A blog for artists who struggle with Demons like Procrastination, Self-Recrimination, Doubt, Fear, The Desire to Win Awards, Nothing Is Good Enough, Maybe I'm Hungry, and I'll Work After I Watch This Cute Kitty Video.
Here is a story quoted from Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit: “George Harrison once decided, as a game, to write a song based on the first book he saw at his mother’s house. Picking one up at random, he opened it and saw the phrase ‘gently weeps.’” I think we all know what happened next. (Above, watch George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jeff Lyne, and Phil Collins perform “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”)
People, if it is good enough for the Beatles, it is good enough for me. And you. So let’s play.
Pick up a book—any book. Flip it open. The first phrase you see—that’s yours. Whatever your art form, your job is to come up with a piece of art that represents or includes those words. Then post up your creations in the comments section, if you dare!
Like almost everyone on the planet earth, I watched the youtube video of Charlotte and Jonathan last week, and witnessed them blowing minds and melting heartson Britain’s Got Talent. If you haven’t watched it yet, spend a life-affirming six minutes and do it now.
Jonathan and Charlotte’s tale is a beautiful story about the art of friendship, and the kind of friends an artist needs. Jonathan admitted that he wouldn’t have had the confidence to perform if it weren’t for Charlotte. And when arguably the most powerful man in show business, Satan (played here with convincing relish by Simon Cowell), suggested that Jonathan would have more success in the contest if he went on as a solo act, Jonathan refused to dump his friend. They were in it together.
As artists, it is vital that we seek out people who support our craft, and encourage our best efforts. That’s what Jonathan has in Charlotte—someone who knows the depth of his talent, and believes in him. Here are five tips for finding your people:
1. 1. Learn to recognize the difference between helpful criticism and insults. An insult is vague, and offers no opportunity for improvement (Example: “That piece didn’t move me.”) What’s helpful about that? On the other hand, real criticism is invaluable. It’s specific, and gives plenty of room for new execution. (Example: “This image was unclear to me. Can you make it clearer?") Don’t spend time with people who only offer insults. Being in an artist tribe is a give and take. If they aren’t going to give anything helpful, then move on.
2. 2. Dump people who are consistently negative. When I announced that I was going to quit my editorial job and become a full-time writer, one of my friends asked, “So—what does that mean? That you’re just a housewife now?” That friend Did Not Get It. He didn’t believe that I could be successful, and ultimately I had to accept that there wasn’t any room for him in my life.
3. 3. Aim high! Many years ago, I attended a workshop led by award-winning YA novelist Ellen Wittlinger. I knew she lived close to me, and we had a few friends in common. So, when I was introduced to her, I asked if she knew of any writing groups in the area. She said that (gasp!) there was room in her writing group full of hot-shot award winning authors (she didn’t put it that way), and would I like to join? I thought, “I’m not worthy!” but I said, “Yes!” I’ve been with this group almost six years now, and have published three hardcover novels with their help. If you’re looking for artist friends, don’t just pick any old artist. Seek out people whose work you admire.
4. 4. Don’t compare. Art is service to the world, and it must be approached with humility. The worst art is created out of the ego—“I want to be famous!” Leave that stuff to the Kardashians. Good art is about communication--articulating an idea or an emotion to others in the hope that they will understand, identify, think, be changed, be moved, experience catharsis, etc. What you are trying to communicate is unique, and so is your art. If you are going to be friends with artists, you must be willing to teach them and to learn from them. But if you compare your art, you are doomed.
5. 5. Celebrate the success of your friends! There will be moments when your career isn’t thriving—and the career of your artist friend is. As I write this, I’m sitting across the table from Jo Knowles, who has been Starring It Up with her latest novel, See You At Harry’s. Am I envious? Yes! But I’m also thrilled for her. Remember that—like Jonathan and Charlotte—we’re all in this together. There is enough success out there for all of us, and we will all reach it in different ways, at different times. But, as creative guru Julia Cameron says in her brilliant book, The Artist’s Way, artists are like water, and water rises collectively. The success of your friend is your success, too, especially if you have been encouraging them with their art.
Are your friends helping you, or holding you back? Look for the Jonathans and Charlottes in your life. Those are the friends that will serve you forever.
Hello, again! It’s Creative Demon Zodiac Time! This week, we take on the Final Three of our signs: the “Realism” quadrant. Those born under these Demons are pressured to “Get Real” and “Get a Life.” Oh, Demons! You’re so practical.
