From Chaos to Creative Achievement:
The 'Body of Work' Inventory
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA.,
Thursday June 14, 2007
As a poet and writer I want to leave behind a meaningful body of work. So, I suspect, do most artists and aspiring artists. My own desire prompted me to launch a study of the practices of high-achieving creators (mostly painters such as Georgia O'Keeffe, though I'm a poet). These predecessor creators inspire me. Perhaps, I thought, I could ratchet up my strategies and techniques -- do whatever they did -- to increase my chances of leaving behind a meaningful body of work. One thing these high-level creators do is keep track of their works. They account for all their works -- not just works sold or commissioned or published. Following their lead, I worked out a system for tracking the body of work I've created over the past four decades. It is remarkable how my creative inventory has helped me to deepen and extend my creative efforts. I offer the outline of my system here in case it might do the same for you.
Many high-level creators make a decision to be productive. This is a most significant decision, since they have been found to be a lot more productive than average creators. We call them high-achieving because they create more masterworks, but the interesting fact is that they also create more duds. Also, as stated above, they typically account for all their works, including duds and non-duds. High-achieving creators tend to conceive of each new work as part of a body of work created over a lifetime. Their list of works (or analogous record-keeping system) helps them to think this way. They can look at their list to see at a glance where they've been and that helps them see where next to go.
In contrast, average creators tend to forget works, abandon works, reject works, and lose works. Because of this trail of lost pieces (poems, stories, paintings, or whatever), they have a weak sense of what actually constitutes their body of work, and each new piece is brand new. Their lost poems are essentially devalued poems. (And if the poet does not value his or her own work, who will value it?) This is not to say that every poem is a good poem or a finished poem, but that any poem might be worked on (often again and again) and eventually driven into the barn of finished work. Poets who work on their craft usually gain a bit of skill each year and that skill is available for honing past work. A lost poem loses its chance at art. It is lost to the possibility of revision. The creative energy expended on it, which may have been considerable, is also lost (or at least dissipated). In contrast, Yeats (for example) continued to revise his entire body of work, including his juvenilia, throughout his lifetime.
If you work across two or more genres, as many of us do, the problem of "loss under the bed" becomes even more acute. It becomes, "Now, where was I? Uh ..."
Each artist will devise his or her own system for keeping track of works. But for any system, a few principles should be kept in mind. The first is that the creative inventory should include all the works, not just works deemed worthy. The second is that the inventory should be organized chronologically so that you can see at a glance what you were doing ten years ago or twenty years ago, and so that you will always have an ever-growing record of your productivity for the current year. Georgia O'Keeffe's system was to keep a page in a notebook for every painting she started, in which she included materials, notes, title, dimensions, where the work was located, and so on. Because she did this as she went, the notebooks, which are dated, proceed chronologically. For visual artists such a notebook will become the basis for an eventual catalogue raisonné. A visual artist will typically include a visual representation of the work as part of the inventory.
The List of Works forms the core of my own inventory system. When I first started making my list, I was astonished at how much work I was sitting on. This, it turns out, is a common astonishment for poets and writers who undertake to make a chronological list of every piece of work that has reached the point of first draft or beyond. If you've been writing for a number of years, you'll find that it will take some time to complete your list (you open another drawer only to find one more forgotten poem, one more forgotten story). However, the minute you begin to construct your list, the benefits start accruing, and once the system is set up, it's utterly simple to maintain.
The List of Works
Ikeep two Lists of Works, one for prose and one for poetry. These two lists literally contain every piece I've ever brought to the point of first draft or beyond. Among the items on my "List of Works -- Prose" are my published history book, the draft of a novel, and a rather dreadful story I wrote in 1964, more than 40 years ago. On the "List of Works -- Poetry," the earliest poem is dated summer 1970. (It's the first poem I typed out of my journal. May the untyped "poems" of the sixties rest in peace in their respective journals.) My two Lists of Work tell me that I've written 340 poems (some published, some in circulation, some in draft, some inept) and 135 prose works, including the history book and including 35 short stories (some published, some in circulation, some in draft, some inept).
What is this, quantity over quality? Yes it is. Why does quantity matter? Well, we've seen how high-level creators create more, and we want to be high-level creators. But the speed of work is not at issue. I for one am a slow writer. And I definitely do not relish the idea of churning out slight pieces. The actual numbers matter only to the poet or writer. This is your private working tool, and the numbers it reveals are nobody's business but your own. The list allows you to see the work you've done and it signifies respect for work done. It allows you to track your yearly production. It allows you to find any given piece to take up again. The list gives you a practice that you now share with those high-achieving creators who do quantify their works. (Georgia O'Keeffe 2,045 objects; Eduardo Manet 450 oil paintings among other works; the American painter Alice Neel about 3,000 works; dare we mention Picasso? -- 26,000 works; the remarkable short-story writer Edith Pearlman: "Edith Pearlman has published more than 250 works of short fiction and short nonfiction." Of course that doesn't tell us how many works Pearlman has composed.
Essential Characteristics of the List of Works
Each title on the list and all associated information takes up one and only one line (you can clearly see the items at a glance).
