By Jordan A. Rothacker
Process v Product
When I was a young budding literary artist, too insecure to yet call myself an artist, I prepared myself for all the important debates I would have eventually. One such debate was over process versus product. This preparation proved as futile socially as all the rest, but it helped my own working and thinking about my writing practice.
In my investigations into sentiments around process I stumbled upon Andre Gide’s thoughts early on (around the time I read The Immoralist in college). Gide was all about process. Supposedly, he cared more about the working journal that led to a novel than the novel itself. It sure sounds like he was treating the notebook as the actual product. When I realized this, I decided the debate was silly.
Isn’t a process just a product unto itself if viewed from that angle?
Isn’t every moment just fleeting instances of both process and product?
I used to have a column for a pen magazine (yes, seriously; It’s a wicked life, but what the hell, everybody’s got to eat). The column was called “Freehanding with...” and each one featured an interview with a freehand literary artist. They came in all shapes and sizes: some thought they were super unique, some were just pragmatists, and some were admittedly stubborn and never learned to type. When I interviewed Chuck Palaniuk, he turned some questions back on me. When I told him about how I worked on my first novel every evening for an hour after work, but jotted down notes all day long at work so there was no dead time in that evening hour, he said that he didn’t think I composed on a computer, but in my head out in the world. It’s true. And optional. But the computer is the place I type what I see in my head or write in a notebook. On some level, it’s not writing it’s just typing. I can write, as in compose, anywhere, anytime, even if it’s just in my head. I am always writing.
I am living process. I am living-process. And of course, I have always loved Buckminster Fuller’s book, I Seem to Be a Verb.
Mum’s the Word
I have always respected artists who won’t talk about their works, but insist that the work speaks for itself, that the work speaks all that needs to be said about itself. Clyfford Still, David Lynch, and Cormac McCarthy are some of my heroes in this regard. Somewhere I read that Walter Benjamin wouldn’t talk about something he was writing until it was done lest he dissipate the energy that was going into it. I get this. Speaking about an as yet unfinished work is in itself working on or through the problems presented in composition. Writing, like all acts of creation (and maybe all acts), is an exercise in problem-solving.
I’m not like them. I talk. And talk and talk. I solve problems while I talk about a work in progress. The composing and editing are even happening out loud and in my head during conversations about my work. If my writing project is worth committing to then the energy doesn’t dissipate for me until the work is done.
Preparation is everything. I’ve never sat down to a blank page or screen and had no idea what to write. Laziness, or a lack of “traditional ideas of discipline,” is maybe a big factor in how a lot of preparation happens in my head. This could be while showering, walking, driving, or lying in bed fighting insomnia with a mind that won’t stop (yes, I know meditation can help). I have to know what I’m going to write before I can really write. Sometimes the title and plot come to me all at once. The end of a short story or novel is never a mystery to me. Neither is the beginning. Mystery is found and appreciated elsewhere, but I’ll get to that later.
When I sat down to seriously commit to writing my first novel at the age of twenty-five (And Wind Will Wash Away), I had already studied the processes of many writers. When I was seventeen, I became a member of the International James Joyce Foundation and the shadow cast by that early hero was hard to escape. What I read about William Faulkner jibed best with my mind. I couldn’t be Haruki Murakami and just start a book with an image of a man making spaghetti and follow him to see what would happen. From what I understood about Faulkner, preparation was an extremely useful foundation; the more you knew ahead of time, the easier the writing would be. Supposedly, Faulkner knew everything about all of his characters and setting most of his work in the controlled environment of Yoknapatawpha County allowed complete knowledge of their potential range of movements. So, in a composition notebook I outlined all of the chapters of the novel. I wrote dossier like profiles on each character as I imagined them. Maps were studied, floorplans were drawn, and trajectories of movement for characters in each scene were established.
Along with Faulkner, William T. Vollmann was a huge influence then (and still today). And Wind Will Wash Away was set in Atlanta and involved a lot of religious studies and field work so I moved from New York to Georgia, completed a Master’s degree in Religion at the University of Georgia and regularly ventured into Atlanta to interview sex workers, goddess worshippers, and various people from whom I could model characters. It took three years to finish the book, but it didn’t get published until ten years later. Older me took great pleasure in editing younger me and cutting about twenty-pages of windy, winding faux-Faulknerian sentences.
Edith Wharton was also someone I learned a lot from as she implemented a similar notebook and knew the first and last page of a work from its inception, and writing for her was the act of discovery and problem-solving to get there.
But you can only prepare so much. The fun is in the not knowing, which can only happen when you have a solid basis. Like in a lot of Jazz, there needs to be a structure to improvise over.