Paycheckarion: Those born under the Paycheckarion sign are very concerned with Making a Living. Whenever they create Art, their demon loves to ask, “How will you earn money from that?” Then it looks at the yarn doll/ flower bouquet/ poem/ painting/ whatever and laughs smugly. For this sign, it all comes down to whether or not they can be shown the money. If no money is shown, better to spend their days as a drudge and passive fan of Dancing with the Stars than to waste time creating something that has zero objective monetary value. They sometimes experience excruciating whiplash when they convince themselves that their novel will be the next Hunger Games, only to despair when it is never even published.
PROS: Paycheckarii always have food to eat and a roof over their heads.
CONS: Paycheckarii are afraid to simply have fun with their work. They can’t see that the work has value in itself. Personal value.
MOTTO: “Show me the money!”
Selfishius: The Demons that rule the Selfishii love to tell them that making art is selfish. “There are starving people in the world!” is the message that tortures the Selfishii. “There are people who are forced to work hard labor—and there you are, making a mini-dinosaur out of polymer clay! Over-privileged and SELFISH!! You should be ashamed!” Those born under this Demon Sign are convinced that art is a bogus pastime, and that they would be better off doing something useful for humanity, like dentistry. They fear that—because they enjoy their work—that means that they are actually horrible people, unworthy to draw breath.
PROS: Selfishii are aware that the world is an often unfair, unjust place, and they want to be sure that the work they do doesn’t feed into iniquity.
CONS: Selfishii don’t realize that art feeds a hunger of the soul, and that—at its best—it is service, not self-service.
MOTTO: “Better to work for a cigarette manufacturer than to knit all day.”
Good-Enoughicorn: Those born under the Good-Enoughicorn tend to be cursed with facility. That is, they do a good enough job on the first time around that their work sells. They often earn a paycheck from their art. But the fact that their work is “good enough” keeps them from pushing themselves to the next level. “You’re earning a living,” their Demons whisper. “That’s the point, isn’t it? You don’t have time to make everything perfect.”
PROS: Good-Enoughicorns have talent, and enough drive to do good work.
CONS: Good-Enoughicorns have to demand criticism in order to take their work from good to great.
In the coming weeks, look for predictions for each sign! See what the future of your sign holds…and more!
We all love to believe that we live in a just world, a place where effort is rewarded. Certainly, most rich people seem to believe this. They’re always spewing advice like, “Just follow your dreams!” and “I worked hard to get where I am—you just need to work hard, too!”
Okay, fine. But here’s the deal: some people have dreams like, “I want to have the world’s most awesome collection of Star Trek memorabilia!” And some people work hard at things like defusing roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Those people may have vast reserves of knowledge, big dreams, and a crazy work ethic. But they aren’t going to become “successful,” because in our society, “successful” means rich. If you want to hear the awesomest TED talk ever on this subject, follow this link to hear Alain de Botton's thoughts.
But—what the heck? Who says that money equals success? I know a bunch of rich people who are complete jerkboxes. Are they successful people? They think so. But not me. And I don’t think the Creative Universe thinks they’re so successful, either. Here are my Five Steps to Creative Success:
1.1. Write down all of your ideas about what a “successful” person has. Personally, my demons like it when I believe that successful people have a shelf full of awards, loads of money, and have their books made into movies.
2. 2.Burn the list. (Or, if there is no safe place to burn them, or you aren’t old enough to use matches by yourself, or maybe you just don’t have any matches around, or whatever, just rip it up.)
3. 3. Come up with a new list of things a successful person has. Things like: Friends, or even just one good friend. Loving family. Happy moments. Respect. Integrity. A creative mind. A good heart. Appreciation for beauty.
4.4.Realize you already have those things.Then express gratitude for them. Thank you, Creative Universe, for my beautiful husband and daughter, the ahweesomays, and my brilliant job, which allows me to spend time on a couch on a sunny day writing up lists like this one.
5. 5. Get back to your life. Now don’t you feel better?
