Practice Part 4 — Practice Discovery

Natalia Ginzburg.  Image via .

Natalia Ginzburg.  Image via


Consider the following observation from Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg about her early writing process:

So I was always hunting for characters, I looked at the people on the tram and on the street and when I found a face that seemed suitable for a story I wove some moral details and a little anecdote around it.  I also went hunting for details of dress and people’s appearance, and how their houses looked inside; if I went into a new room I tried to describe it silently to fit well in a story.  I kept a notebook in which I wrote down some of the details I had discovered, or little similes, or episodes which I promised myself I would use in stories.  For example I would write in my notebook ‘She came out of the bathroom trailing the cord of her dressing-gown behind her like a long tail’, ‘ How the lavatory stinks in this house — the child said to him — When I go, I hold my breath — he added sadly’, ‘His curls like bunches of grapes’, ‘Red and black blankets on an unmade bed’, ‘A pale face like a peeled potato’.  But I discovered how difficult it was to use these phrases when I was writing a story.  The notebook became a kind of museum of phrases that were crystallized and embalmed and very difficult to use.  I tried endlessly to slip the red and black blankets or the curls like bunches of grapes into a story but I never managed to.  So the notebook was no help to me.  I realized that in this vocation there is no such thing as ‘savings’.  If someone thinks ‘that’s a fine detail and I don’t want to waste it in the story I’m writing at the moment, I’ve plenty of good material here, I’ll keep it in reserve for another story I’m going to write’, that detail will crystallize inside him and he won’t be able to use it.

From “My Vocation” by Natalia Ginzburg
Included in The Little Virtues

Her insight that “there is no such thing as savings,” carries over to many realms.  A drummer might, in the course of practicing, discover a particularly fun fill and decide to perfect it for use at a particular point in a particular song.  Then, during performance, the drummer will find that the fill feels wrong.  The moment of discovery has been lost, and the fill has crystallized and lacks the fluidity demanded in the moment.

Likewise, a songwriter may want to hold onto a melody or a line of lyrics, an architect may want to hold onto a particular vision of how two spaces adjoin.  In all of these cases, what we might prioritize is not holding onto the particular ideas but rather the creative flow that led to them.

Note that this does not discount keeping notes from which we might later proceed.  It only points to the fact that though we can preserve a discovery, it’s much harder to preserve its moment of arrival, and the distinction is crucial. 

One way this phenomenon shows up in the world is when bands find that their albums and lack the magical feel of their demos.  The demos are filled with discovery; the albums, with failed attempts at reenacting those discoveries.  Discovery, by its nature, cannot be reenacted.  One can only set oneself free to pursue new discoveries.  (It's for this reason that my band, Semisonic, resolved to make master-quality demos.  A master-quality demo might not need to be redone.)  

Thus, when we come upon an especially striking idea, we might do something with it right then and there.  Spend it, because we can't save it.  And later, when our work is done, we might reflect upon what happened to make that moment of discovery possible.

Thank you for reading.