrigued by this eccentric man, I went to the library recently for a copy of M. When I looked at the filing card in the jacket to see when the book had last been checked out, I discovered that it had not been borrowed nor presumably read by any faculty, student, or staff member at my university in 35 years.

How good were Moore's sonnets? Unbelievably, they were eulogized by no less an enemy of traditionalism and traditional poetic forms than William Carlos Williams, himself a physician/poet. In the prefatory note to M, Williams wrote:

[The sonnets are] magnificent . . . . What Moore has done is more or less what we have all been striving to do in America since Whitman's famous "Me, myself'; he has broken through the blinding stupid formality of the thing and gone after the core of it, not of the sonnet, which is nothing, but of the sonnet form, which is the gist of the whole matter. (n.p.)

Another of Moore's admirers was the poet-editor Louis Untermeyer. Untermeyer recalled the informal poetry readings that Moore participated in during his student days at Vanderbilt University.

It was the custom. . . to read . . . manuscripts to each other, criticize the product, and submit the work for further appraisal at the next meeting. Moore, however, was the exception. Instead of refining his poem, he would go to his room and promptly write ten or twelve new poems. This is as true today as it was ten years ago. Sometimes he attempts the troublesome labor of revision. But each attempt at correction suggests a new idea; and his mind, extended and almost explosive, shoots off along new tangents. (M n.p.)

Untermeyer's comment suggests the essential quality of "finishing," which is its ambiguity. Moore never finished his work, only his works. Nor, clearly, do other artists. "When one picture is finished," said Renoir, "I long to begin the next" ((391). In the creative vocations, processes are innately recursive and cyclical, punctuated by stops and pauses that are temporary at longest. Finishing only preludes another beginning, another "reckless encounter," as William Stafford puts it, "with whatever comes along" (Craw l 67).



Anderson Galleries, New York. The Forum Exhibition of Modern A,merican Painters. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1916.

Ashton, Dore, ed. Picasso on Art: A Selection of His Views. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Brande, Dorothea. Becoming a Writer. 1934. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1981.

Eliot, T. S., ed. Selected Poems by Marianne Moore. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

Evans, Myfanwy, ed. The Painter's Object. London: Gerald Howe Ltd., 1937.

Ghiselin, Brewster, ed. The Creative Process: A Symposium. Berkeley: U of California P, 1952.

Klee, Paul. The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918. Ed. Felix Klee. Berkeley: U of California P, 1964.

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: Norton, 1975.

Moore, Merrill. M: One Thousand Autobiographical Sonnets. New York: Harcourt, 1938.

Renoir, Jean. Renoir, My Father. Trans. Randolph and Dorothy Weaver. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1988.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans. Jane Bannard Greene and M.D. Herter Norton. 2 vols. New York: Norton Library, 1969.

---. Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters on Cezanne. Trans. Joel Agee. Ed. Clara Rilke. New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1985.

Robertson, Jack, ed. Twentieth-Century Artists on Art: An Index to Artists' Writings, Statements, and Interviews. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985.

Rothko, Mark. Mark Rothko, 1903-1970. London: The Tate Gallery, 1987.

Sampson, Anthony and Sally Sampson, eds. The Oxford Book of Ages. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.

Sandler, Irving. The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Stafford, William. Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation. Ann Arbor: U of MI P, 1978.

---You Must Revise Your Life. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1986.