Recently, when I was reading Twyla Tharp’s fabulous book, The Creative Habit, I stumbled across this line: “…you don’t have a good idea until you combine two little ideas.” And then I realized something: I already knew that! Following is from a talk I gave a few years ago, reproduced with permission from myself:
“Several years ago, I heard Sid Fleishman talk at the New England Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators conference. He talked about how you don’t need an idea to write a book. You need two ideas. He didn’t put it this way, but what he was saying was that, basically, you need a character idea, and then you need an inciting incident idea. Okay, let’s say that we have an accident-prone girl as our main character. That doesn’t get us anywhere until we add an inciting incident—how about ‘falls in love with a vampire.’
My series, Accidentally Fabulous, started because an editor friend of mine took me out to lunch and said, “I want you to write a series based on those funny stories you tell about being in middle school.” And I said, “Funny stories?” I always thought that all of my stories about middle school were gut-wrenching and sad. But she said, “Yeah, like that time you dressed up as fungus.” It was true, I did in fact dress up as fungus once, for National Science Day. And then my best friend told me that the guy I had a crush on was, quote, “staring at me all through chapel.” And when I got home and told my mom that a boy had been staring at me all through chapel, she said, “Don’t you think it might be because you dyed your hair green and are wearing a fungus costume?” And I didn’t speak to her for the rest of the night. But this didn’t really seem like enough of a concept to hang an entire series on. But at least I had the first half of the idea—the character. It was sort of me, so she is a scholarship kid at the ritziest school in Houston, Texas. She has a good sense of humor and makes some questionable fashion choices. But that’s not enough for a book or a series, either. So I had to think of the inciting incident—she makes friends with one of the Queen Bees at the school, and enemies with an even more powerful Queen Bee, and generally upsets the Bee power dynamic. Shenanigans ensue, including getting tricked into dressing up as an amoeba (it’s fiction, after all) for a National Science Day that doesn’t exist. Voila.”
So there you have it. The secret to having a novel idea is to have two ideas: Character, and Problem. Once you have those two things, your novel will write itself.*
*Note: Your novel will totally not write itself. Get to work!
Welcome back to the Creative Demon Zodiac! Today we'll be discussing those living under the Success Demon signs. This group is the Air group--elusive but important as oxygen to these signs, Success rules their creative minds. So let's get to it!
Competitius: Competitii believe in meritocracy. That is, they believe that the best work is always rewarded, and that if they are really “good” at their art, they will be given accolades, awards, and a big heaping pile of money to roll around in. They are constantly bothered by the idea that other people are more successful than they are. Especially friends. Competitii find it difficult to see movies (if they make movies), read books (if they write books), go to galleries (if they are artists), or watch someone else play the banjo (if banjo players) without thinking, “He/ she is so talented, I want to kill myself!” OR, “He/ she isn’t as good as I am! What the heck? Why is he/ she such a rich and famous banjo player???”
PROS: Competitii believe that good work will bring rewards, and are willing to work hard to receive those rewards.
CONS: Any perception that they aren’t “measuring up” makes the competitii want to throw in the towel.
MOTTO: “If you ain’t winning, you’re losing.”
Shortfallicorn: Shortfallicorns are held back the idea that someone else has already done their idea, and done it better. They believe that they shouldn’t be allowed to create art that tackles subjects which others have already covered, such as but not limited to: death, love, redemption, friendship, cooking, pets, God, and the idea that artists are haunted by demons that prevent them from creating art. “Great artists steal,” is not in their belief system. They are terrified of comparisons because they only want to do work that is the “best.”
PROS: Shortfallicorns are ambitious, and their ideas are Big.
CONS: When the gap between what they had in their mind (ideal) and what they actually created feels too large, they fall into the Pit of Despair.
MOTTO: “Has anyone—living or dead—ever had this thought or feeling before? Yes? Oh, forget it, then.”
Feedbackius: Feedbackius is always ready to hear criticism of his/ her work—but only if it is bad. If he or she gets ten reviews—nine good from reputable sources and one bad one from an anonymous jerk on the internet—the Feedbackius will only remember the one bad review. The soundtrack in feedbackius’s mind is like the famous piece of music “dueling banjos.” Only one of the banjos is not playing. Bad Banjo is turned waaaay up, drowning out Feedbackius’s train of thought, and inhibiting his/ her efforts. No review—not even “This is the best creation ever! Signed, The Lord God”—is ever good enough.
PROS: Feedbackii can take criticism. Maybe too well.
CONS: Feedbackii sometimes get so caught up in addressing other people’s concerns that they lose the thread of what they originally intended. They don’t trust themselves to evaluate the quality of their own work.
