The other night a friend invited me to a dance performance at ODC in San Francisco – a competition in which audience members decide which choreographers will receive a $10,000 grant to develop new work. I went in knowing nothing about the choreographers or the pieces and left feeling electric with inspiration — nothing feeds the artistic impulse more than art itself. (“Her response to any performance, any work of art, was the desire to make another, to make her own,” A.S. Byatt says in The Children’s Book, describing the “relentlessly busy inventiveness” of Olive, a writer of children’s books. That’s it, exactly.)
What struck me at this particular performance was that choreographers and writers share a certain way of thinking about the creative process. We both make art that unfolds sequentially, over time, and we both use a vocabulary of words or movements that we manipulate in similar ways – repeating and reversing them, placing them in conversations (duets) or interior monologues (solos), seeking to build tension and then resolve it. In a discussion with the audience after the performance two of the four choreographers whose works were performed said that their pieces were inspired by poetry – albeit in very different ways. Liss Fain (“Speak of Familiar Things”) was inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens called Debris of Life and Mind” from which the title of her piece was taken. Choreographer Katie Faulkner, whose piece “Until We Know For Sure” was both the evening’s winner and my personal favorite, came to poetry from a different angle. She was aiming, she said, for a “poetic economy.”
As a poet and picture book writer I knew just what she meant – both forms are like a tincture of narrative, requiring the writer to distill paragraphs into a single potent line. It was this distillation that Faulkner was aiming for. “I kept throwing stuff out because I wanted to stay interested,” she said, adding that she had been feeling bored by her own “movement palette” – her artistic habits of mind.
All of us, when we’re cutting things out, worry that we’re cutting out the good stuf. But Faulkner’s piece felt neither minimalist nor abstract. In fact, it was the warmest, funniest, and most human of the four we saw that night. An exploration of a relationship between a man and a woman, it left me feeling as if I had just read an entire novel about the two people and their time together. By cutting out everything extraneous, she had allowed what remained to breathe, blossom, and expand, to achieve its full power.
I scribbled down Faulkner’s comments about throwing stuff out because I’m in the midst of a series of picture book revisions right now and so I’ve been contemplating the alchemy of addition by subtraction. Creativity, for me, begins in a rush of generation – words, ideas, plots, jokes, descriptions, images, phrases – that “busy inventiveness” Byatt describes. To try to constrain or direct the flow would stanch it completely – I have to let it all spill on the page. But then, the process of subtraction begins. At first, I don’t want to cut. Sure a few things can go, but so much of it feels essential. But as I begin to subtract, I find that something happens to the words I’ve left behind. The pure lines of the story emerge from the unwieldy blob of words. The unencumbered sentences seem truer, more potent.
It’s hard to do – heartbreaking sometimes. All the same, scissors can be the most useful implement in the writer’s toolbox.