Bricolage and the working writer
Yesterday, I posted an extended passage from Claude Lévi-Strauss on the concept of bricolage, or the art of using whatever happens to be at hand. I stumbled across it while browsing through a book that has fascinated me for a long time, Adhocism by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver, which is essentially an extended love letter to the art of creative improvisation. The more I think about that quote, the more it resonates with me, although the reasons might not seem obvious. As regular readers know, I’m an innately left-brained author: I love planning, research, and outlining, and I rarely sit down for a day’s work without a detailed idea of how the end result will look. On a deeper level, though, just about everything I’ve ever written has been an act of bricolage. I’m only really happy when I’m working on some kind of project, so in the early stages, I’ll often assemble a few promising scraps that look like they might lead to a story and see where they take me after a few days of noodling. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how random these building blocks can be—a few magazine articles, a book I want to read, an idea for a scene or character, a world I feel like exploring—and while I don’t always know how these components will eventually come together, that’s part of the fun.
And while I’ve previously emphasized the random nature of the pieces, the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to suspect that randomness is less important in itself than a natural side effect of the way in which the parts are acquired. This isn’t to say that randomness isn’t inherently valuable: I still believe that creativity is primarily about connections, and I’ve gotten many of my best ideas by juxtaposing ideas that might as well have been drawn out of a hat. But this is only a more systematic, or more artificial, version of a process that would probably take place on its own even if I didn’t make a point of it. The assortment of ideas competing for our attention at any one time is likely to be inherently random; as writers, we’re exposed to countless stray influences and oddments of material, whether we seek them out deliberately or come across them by chance, so the result will naturally resemble a kind of lucky bag. And this is all the more true to the extent that the process is a continuous one. A writer, if he or she is lucky, will stumble onto a coherent network of previously unexplored material maybe once every few years, which isn’t often enough to make a living at it. In order to achieve the level of productivity required to sustain a career in art, a writer needs to become very good at making use of whatever happens to be at hand right now.
Which gets at what I think is a surprisingly powerful concept. Becoming comfortable with randomness—or being able to see affinities between the pieces that the universe happens to give us at any given time—isn’t just a necessary part of the creative process, but a survival tactic that keeps the whole machine running. When an artist like Gerhard Richter tells us that we need actively to go out and find an idea, he’s really talking about seeing what’s right in front of our eyes, which rarely falls into an order that is evident at first glance. More often, it’s a hodgepodge that we’ve gathered unconsciously or according to intuitions that aren’t easily explained, and it’s the willingness to follow through on those instincts, even if we aren’t sure if they’re right, that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional. Someone who dithers between ideas, picks up and drops projects, or agonizes endlessly over where to begin isn’t likely to invest a lot of time into a set of components with no clear payoff—the opportunity cost is just too great. A working writer with sufficient confidence in his or her ability to see things through, by contrast, is more likely just to jump in and see where it goes. And while that sort of security in one’s own talents is only earned through practice, some version of it, however irrational, is probably required from the beginning.
This isn’t to say that every intuition a writer has is correct, or that everything we assemble through bricolage will result in a great, or even publishable, story. Every writer knows what it’s like to spend weeks or months on a project that turns out to be a dead end, and the garages and workshops of every bricoleur are filled with the remnants of unfinished conceptions. More often than not, though, if we push past our doubts and proceed under the assumption that the outcome will be worth it, we’ll end up with something that at least advances our understanding of the craft and teaches us a few tricks that we can put to use elsewhere. The result may not be a masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be, as long as it keeps us in the game. As Ted Hughes wrote of Sylvia Plath, who rarely left a poem unfinished: “Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” A working artist is someone whose threshold level of engagement is set just low enough so that he or she is making toys all the time, even if they occasionally turn out to be the size of a house. And if I were giving advice to someone who wanted to be a writer but wasn’t sure where to start, I’d say that the best thing you can do is assemble a few pieces, trusting both to chance and to your own intuition about what parts will fit, and get to work.