MOTTO: “I haven’t googled myself for a whole five minutes!”
I recently read Henry Miller’s Daily Schedule on one of my favorite websites, www.brainpickings.org. I’m copying it here:
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.
Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.
See friends. Read in cafés.
Explore unfamiliar sections – on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.
Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.
Paint if empty or tired.
Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.
Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.
Isn’t that wonderful? Not only the schedule itself, but the fact that Henry Miller needed to write it out for himself. I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s wonderful book The Creative Habit. In it, she states, “Creativity is a habit. And the best creativity is the result of good work habits.” She goes on to debunk the idea of the genius who has sloppy work habits, but goes on to create great works of art. She cites Mozart as an example, “By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all of the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose.”
I recently finished Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which asserts basically the same thing. He cites a study of pianists in which it was revealed, somewhat unsurprisingly, that the most successful were those who worked the hardest: “The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any ‘naturals,’ musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any ‘grinds,’ people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break top ranks.” So what Thomas Edison said is true. 1% Inspiration; 99% Perspiration.
But that doesn’t really fit the romantic ideal. We want to think that artists are “inspired;” that they take dictation direct from God. And maybe they do. But they don’t if they fail to sit down at their desks or arrive at the studio ready to work. Here is a great TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html. Don’t let her bad hair distract you—what she says is true.
Remember that the next time you feel the urge to put off your creative work. It is only through the habit of work that your will make your best art.
Hello and welcome back to the Creative Demon Zodiac! Today we will be exploring Time Signs, also known Pants On Fire Signs. People governed by these houses are influenced by schedules, for better AND for worse. See if these signs sound familiar!
Procrastinatarius: Ah, Procrastinatarius! How deadly is the Internet to thee. Yes, those governed by this Demon sign often find themselves sucked into the vortex of information. Compulsively checking E-mail can derail this sign for hours. The Procrastinatarius is mentally agile and often has many interests. There simply are not enough hours in the day to satisfy this sign’s curiosities, and so he or she wastes time on people.com, or reading the New York Times, watching youtube, or even reorganizing the sock drawer.
PROS: Procrastinatarii often find inspiration in unexpected sources. They also tend to be up on current events and have organized socks.
CONS: Their real work gets shafted.
MOTTO: I’ll do it right after I watch one more cute kitty video/ read this article about Snookie/ understand all aspects of the healthcare debate.
Urgenties: Urgenties secretly believe in doing things that are, well, Urgent. They spend time making doctor’s appointments, washing dishes, writing or freelancing “on assignment/ under deadline.” This sign is often populated by people who have found a way to use their art to make a living. Unfortunately, this art is not the work that uses their highest mind and greatest skill. It is the art that will sell, and that must be Completed At Once. Organized, intelligent, and often highly responsible, Urgenties find it difficult to separate things that are Time-Sensitive from those that are actually Important.
PROS: Urgenties are reliable, hardworking, and pay their bills on time.
CONS: Much of their hard work goes toward art that doesn’t really interest them.
MOTTO: Art finishes last.
Researchus: Researchus is a sign that lives in the Time-Sensitive Quadrant, but often crosses over to the Fear/ Water Quadrant. Researchus is creating something set in the past. Or the future. Or the present. It is science-based, or history-based, or fact-based. Whatever it is, it needs more RESEARCH! No stone can be left unturned, no memo unexamined, no Civil-War-Era bonnet uninspected. It’s all-important, and will someday be assimilated into the ULTIMATE PIECE OF WORK. But he or she will only get to the work later. Not now. Not while there’s still research to do.
PROS: Researchus believes in quality work, and is willing to work hard to create it.
CONS: The research gets done, but the art never does.
Hello, and welcome to the Creative Demon Zodiac! The Creative Demon Zodiac consists of twelve signs that govern the mysterious forces that exist to torment artists. All creative people—not just writers—are subject to these forces. But these forces are polar in nature, offering both positive aspects as well as negative ones. Over the course of the next several weeks, I will reveal all twelve signs as they fall under the categories of Fear, Avoidance, Competition, and Get Realism.
Creative Demon Zodiac FAQ:
How can I determine my primary Demon Sign?
First, determine the date and time of your birth. Add those numbers together, then divide by pi. Then read through the list of twelve signs and decide which Demon is most familiar to you. That’s your demon sign. The number thing was just to reinforce basic math skills.