The list is ordered chronologically by year, beginning with the present and working backward. Works done long ago with fuzzy dates go under decade dates (like "1980s"). As you continue to make new poems or stories it's easy to update the list, using exact dates. Every time I complete a first draft of a new work, I put it on the list, with its date of original composition (the date the first draft was completed).
The list includes the title of the piece. What to do about untitled poems? My first poetry teacher, the late Harold Bond, required us to title every poem. This is a good idea because you can use that title-space in a variety of ways, and if you make a title you don't particularly like, it's there asking to be changed to a better title. However, if you insist on untitled poems, it's conventional to use the first line, or the first part of the first line, to identify the poem.
The list includes the date of original composition. That is, when did you complete the first draft? That's the date you want. Date of "final" completion is not of interest and in any case it floats: We poets -- haven't we been known to revise a poem after publication? As you move backward in time you will no doubt have to guess at some dates. The date you achieve that first draft is autobiographically interesting and once fixed, never has to move. (Visual artists do it a bit differently since they typically do not consider a work a work until it is finished.)
Each work has the word "published" or the word "circulating" after it, unless it is neither published nor circulating, in which case it has nothing after it. Literary writers such as poets, who are not working on commission, typically have several pieces working and some lying dormant, ready to be taken up at a later date.
Finally, the one line of information per title does not say where a piece appears if it has been published, it does not say where is circulating to, and it does not contain any sort of judgment or assessment or plan (such as "abandon?" or "revise" or "shorten?").
A piece you may never revise just sits there, like my short story written in 1964. It is part of your body of work. It shows you where you have been. For me, that first story of mine, however amateur, is a remarkable repository of threads I find woven into subsequent writing. Thus may a creator's preliminary works have interest and value. (Besides, some day I may revise that old story.)
Example of my List of Works (prose list)
"My Brain on my Mind" (June-December 2007)
"From Chaos to Creative Achievement"-- first comp. July 2007 PUBLISHED
"Got Manure?" -- first composed June 2007
"My Old Friend" (story) -- first composed March 12, 2007
"Bodies: The Exhibition" -- first composed February 2007 PUBLISHED
"Purple Prose" -- first composed February 2007
Review of The Decline of Anthracite -- first composed July 2006 PUBLISHED
Stonework: Geographies of Memory (book of short nonfictions) CIRCULATING
Piece on How I wrote "Genome Tome" -- first composed May 2006 PUBLISHED
"Extending Connections, Deepening Insight" first comp May 2006 (Ch. of Begin Again)
"Frugality" (story) -- first composed April/May 2006
"Worked Well With Others" Rev. of Francis Crick biog. first comp. May PUBLISHED
"The Studio" -- first composed March 2006 (chapter of Creating the Creative Life)
"A Bridge to Beauty" (extreme revision of Ode) -- first composed March PUBLISHED
"Studio as Brain" -- first composed February 2006
"Ode to a Bridge" -- first composed (Long/O'C class) September 2005
"Anamorphosis: A Painting by Margaret Tomkins" -- comp May 2005 CIRCULATING
"Space and Time" -- first composed April 2005 CIRCULATING
"Living for Robert" (story) -- first composed February 2005 CIRCULATING
Where are these works, actually? I keep a digitalized copy, latest version only, on the computer and its printed-out hard copy in chronologically ordered three-ring binders (one for poetry, one for creative nonfictions, one for short stories). Previous drafts and marked-up workshopped copies are put far away in archive boxes or in the recycle bin. The hard copies of current versions have their date of original composition written on them.
As you begin this process of listing your works, you will make interesting discoveries, the first being the actual extent of your work to date. Another surprise for me was to find works I considered vastly inferior, requiring (I thought) massive revision, which in reality were close to complete. A lyrical essay I wrote had been gathering dust for five years. I worked on it for two hours and sent it out. It's a lovely piece (I now think) and is slated to appear in a lovely literary magazine.
Constructing your List of Works will help you become a more aware poet, a more aware writer. Each year it will give you a measuring stick of your annual progress -- defined not by the external world of prizes and publications but by you, the creator. Finally, the List of Works stands as an emblem of respect for the work. It is a creator's tool that can help artists, poets, and writers realize their dream of creating a meaningful body of work. #
In 2006 Priscilla Long was honored with a National Magazine Award for best feature writing for "Genome Tome," which appeared in The American Scholar. Her work also appears in the journals Ontario Review, Fourth Genre, Under the Sun, The Southern Review, The Seattle Review, Raven Chronicles, and Passages North, among others. She is author of Where the Sun Never Shines: a History of America's Bloody Coal Industry (Paragon House, 1989). Awards include The Journal's Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Richard Hugo House Founder's Award, awards from the Seattle and Los Angeles arts commissions, and the Mary Roberts Rinehart Fund poetry award. She holds an MFA from the University of Washington, teaches writing, and serves as Senior Editor of the online encyclopedia of Washington state history, www.historylink.org.
For further information on Priscilla Long's work, please visit the University of Washington Archives site
and her own website