This thought comes, again, from Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART.
I have noticed two major terms writers like to use when insulting other writers: hack and precious. I’m not exactly sure what precious means, except I get the impression that it has something to do with the kind of writing one associates with greeting cards. I’m positive that it is always a matter of taste and opinion because I heard someone call Italo Calvino precious and Italo Calvino is a god. See what I mean:
Precious, again, is a matter of opinion.
Hack, I understand, especially because Pressfield lays it out for us at the end of this book:
A hack writes hierarchically. He writes what he imagines will play well in the presence of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot? What can I make a deal for?
Hacks sound pretty smart to me but I still don’t want to be one. Hence, my poverty.
I found, during my MFA, that I can’t commit to a project that makes me feel like a hack. I wrote about 200 pages of a novel and then stopped because I let someone see it who said that the writing was unimaginative. That scared me, because imagination is a pretty big part of my (and your) identity as a writer. If he was wrong, which I don’t think he was, I think I would have felt that and persisted. I knew instead that he was right, that I wasn’t at all connected to the language in the book I was writing because I wasn’t really writing it from that, “I must write this!” place. I didn’t care that much about the characters. The situation, though interesting, was not really something that I felt like my life’s journey has given me authority over.
Today’s thought is about what to write. Your intro to creative writing class taught you to write what you know. I don’t like that phrase much. Instead, I think “write what you’re obsessed with” is better advice.
If you’re obsessed with something, if there is a sliver of a narrative that you overheard one day and think about once or twice a week, you know enough about it to write about it. You don’t have to know everything about what you’re going to write. That’s why I don’t like the advice to write what you know. Writing is an act of discovery, by gosh, and nothing is more dull than reading a narrative from the perspective of a “know-it-all.”
No. Write what you’re obsessed with.
Write what you need to know more about. Write about what makes you curious.
My novel that I’m working on now came to me when a mentor asked, “What do you wish you could find on the shelf at a bookstore? Write that.”
There was a time when I only wanted to read the kind of novel I was writing, but due to personal experiences/circumstances/tragedies at the time, I knew that the book I was working on was the last thing I’d go to the bookstore to read. I needed something funnier. I needed something more triumphant, more strange, more delightful than what I was working on.
I spent a day grieving. Deciding to put a novel down for a while (or perhaps drop all together) that you’ve worked on for 200 pages feels like taking a puppy into a field and shooting it in the head because it has some strange disease that you can’t afford to cure. It’s awful.
I’m guessing that there will be a time, or five times, this current project will seem like a diseased puppy to me. But I’ve already written a draft, so I am more confident that I have what I need to cure the puppy. I have more in stock now, I mean. More tools to fix it.*
Plus, I have made it through a full draft so I know that enough about it works to keep going. (I ditch drafts a lot. A LOT. I don’t recommend that, necessarily, but I also won’t say it’s something I don’t do a lot.)
*That paragraph is for the record. Please remind me of this post when I start talking about my novel like it’s a diseased puppy.