How can I determine my Demon Rising Sign?
Demon Rising Signs are mutable signs, which means that they often come and go. Some creatives will have several rising signs—that is, demons who like to pop in and derail your work for a while, then retreat.
What is your Demon Zodiac?
I like to think I’m a Stink-itarius with Success-icorn Rising.
I notice there’s no Creative Demon Zodiac entry on Wikipedia. Where can I read more?
I am the world’s leading and only authority on the Creative Demon Zodiac.
Okay! Now that we have THAT out of the way, let me get on to today’s section of the Water Demons (Drowning in Fear)
Stink-itarius: The Stink-itarious is scrupulous to a fault. He or she constantly feels that her work stinks; it can never, ever be good enough. This sign is usually extremely organized, perfectionistic, analytical, and creative. Unfortunately, Stink-itarii often kill their own ideas in infancy. They hide their work from the world, afraid that others will laugh at their attempts. They take first drafts and burn them in the fireplace, or rewrite the entire thing for twenty years and THEN burn them in the fireplace.
PROS: Stink-atarii believe in producing quality work.
CONS: Stink-atarii believe that they will never produce quality work, and don’t trust that the process will make their work better.
MOTTO: It can’t be that good if I did it.
Fraudo: The Fraudo believes that anyone who admires his or her work is mentally challenged. Fraudos believe that any success they have is unearned, and that any idea they have come up with must have been plagiarized. This sign is scrupulous, honest, interested in approval, and eager to create fresh, original work. But Fraudos have a difficult time enjoying success. The only reviews of their work that stick in their mind are negative ones.
PROS: Fraudos strive for originality.
CONS: Fraudos hold themselves back from exploring important works of others due to the fear that they will accidentally steal ideas.
MOTTO: Any positive review of my work was probably written by my mom.
Nobody Cares-icorn: The Nobody Cares-icorn is convinced that what he/ she has to say doesn’t matter. They think that their ideas are puny and unimportant. They think that being creative is self-indulgent, and that unless a work is going to be published/ shown in a gallery/ performed, it carries no weight. This sign is intelligent, often shows an interest in “highbrow” art forms, and interested in Big Ideas. The Nobody Cares-icorn is convinced that ordinary life is boring, and often secretly wishes that something horrible would happen to them (cancer, death of a loved one, alcoholism) so that they would have something Important to drive their creativity.
PROS: Nobody Cares-icorns care about universal/ important themes, like Love, Death, and Redemption.
CONS: Nobody Cares-icorns fail to see that the large is often reflected in the small. They miss the ideas that surround them everywhere, in their everyday lives.
I recently watched Bill Cunningham New York again. What a documentary. What a man. Bill Cunningham is a guru for how to live passionately. He has been documenting street fashion for decades, tootling around New York City on a classic Schwinn bicycle. The man is an octogenarian, and he goes out almost every night to photograph society parties for the New York Times. He loves beautiful, unusual clothes, and he places no negative judgment on how people present themselves…except the lack of judgment. If you’re wearing something bland, he will not be interested in you. Even if you’re a movie star. But if you’ve got brilliant candy-colored hair, or a bright striped blanket coat, or baggy pants that hang down past your butt, or a black plastic bag on your head, or if you’re a man in a kilt, or an old lady with purple hair and a fascinator—Bill Cunningham will want to photograph you. He won’t think you’re silly; he’ll think you’re wonderful. His art form is completely unique. I’m not even sure what it is. He says he isn’t a photographer. It’s more like his art is the ability to see beauty in thousands of different incarnations, and this art form is his driving passion. He doesn’t care about money. (He worked for the original Details Magazine for free, and earned a huge payout—which he never claimed—when it was purchased by Conde Nast.) He doesn’t care where he lives—his apartment has literally no furniture but a bed and filing cabinets filled with his photographs. He only cares about fashion.
I can never live like Bill Cunningham, but I’m learning to take my own passion—writing—more seriously. Bill Cunningham fears nothing…nothing except being unable to work. He fears no failure. What does failure even mean when you don’t care about money or prestige? The work is the all.
