TWC creative nonfiction instructor Kathy Curto discusses process and product, chaos and vision
The book weighs a little over eight pounds, contains 472 pages and is about the size of those classic briefcases seen in old movies. It’s what some consider a coffee table book. In fact, my copy does have a home on our coffee table, though I have lugged it into many classrooms through the years. No small feat. It was a Christmas gift from my husband sixteen years ago, after I begged him to join me at the Brooklyn Museum exhibit which carried the same name as the book, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005. Many of the pages are of images Leibovitz took through the years, including the iconic, the unforgettable. Think pregnant Demi Moore, striking Patti Smith and man-of-grace, Nelson Mandela.
The pages I love the most are of the more personal photographs she’d taken during this span of fifteen years: ones of her children, her family and especially those of both her father and the writer, Susan Sontag, which offer tender glimpses of illness and caretaking.
All have impact, all tell a story.
But the photo I look at with the sharpest intensity, the one I linger on with real fiery desire is titled “Notes for The Volcano Lover, Berlin, 1990.” There’s no glistening skin to take in, no pop of color or magnificent landscape featured in this one. It’s mostly notes and annotations. On slips of paper, on white legal pads and in a spiral notebook. Scratches and scribbles, all in some way contributions to Sontag’s novel, The Volcano Lover, published in 1992.
The notes and the novel, process and product.
When March 2020 landed in our collective lap, the impact was fierce. The pandemic changed everything, from intimate ways of being to our most public, everyday practices. And the changes continue to unfold, as we’re seeing especially this month.
Chaos can create confusion and fear and, at the same time, it can yield unexpected slices of beauty. I’m trying to pay close attention to the way this wild time has influenced my groove, impulses and rhythms as a human being. One very specific example is this: the realization that honoring process is essential right now, both in personal and professional realms. Whether we are in the midst of a relationship dilemma or in the thick of writing the next chapter of our manuscript, we may think all that matters is an instant solution, a final product. To be done! To have it done! To get it done! But often the most critical discoveries live in the twisting roads we take to get there–to that final, scrubbed-down draft–whatever or wherever that may be. And sharing those experiences, those travel stories, can be a way to connect with self and others.
Maybe that photo of Sontag’s notes made its mark on me because of this. Maybe it shows the chipping away at a project when what we have is both chaos and vision. Maybe I’m drawn to the look of her notes, the scribbles and annotations because they are a glimpse into a creative process and that’s comforting.
I’m not the only one who scratches out words, ideas and phrases with the hope they will all take me somewhere. I’m less alone.
I feel that right now, as I write this. I want the essay to be clear, engaging and complete. I want to be done, pleased with it and successful in making a connection with you, the reader. It takes time and patience to honor the ideas that form inside us and to figure out a way to shape them on a blank page. I often say to students after we write from prompts, “Now something’s there. Something wasn’t there ten minutes ago.” And, though we don’t always dig into the origin story of an idea, this can be curious, too. Where did it come from? Why am I remembering that detail or finding energy in that notion right now, so much so that I want to write about it or make something with it?
These realities—COVID chaos, a desire to feel less alone and a deep appreciation for how a piece of writing is conceived—are forces that drive one approach I now use regularly as a writing instructor. I call it, “Process or Product” not because I love that name (I don’t) but because it’s what rolled off my tongue one day in class, initially on Zoom, which certainly is relevant. (At first, those boxes did not cultivate a desire to open up with fresh work and get vulnerable, did they?) I wanted to engage a new class of students but did not want them to feel pressured to share what they had written just a few moments prior. It all evolved quite organically, out of a desire to pay attention to the birth of an idea and how a writing prompt can take us to places that may surprise us.
So now in my generative classes, we write from prompts and then when it is time to share, I open the floor (either on Zoom or in-person) by saying, “Who would like to go first: process or product?” Some read their fresh-out-of-the-oven pieces and some opt to talk about what prompt they chose and why or how they built traction with it on the page. Both contributions can be helpful and valuable, not just the one that represents what the outcome of the writing was but also the one that speaks to how the writing happened. Allowing writers in a community (a class, a group or a circle) to share all of it—the chaos, confusion and story—allows for deeper connection and insight about the making of a piece of writing. Plus, for those of us who thrive on being witness to the truth and beauty in this thing we call storytelling, there’s nothing quite like being part of the scribbles and the scrubbed-down draft.
Beautiful chaos, indeed.
Kathy Curto is the author of Not for Nothing-Glimpses into a Jersey Girlhood, published by Bordighera Press. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, on NPR, in the essay collection, Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now, and in Barrelhouse, Toho Journal, The Mom Egg Review, HerStry, La Voce di New York, Drift, Talking Writing, The Inquisitive Eater, Voices in Italian Americana, Ovunque Siamo and Lumina, among others. Her piece, “Still Cooking Side by Side” considered a “Modern Love in miniature” by The New York Times, was included in The Best of Tiny Love Stories in August 2021. Kathy lives with her family in the Hudson Valley.