Art & Fear

Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.

--Stephen DeStaebler

Writing is easy: all you do is sit starting at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.

--Gene Fowler

I've thinking a lot lately about the process that writers take to produce their work. In retrospect each work seems inevitable, predestined even. But when I'm slogging through mediocre fiction, listless characters, and a lot of frustration, it suddenly feels like I've been playing at writing and that I've been found out.

It was almost a sense of relief when I stumbled on a tiny, illuminating book called Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.

I could quote the whole book back to you, but I'll restrain myself and just post a few of the amazingly accurate, wonderfully reassuring observations in this lovely, perfect book.

"The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential."

"William Kennedy gamely admitted that he re-wrote his own novel Legs eight times, and that 'seven times it came out no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time out it was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old by then and so was my novel and they were both about the same height.'"

"Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen..."

I'm reading this and I feel my stress levels subside. It's ridiculous to seek perfection, most especially as I'm laying down the bones of the story. I need to listen to the story, to the characters, and even if I end up scrapping the whole thing, none of it was wasted.

What are you working on? Is it coming along? Hang in there if it's not. As Annie Dillard once wrote: there is neither a proportional relationship nor an inverse one between a writer's estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that is it magnificent and the feeling that it is abominable are both mosquitoes to be repelled ignored or killed, but not indulged.

Stay warm if you're living in the part of the country blanketed in snow. And when in doubt, just write.

More later,


The woods...

When people hear that I've had four novels published they assume that by now I must have the process down pat. I mean, you don't write four novels and not figure out how the writing process works. And that's true. But it doesn't mean it's easy.

The stages of novel writing are fixed, predictable, and equal parts miserable and exhilarating. The fun parts: Those first delicious pages when the world is wide open, the characters are sparkly and new, and no dark clouds of doubt or frustration have formed. Typing up those last five pages, the worst behind me, coming out into the sunny, happy ending (and I don't mean happy ending for my characters, I mean me!) The scenes when the words are flying out, my fingers typing so fast I'm half surprised there isn't smoke rising off the keyboard, except even if there was, I probably wouldn't notice because I'm so deeply into the scene, living it, feeling it unfold and capturing it in words. It's such a lovely, amazing feeling.

Sadly, it doesn't last. Because much more often, there's that simmering frustration. The scene isn't breathing. My characters are dull. My words flat. There's an ugly period usually stretching from page 70-200 when I'm lost in the woods. I have a hundred pages of fiction. Some are quite good. Others are quite not. I know what home looks like, but I'm really not sure how I'm getting everyone there. It's the dark wood and I'm lost. The trees look familiar, I know I've been here before, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm lost. This is when it's sheer grit, stubbornness, and a high tolerance for frustration that carries me through. The scene isn't working? Write it differently. The dialogue is stupid? Delete and re-write it. The plot is stuck? Re-think it. It's not glamorous. It's not fun. But it is necessary. It's the only way to get from here to there. And as I'm writing this, I'm telling it to myself as much as to you, dear friends.

I'm in the woods.

More later,