I recently finished Alan Arkin’s memoir, and in it, he talks about an improv workshop he teaches. He always starts off telling the group not to be creative. They’re going to throw an imaginary ball around the group, but he doesn’t want any cutesy, attention-getting antics with the ball. He just wants people to throw react as quickly as they can. Throw the ball in two seconds. That’s it. Then they move on to other kinds of balls—beach ball, maybe, or volleyball. Then other stuff. Maybe a squirrel. By the end, the group has started reacting creatively, but without self-consciousness. In removing the attempts at creativity, the real creativity is unleashed.
When I read this passage, I thought about the opening of the Bible. In the beginning, god created heaven and earth. God is creative, and when God made humans, they were made in God’s image. Now, whether you take this story literally or not (I don’t), you see that that it serves to illustrate our creative nature. When we pursue our art, we live from the source of our most godlike nature—free of demons, full of creative energy.
Soon, I’ll be leading a special interest group on block. Writers’ block, I guess. Which is something I don’t really believe in. The only thing that can block a writer is the writer herself and her Demons: Fear, Pride, Greed, or Envy. Remove those things, and you can’t help but be creative. It’s human nature.
Jason Diamond wrote a piece called "The Barista's Curse" that was published in the New York Times last week. Poor Jason Diamond. He used to be a barista. (Boo!) Now he is a Real, Published Writer. (Hooray!) But he keeps running into people who knew him as a barista, and they are disappointed that he isn't making cappuccinos anymore. (Boo!) Stupid people! Don't you know that Jason Diamond has DREAMS?!
Jason Diamond wants everyone to know that he isn't a barista anymore. (He has been published in the Paris Review! Well, on their website.) Here is the crux of his challenge: "I’ve had to explain to a dozen former customers that, no, I was not a professional barista, that, in fact, I was freelance writing the entire time. True I had worked at Think Coffee, at Joe, at Jack’s in the West Village, at Kudo Beans (which became The Bean and then became a Starbucks) and at both of the Union Square Starbucks. In total, I held jobs at nine different Manhattan coffee shops and three Brooklyn ones. But I had bigger dreams all those afternoons I worked the steam wands and milk pitchers. I’m not just some guy who once poured coffee into your paper cup."
Jason Diamond has two problems: 1. He doesn't understand that, by definition, he WAS a professional barista, and 2. He doesn't realize that NOBODY is "just some guy who once poured coffee into your paper cup." Jason Diamond wants us all to know that he was *different* and *better than* the other baristas because he had "bigger dreams" than the others. And those "bigger dreams" were dreams of being a Published Writer.
But who cares? (Aside from Jason Diamond, I mean.) We are all always more than the pieces that make up our identity. To my mother, I will always be a little girl. To my classmates in high school, I will always be a nerd. To people at the Red Bird Mall in Dallas, Texas, I'll always be someone who worked at Naturalizer Shoe Store. And all those things are reality--small pieces of reality.
Being a Published Author can mean a million things. But it doesn't make you any more important than a barista. It means you do something well enough to get published. Good for you. But it's just a job. Your dog doesn't care. People who love you will be happy for you, but they won't love you *more* because of it. Please remember that. It's the only way to keep the ego out of your writing. And your ego is your enemy--it holds the Demons of Fear and Pride in its grasp, and those things will eat your writing alive. Let go the ego. The writing is the writing. You are you. This--writing--is just something you are doing. You are also breathing. Which is more important?
You may be what you eat, but you aren’t what you write. People write something lousy and think, “I’m a crappy writer.” But writing something crappy doesn’t make you crap. It makes the writing crap. That’s all. There are excellent writers who produce crap sometimes. (I’m looking at you, Woody Allen.) And most writers create a LOT of crap that you never see.
There is a saying that you should never compare your first draft to someone else’s finished book, and that is very good advice. People assume that authors send in a manuscript, and then an editor moves around a few commas, and then the book gets published. Um, wrong! What happens is more like this: The author noodles around for a while. Then the author starts to write a draft. A million years later, the draft is finished. The author breathes a deep sigh of relief, and sends it off to an editor. The editor ignores the manuscript for months. The author starts to get antsy and begins annoying her friends by repeatedly asking their opinion on whether or not she should noodge the editor. Then, after finally reading it, the editor writes an editorial letter, which contains what we call the “praise sandwich.” That is two small nuggets of praise, “The characters are rich and complex and the setting is vibrant and eerie,” followed by the truth, ie, “This book has no plot.”
The author then cries and complains to her husband and spends months reworking the manuscript and cutting out her favorite bits and trying to come up with clever new ones. Then she sends it back to the editor. The editor writes another editorial letter and this time encloses a marked-up manuscript with “make funny” written next to all of the author’s favorite jokes.
