The creative act is endlessly complex and mysterious, at least to me. I think I understand what I do, but not what others do. A great string quartet does not create music, but interpret it, which is surely different. But I suspect jazz aficionados, of whom I am not one, would say that great jazz combos do in fact create collectively, and on occasion do so on the fly, as it were.
One aspect of my own creative act that has puzzled me for a long time is my tendency, once I have written an essay or a book, to feel that I am now finished with the subject of the writing and so turn to something quite different. It is as though, by transforming a problem or a text or a theory into my story – since all my writing is the telling of stories – I have transmuted it into a permanent form that I must then leave alone.
After writing my first book, an explication of the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason, it would have seemed to me de trop then to write a second or a third book on the Critique. I had wrestled with Kant until I had, I believed, forced him to yield up his argument to me, and that was that. My second book on Kant dealt with his ethical theory, and in that case I emerged from the struggle unsatisfied. Hence, many years later, I returned to the task I had been unable to complete and wrote “The Completion of Kant’s Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre, whose title says that I have now finished that story.
This sense that my writing transforms raw material into a finished story is present even with relatively trifling pieces. For example, almost exactly a year ago, on July 13, 2013, I wrote a short explication de texte of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I am nobody/Who are You?” This is a poem that speaks very directly to me, and which I chose as the epigraph of my Autobiography. I had obviously been thinking about the poem, off and on, for many years, but once I had captured it in the little story I wrote, I was done with it, and I could not imagine returning to it to discuss it further.
I wonder whether other writers experience their act of writing in a similar manner.