Hogs of Entropy
One of my favorite contemporary American writers working today is Jarett Kobek. Since the success of his brilliant 2016 novel I Hate the Internet, most focus on his work has involved that book and what has come after. I love it all, but especially his early small press novellas, which are mostly highly-conceptual works of experimentation. Beneath the tricks and showmanship though, there is a sincere heart and a deep reverence and love for the literary arts. The first book to his name is a strange beast called HOE #999: Decennial Appreciation and Celebratory Analysis (2010) and it was published by Book Works through a project called Semina (with Stewart Home as the commissioning editor). Cavalierly described as a novel, Kobek’s book is set up as a memoir about, and self-exegesis of, a text file he published ten years earlier in an online forum called Hogs of Entropy. The text file was named “The Madcap Laughs” and it was the 999th post. Parts of the original text are included with the exegesis along with documentation of Kobek’s attempts to outsource his analysis to an essay farm in Bangladesh. All of this somehow comes together into an enjoyable read, but the parts that really sing my soul and I return to often are when Kobek describes the magical or mystical aspects of the writer’s craft.
In the middle of HOE #999: Decennial Appreciation and Celebratory Analysis we read:
I always talk about this in vague hints, because the topic itself is borderline superstitious. You can only approach indirectly. But it’s all part of a pattern created after taking up the mystical, magical art of writing. Things begin appearing in not-so-random order, coincidences multiply, doom comes to Sarnath. You invite it in. The puzzle solves itself. It’s meta-land, a funhouse reflecting infinitely into its own walls. The writing mirrors reality mirroring the writing mirroring reality. All you can do is Muslim out and submit to the unknowable, letting the narrative take you where it may.
From one perspective, none of this is particularly new—the post-sixties academic left have soiled themselves for decades with questions of WHERE FICTION ENDS and WHERE REALITY BEGINS. What is truth? What is story? Yawn. We aren’t discussing conceits. Fuck theory. This isn’t a parlour game between gallery openings and bong hits. This is a mode of life, a totality of existence, a way of being. A course of destiny charted. The words like fire from my fingers.
Like I said. I don’t read books. I don’t write books. I am books. (Among other things.)
This is how it’s always been for me, both the mysticism and the destiny parts. The mind is problem-solving on staggered levels of consciousness, all hands and synaptic firings on deck to get from the beginning to the end of the novel. It might seem like I am letting the text guide me, but I know it’s always just another part of me.
Sometimes plots or characters come to me ready to go, tied with a bow, like a vision of sugar plums dancing before me eyes. Some short stories have risen to the surface of my consciousness to announce themselves as ready to be recorded in print and beyond seizing that moment and getting it all down fast before it’s gone, I didn’t do much work at “composition.” Like Athena fully grown and armored, bursting forth from Zeus’ aching head, they are beheld in wonder and I am grateful in my sudden paternity.
For a full-length novel, a sudden inception might have that first and last page, or chapter, like Wharton experienced. I might see the direction of the plot arc and the shadowy function of the central characters, even some random scenes or chapters from within the narrative. But a novel of any substantial length will still take teasing out to be fully revealed. To sustain a work longer than twenty-five thousand words I need to start prepared, and to be fully prepared is more than just teasing, but requires building.
My wife is a chef, and coincidentally, I used to cook a lot more before we met; at some points in life even professionally. I’ve also done my share of bartending in this world and I’ve made more money slinging drinks than from sales of my own books. In mixology, just like cooking, recipes are crucial. A recipe is more than a list of ingredients. Process is an indispensable part of a recipe and ingredients are nothing without it.
When I used to follow Johnny Depp’s film work, I always valued how he designed the characters he played. He made an original character out of combining a handful of already established characters or people. For his Ichabod Crane, he combined Basil Rathebone’s Sherlock Holmes with Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote and the personality of his friend, actor Roddy McDowall. I’ve employed this method for designing individual characters within a novel, and even for conceptualizing a whole novel.
Even times when the work comes to me almost fully formed, I notice the influences my sub-conscious assembled and drew from in composing the work. I write them down, I reread them, I tease out that influence when building my own new, unique thing.
The Death of the Cyborg Oracle
So, there I was at the beginning of May 2019 and the end of a marathon semester in which I taught seven classes over four months across three colleges. It was two classes a full semester at one school, one class a full semester at another school, and for a third school, two classes for two months and then two different classes for two months on a quarter system. My father died suddenly during the first week of the semester and he was the tenth person I’d lost in the last three years up to that point. I had no time for grief. I had to keep sane under this workload and my wife was due with our second child in May.
At the school with quarters, those last two months were spent teaching “Creative Writing” and “World Literature: I.” As they finished in May my mind was reeling, and I needed an outlet. None of my other projects in progress felt exciting and I wanted to do something new and fast. Then one night it just happened. Apocalypse, revelation, epiphany, and maybe some drugs, but BOOM! The muse smiled, my subconscious vomited, and like Zeus seeing Athena, I saw the future…
…and it was a shitty future. Billions were dead. The earth was no longer inhabitable. The seas had risen, and the air burned like fire. The only humans left lived safely and fearfully in a new domed world. We were all to blame and the most culpable aspect of us was capitalism.