So the author thrashes around for another few months, then it’s off to the editor. Then it’s wash, rinse, repeat until the work is finally done…or at least done enough to be published.
But is it the “writer” who needs improvement? No, it’s the work. This is the process. Michelangelo said that his sculptures were always there, he just had to cut away the rest of the marble to reveal them. This was not done quickly. In the same way, the nugget of our work is always present there. You just have to keep working to get down to it.
If you confuse your self and your work, you won’t want to do anything difficult, because revision by definition implies that “you” need improvement. You don’t.
In the words of my old boss, Dan Weiss, “They’re just books.” That’s all.
People always say that they want to be writers. This is an obvious lie. Anyone who wants to be a writer could be one at any moment simply by sitting down and writing something. It doesn’t even have to be on a computer. It doesn’t have to be grammatically correct. It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to exist. Writers write. End of story.
But, of course, nobody wants that. That’s boring and hard, too, and it doesn’t mean anything unless someone tells you that you’ve done a great job, right?
Research on children has demonstrated that praising their intelligence often causes them to fear taking risks and to avoid challenges. Why? Because the kids think that if they’re smart, things shouldn’t take effort. In the same way, there is a mythology around talent. You’re either a great writer, or you’re wasting paper. You’re good at math, or you’re failing our nation and our future. You can dance, or you can shuffle self-consciously around the floor in the desperate hope that you will soon turn invisible. This is a problem in our culture, because it gets cause and effect completely backward.
The truth is that a) you can get better at the above things and b) getting better takes work. A lot of work. In his book Outliers (which I haven’t read, I’ve just heard about it and looked it up on Wikipedia. Sorry), Malcolm Gladwell asserts that in order to master something—anything—you have to spend about ten thousand hours doing it. How long is that? About five hours a day every day for five and a half years. Every single day, by the way. No weekends. No Christmas. Forget Columbus Day, which is fine because it’s contentious, anyway. If you’re going to work a typical work week, it’s going to take closer to eight years.
So. When people say that they want to be writers, they don’t mean that. They don’t mean that they want to spend ten thousand hours to be a writer. What they mean is that they want to be born brilliant. They want the work to be easy, and—preferably—over with already. What they really want is to jet off to book signings and have everyone agree that they’re geniuses.
One of the questions I get most often—from adults and children, by the way—is “how can I get published?” Often, these people haven’t actually written anything, definitely nothing that resembles a finished book. These people just want to jump ahead, skip the work, imagine themselves up onstage winning an award. But writing a novel or working on any piece of art isn’t like competing on American Idol. It's not all glamour.
All art is a labor of love. Love of what? Love of whom? Love of art. So my advice is that if you want to be a writer, start writing.
Thank god for Vincent Van Gogh, who wrote, “I do not at all despise the mediocre in its simple sense. And one certainly does not rise above the mark by despising what is mediocre. In my opinion one must at least begin by having some respect for the mediocre, and know that it already means something, and is only reached with great difficulty.”
I’m entering a master’s program this summer, to get my Master of Fine Arts degree. Vermont College of Fine Arts has a program specifically for writers of children’s and young adult literature, and that’s where I’m headed. This is what people ask me about the program, “Why are you going? You’re already published.”
Well, the answer is that I’m going because I think I can be a better writer. I can read more widely than I do. I can think more deeply, write more creatively. “You’ll probably be better than most of the people in your classes,” my well-meaning friends say to me. Well, I seriously doubt that. How can you have a “best” in a roomful of artists? But even if there is a best in that room, the best can still get better.
Another friend worried that the program would limit my writing too much—make it MFA-ified. “Do you think it will be more limiting than being told to write a series about a girl who bakes cupcakes?” I asked this friend. No, it won’t. I’ve dealt with plenty of limits in my career. This MFA will be like opening the cage door for the canary. I’m not sure I’ll even have the guts to fly toward the blue sky. But at least I can hop around on the grass a little.
I love what Van Gogh wrote to his brother about mediocrity, because he’s right—it’s only reached with great difficulty. It isn’t easy to plot a book! It isn’t easy to write convincing dialogue! I’ve struggled over characterization and pacing and denouement, which I never know if I have enough of, and I’m still not a genius. But one cannot get better by giving up.