Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration
By Alexander Slagg
Is the End Just the Beginning?
I was recently inspired to read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass again, especially the poem “Song of Myself.” I needed some inspiration and guidance from a source that championed individuality and encouraged a sensual relationship to all that life has to offer. Walt Whitman was my man.
I recall last reading this iconic collection and poem back in the summer of 2002. I have vivid memories of riding the bus from my apartment in San Francisco to my first “real” editing job far out in Marin County, reading a tattered copy as the sun-scorched Northern California landscape unspooled outside the window. As I rolled along in air-conditioned comfort, I remember being awed by the spiritual depth and breadth of this work — some mid-19th century dude had put to paper these expansive mystical observations. Amazing! And I was intrigued by Whitman’s erotic themes. Again, some mid-19th century dude had written this. Amazing! “Song of Myself” read like a secret peek into someone’s diary from a long time ago.
The first thing that caught my attention this time around was in the introduction, which details some of the collection’s writing and publishing history. Whitman did not simply gather this collection of work and then release it to the world — end of story. The first edition was published in 1855. By the time Whitman died in 1892, he had published from 6 to 9 subsequent editions (depending on how you define an edition) of Leaves of Grass. With each edition he revised and tinkered with his masterwork, rephrasing, reorganizing, shifting around content, adding content. With the death-bed edition of Leaves of Grass, the collection had grown from 12 poems to almost 400 altogether.
As an artist, what is to be made of this constant tinkering and reworking? When is a writing project done? Whitman continued to update “Song of Myself” and other poems from the original edition for more than 36 years. In my own experience, this onerous dedication to refining a creative work seems extreme. I like to believe that every creative project is on its own time frame and has its own unique gestation period. But I also think that it’s very easy for an artist to get sucked into the revision quagmire.
I finished writing my first novel in 2007, the initial draft having taken about two and a half years. Over the past seven years I have workshopped it and gone through extensive rewrites. I’m currently on draft four. When will this project be done? Not soon enough for my tastes. The thought of sitting down to work through subsequent drafts is about as appealing as a rusty nail through my hand.
Through the entire rewrite process, I’ve wanted to do nothing else but move on to the next project (which I’ve done here and there, eventually returning to another draft of my novel). My natural artistic temperament is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Walt Whitman. I definitely think of myself as a one-and-done artist. I want to capture the initial inspiration — and keep having that experience over and over again. That’s where the buzz is for me. That is my writing raison d’etre.
But I’ve stuck with the rewrite process of my novel, as difficult as it’s been. Why? I guess it’s because I want to grow as a writer. Rewriting forces you to look at your writing and find ways to improve and refine it. Do it enough, and you’ll grow as a writer.
I’ve come to believe that there are two complementary energies that are needed to be a complete artist: inspiration and integration. You need to be open to inspiration’s calling and you need to be able to work the craft afterword, refining your creative vision and, over time, integrating those improvements into how you approach subsequent projects. Through a commitment to this ying-yang process, you can become the most whole and developed artist you are capable of becoming.