The recipe was clear, at least at its base, and it provided a direction for which additional accenting ingredients were necessary. A science fiction novel and a detective story. Together those components become a “future noir.” It would also be a philosophical investigation into the nature and need for belief, myth, gods, and enchantment. How would these ingredients stir together?
The book would be set two hundred years in the future after the effects of devastating climate catastrophe. Those left have rebuilt society in domed cities like the Atlanta of the setting. The role of capitalism has been so acknowledged in the destruction of the world that every living human has inherited the trauma of guilt. Without the abstraction of capitalism to direct devotion, a new religio-mythic fervor has brought back all gods that have every existed and everyone worships their own god. This is a world of re-enchantment. Crime still exists, but minimally, and is divided into jurisdictions of Sacred and Profane. The protagonist, who has just transferred from Profane to Sacred Homicide, is like Dr. Watson and her Holmes is a brilliant rabbi and scholar of all religions and myths (a combination of Shelock, Moses Maimonides, and some originality). Their first case together is to investigate the murder of the Oracle of Delphi. And the title would be indisputably in-your-face mythic science fiction.
So many various influences were in my mind, like: Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and capitalism, Laudato Si’, which I had just read; AdBusters May 2019 issue titled, “A New Mythology,” that was sitting on my coffee table; Rudolph Fisher’s novel, The Conjure-man Dies, I had just received in the Library of American Harlem Renaissance box set; things I had just taught like Egyptian Mythology, Greek tragedy, Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, and Dante; things I was preparing to teach in a World Religion class like The Torah, Talmud, and Midrash; all of the David Bowie I had been listening to since his death and more so since the death of my father…
Once I set up my writing notebook for this project, I made sure to remind myself of the fertile ground from whence The Death of the Cyborg Oracle grew:
It is a strange feeling to work on a novel, a piece of art, a fiction, that might actually have direct social relevance. I worked as William T. Vollmann’s research assistant on his two-volume investigation into climate change and our energy needs, Carbon Ideologies. After three years of that, my mind was swimming in the most depressing facts.
Careful to never let the political message get in the way of the aesthetic vision, I still understood that the novel I was writing served as a message to humanity. That is, if anyone read it. But regardless of my readership, I felt a responsibility to cross all my tee’s and carefully craft a future world. This world I crafted, two hundred years from my own, is a world post apocalypse, post climate catastrophe, and finally securely back on its feet. Within a dome, that is.
This leads to the most amusing crux of the work; the Somber Hope mentioned in the novel. Marketers and reviewers might initially call my future vision a dystopia, and I understand that since the natural world is uninhabitable. However, humans are still animals and the world they have created for themselves inside the dome is much closer to a utopia. There are no cars, no guns, no greed, no capitalism, no racism, no homophobia, no transphobia, no want, and everyone is vegan. Other than what it took to get us there, it sounds good to me.
City as Muse
This is my second novel set in Atlanta. For the first (And Wind Will Wash Away, 2016) I tried to contain in 400 pages my impressions and understanding of a place in which I came of age from seven to nineteen years old. One chapter wove through the whole general history of the place and its dominant residents while the protagonist wound his way through the main public library. In The Death of the Cyborg Oracle, I turned that love of place into a sense of hope as to what could possibly endure in the worst of all possible futures. This is also a similar plot line to a movie I appreciated as a militaristic and martial arts obsessed tween, Cyborg, staring Jean-Claude Van Damme. JCVD and the cyborg he is protecting are heading to Atlanta since its housing of the CDC makes it a last hope for humanity.
These two books are an effort in my own small way to do for Atlanta what Wharton has done for Manhattan, James Joyce has done for Dublin, Iain Sinclair has done for London, Eve Babitz has done for Los Angeles, Fyodor Dostoevsky has done for St. Petersburg, and Walter Benjamin (and Emile Zola, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and so many others) has done for Paris.
Praxis During Pandemic
While this book was begun in 2019, the bulk of it was written (not composed, mind you) during the Covid Pandemic of 2020. The global pandemic, but particularly how it has been responded to in my own country, has brought to the fore one of the saddest morals of my novel. The anti-mask movement and my government’s inability to forgo capitalist motives and actually provide for its citizens in need, has driven home what selfish beasts we are and how deeply we are addicted to capitalism. It is worse than Stockholm Syndrome, but that is a worthy metaphor for our relation to this failed economic system. We don’t notice we are hostages and we relate to our captor with blind devotion. The selfishness on display in anti-maskers is the same selfishness that prevents us from accepting some inconvenience in exchange for making steps to save our planet and civilization before it is too late to prevent climate change. Time is running out. In my book it takes horrors unseen before and an epigenetic chemical imprint of trauma to finally get us to change.
All Roads Lead to Rome
Product wins. It’s what we have to represent Process. It is what is left after Process. When Product remains, no one knows, and most likely no one cares, how you got there.
Plumbing “Process” is the work of mystics and shaman, those who go deep. It is a role that all creative artists play to some degree, whether conscious of it or not. For some, maybe it’s just a feeling.