Salvage and the Creative Process

Hello, hi, how are you? This is the first entry for Salvage; it should be pretty dope. I don’t have a central theme for this blog. I can’t tell you what it’s “about”. Cleanth Brooks in “The Well-Wrought Urn” says it is a “heresy” to try to explain what a poem is “about” in an authoritative summary paragraph, a poem attempts to take many different ideas, sometimes contradictory, and reach some sort of resolution through its linguistic gymnastics[i]. The blog is like one large poem, pulling together different topics from the recesses of my mind until I am finished. But I’m not looking for regular readership, just to purge the demons from my head so I can finally rest. So read the stuff you like, ignore the stuff you’re not that into (but you already know this because you’re smrt).

I figure the best place to start is an explanation of the blog’s title. This will give you a decent insight into the way I think and some of the things I’m into, so you can decide for yourself whether this floats your boat. The name Salvage, apart from being an

awesome, if inappropriately named British zombie film, is a reference to the way I view inspiration and the creative process. We are always pulling things of use out of our memories, of things we see, or read about and reworking and reflecting on these pieces of the world and ourselves to make art. For me, inspiration is a corpse rising from the depths of a lake and it is up to the writer, to retrieve the body. Now I know that the term “salvage” usually refers to objects, not dead bodies, but I think “salvage” sounds a hell of a lot better than “pulling in dead bodies” as a title. This macabre metaphor of the corpse could be exchanged for maybe driftwood but I don’t use the body for the sake of being gross, there’s a good reason why this metaphor is apt.

The choice of the lake does not require much explanation. A deep lake is a common symbol for the subconscious: there are aspects to lakes that you cannot see or the sun does not touch that exists anyways. Like a lake, there are ugly, creepy, or just plain unknown things going on within our subconscious that make humans all sorts of screwed up (but interesting!). Also, staring into the lake water, you see a reflection, of course reflection is essential to the creative process. But why the corpse?

Ideas and inspiration are always to some extent a rupture, an agitation, regardless of the subject matter, whether it be funny, sad, etc. The ideas that become known, the things that we feel compelled to make paintings of, or write stories about are what your mind needs to work through. Just like the gases in drowned men’s bodies that inevitably make the corpses rise to the surface, eventually something disturbs the subconscious abyss and brings up something we’ve never thought before, something we might not have even known was there. And, like seeing a corpse burst out of nowhere, these little revelations can be immensely surprising. Beyond that, the reason why it is a corpse and not something else, say driftwood or a catfish, is because ideas are composed of past fragments, things you’ve read, experienced, that someone else has experienced and told you about, things that your conscious mind has laid to rest. In effect, these fragments are dead, except that at some point they emerge from the depths.

I’m not the only person to ever evoke the image of the drowned man in a discussion of imagination and inspiration; it is actually very Wordsworthian. In Book Five of his massive poem, “The Prelude”, Wordsworth recalls a moment from his childhood when he was walking along the shores of Esthwaite’s Lake (if you know anything of Romantic poetry, or Wordsworth in particular, you know he adores nature walks. He eats that shit up) and comes across a drowned man:

    Twilight was coming on, yet through the gloom

Appeared distinctly on the opposite shore

A heap of garments, as if left by one

Who might have there been bathing. Long I watched,

But no one owned them; meanwhile the calm lake

Grew dark with all the shadows on its breast,

And, now and then, a fish up-leaping snapped

The breathless stillness. The succeeding day,

Those unclaimed garments telling a plain tale

Drew to the spot an anxious crowd; some looked

In passive expectation from the shore,

While from a boat others hung o’er the deep,

Sounding with grappling irons and long poles.

At last, the dead man, ‘mid that beauteous scene

Of trees and hills and water, bolt upright

Rose, with his ghastly face, a spectre shape

Of terror; yet no soul-debasing fear,

Young as I was, a child not nine years old,

Possessed me, for my inner eye had seen

Such sights before, among the shining streams

Of faery land, the forest of romance.

Their spirit hallowed the sad spectacle

With decoration of ideal grace;

A dignity, a smoothness, like the works

Of Grecian art, and purest poesy.[ii]

Wordsworth uses the Drowned Man of Esthwaite in a slightly different, but still relevant way. You could write papers and papers on this poem (people have!), so I won’t go through every possible interpretation of what Wordsworth is doing here; what I will say though is this section is indicative of how Wordsworth views the powers of literature and the imagination. Even though the emergence of the “spectre shape” from the water is immensely alarming, young Wordsworth is not as alarmed as he could have been because of books he’s read and things he’s already imagined. Literature has changed his perception of the world, affecting how he views the situation of finding the corpse and the aesthetic value of the corpse itself. His time spent in “faery land” gives the corpse a “decoration of ideal grace” when he reflects on the event, writing “The Prelude” years later. Visceral fragments from the actual event, poems he’s read or artwork he’s seen that are related to the situation all add up to become the corpse (literal and figurative) that floats up in Wordsworth’s mind and inspires him to write this section of the poem. Remember that Wordsworth was the one who said the creative process should be the “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquillity,”[iii] he is all about recalling past events and working through them in new and productive ways (for him, through the form of poetry). These “spontaneous overflows” are not necessarily random, though. Eventually you start to see patterns in the bodies/ideas that keep floating up. Why do the same faces keep washing ashore?

We all have little obsessions, fixations, words we like, types of stories we listen to again and again. The difference between an artist and someone who does not create is we are not privy to their obsessions, even though they are still most certainly there. With an artist or writer, you can see the same sounds, images, or types of characters emerging. With Bradbury, Douglas Spalding keeps making appearances, never the exact same character, but always the same name, with Chekov, he always has doctors in his stories, with Cheever, there is always tragic infidelity. In his introduction to Dinner Along the Amazon, Timothy Findley writes of creative obsession, stating, “when you come right down to it, the pursuit of an obsession through the act of writing is not so much a question of repetition as it is of regeneration…the regeneration is surely a sign, a signal that something remains to be done…one day this question—all the questions—may be answered and when this happens, the character disappears”[iv]. We hear all the time about people needing “closure” for things, whether it be a break up, or the death of a loved one. Our creative obsessions are similar to other traumas: we require closure to gain a release. I love tracking those little obsessions within an author’s works. It is interesting when certain images stop showing up in the writing because then you know whatever their brain was working through has been laid to rest.

On the topic of closure, this is where I leave you. I hope to make more entries soon but life gets hectic, as you know. I’ve meant to make a blog for years but never thought I had anything terribly useful to say. I am still unsure whether any of this will be useful, but goddamn I’m willing to try. And if nothing else it’ll be a ton of fun. This opening entry has been rather heavy, but hopefully interesting, they aren’t all going to be like this, some will be much more light-hearted. However, I wanted an opportunity to explain the significance of the title for the blog. I’m standing on a shore waiting for the lake to divulge something useful that I can salvage. These entries are the more productive pieces I’ve gathered from my mind and I felt like sharing my haul.

[i] Cleanth Brooks. “The Well Wrought Urn,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 1356.

[ii] Wordsworth, William. “The Prelude: Book Five.” Bartleby. Accessed 16 December 2013, 435-459.

[iii] Wordsworth, William. “Preface to The Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems.” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 651.

[iv] Timothy Findley, introduction to Dinner Along the Amazon. (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), x.


One thought on “Salvage and the Creative Process

  1. Pingback: “Sinless, foodless”: The purging of desire in Eavan Boland’s “Anorexic” | Salvage

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