Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors
Amazon Publishing, 2015
270 pages – Amazon
Process—as in “Could you tell us a bit about your writing process, please?”—is one of those words that’s both irksome and inevitable, at once offering helpful insights into productive creative lives while also oversimplifying the genesis of art. It’s the kind of word that trades in vague potency. If Shakespeare always ate scrambled eggs for breakfast, would that count as part of his process? What if Virginia Woolf always took a powernap in the afternoon? To pen a masterpiece should you too eat eggs and enjoy siestas? How much can we learn from artists’ lives and contexts, and how much of all this process talk is a silly stew of foofaraw?
In Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, Sarah Stodola explores the importance of process, looking at eighteen writers (about half of whom are alive today) and trying to understand how they’ve gone about creating their books. Stodola looks at some classic cases—like Franz (“Miserable life = amazing art!”) Kafka and Virginia (“Go get a room of your own!”) Woolf—and also at more contemporary folk like Richard Price and Margaret Atwood. Each writer’s life is distilled into a chapter of 10 or so pages, and then partnered with somebody else’s. For instance, both Toni Morrison and Franz Kafka fall into Stodola’s “Nine-to-Fiver” category, meaning they’re total jobbers.
Stodola’s approach to Franz and Toni and Margaret and Virginia is accessible and welcoming. Although she says in the introduction that this book ought to be used by writers hoping to learn from the greats (and presumably in such cases you’re already familiar with a few of these big names), honestly if you’d never heard of Franz Kafka, it’s okay because Stodola explains him by starting at a pretty basic level. Fitting with this accessible approach, Stodola’s prose style is very readable—and I mean that in both the best and worst ways. We come to understand the ongoings of these artists’ lives, primarily in relationship to their practice and craft (craft being another one of those words that’s makes me a tad queasy), but sometimes Stodola tries to make them too relatable, too much like us. A claim, for instance, about “Kafka’s inability to envision any kind of what we today call work-life balance” seems a bit off and ahistorical (as do some of the claims about earlier writers’ mental health states that are understood only in very contemporary thinking). Stodola’s sentences reflect this effort to understand these esteemed writers as people just like us, unmoored and adrift, swimming helplessly through the cold white seas of the blank page. For Stodola, every writer is a struggling writer, and if anything this book definitely offers camaraderie amongst those in the struggle.
If there’s one immediate lesson here, it’s that once artists get canonized, they become a lot less interesting, for their lives get squeezed into biographical parables and every petty detail of their existences gets force-sculpted into MEANING. Which is to say, if you ask me it’s more interesting to read about the actual day-to-day lives of Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz than it is to hear-tell once again of Jack Keroauc and his incredibly long manuscript for On the Road. The mythos surrounding canonized artists is exhausting and rarely if ever deployed in service of their art. Here in particular, Stodola’s inquiry into process for these canonized writers is only sometimes able to escape this exhausting, encompassing mythos.
Stodola explores process as the “how” of writing—that is, “How did this thing get written?”— and goes about addressing this “how” question primarily by analyzing the writers’ lives and biographies, which frequently means tapping into that mythos. Yet the more I learned about the quotidian concerns of these great writers, the more I wondered, And what of it? In general, for studies such as this the connection between art and life is too easily understood as an A-to-B type of thing, where an artist’s personal experiences get shoved into the creativity machine and out plops art. Really it’s a much messier affair than that.
The broader challenge, I think, for Stodola and for all of us interested in creating art, is that there’s no accounting for imagination. As we study masterful artists, factoids and anecdotes and quotidian snippets can offer us information, but when we treat these details as clues into unlocking their imaginations we’re fooling ourselves. If one writer favored Ticonderoga #2 pencils, while another preferred to write in a room painted all black, well that might intrigue us, but ultimately these slices of biography are of no more importance than if a writer only wrote poetry while wearing argyle socks. To truly understand a writer’s process, we would need to fully understand that writer’s imagination, which is impossible. Imagination is like alchemy and we’ll never know how to turn lead into gold, even though we’ll definitely know when someone else has conjured up a nugget of the shiny stuff.
Stodola’s book is fun and engaging if sometimes too pat. It might be best for younger writers who are interested in learning about the daily demands of the writing life and for anyone looking for a bit of creative camaraderie amidst the struggles of the day.