The inner itch to “just do it” is the artist’s compass.
Although as artists we make maps, we seldom find them. An artistic career does not resemble the linear step-by-step climb of a banker’s career trajectory. Art is not linear, and neither is the artist’s life. There are no certain routes. You do not become a novelist by moving from A to B to C.
Julia Cameron, Walking in this World
The reward is in the making of the thing. Do it for that.
Some of us know how we came by our fortune and some of us don’t, but we wear it all the same. There’s only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Art matters. It is not simply a leisure activity for the privileged or a hobby for the eccentric. It is a practical good for the world. The work of the artist … is an homage to the value of human life, and it is vital to society. Art is a sacred expression of human creativity that shares the same ontological value as all human work.
Michael Gungor, The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse
This poem by Marianne Moore (1935) resonates with me about the kind of perspective required to be a disciplined writer:
Silence (1935) Marianne Moore
My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like a cat–
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth–
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residencies.
The superior writer does not rely on other people’s praise to fuel her writing practice. The superior writer does not sit back and wait for something fascinating to write about next. The superior writer goes after life instead of waiting for life to happen–alert, fascinated, ready to take notes and transform experiences into words. The superior writer understands how to enjoy and experience life without sucking the life out of everything and everybody else. The superior writer appreciates it when good things come along, but does not sit around waiting for good things to come along. The superior writer knows how to keep going when good things don’t come along.
If you have friends on social media who are writers, writing teachers, or writing students, then you probably came across this article by ex-MFA instructor, Ryan Boudinot, about his frustrations with writing students. Examples include: they don’t read enough, they complain about not having enough time, they don’t have anything interesting to write about. He also starts off the article saying, “Writers are born with talent. Either you have the propensity for creative talent or you don’t,” which is about as effective as starting off with “there’s gotta be life on other planets,” or “the Beatles will forever be greatest band of all time.” I mean: cool if you want to believe that but actually, nobody cares if you do because you can’t prove it.
I feel the same way about his second statement: “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.” Um. Not helpful.
While I, like most of the people who commented, am relieved that Boudinot is no longer teaching (for example, read this thorough rebuttal from Laura Valeri), he did write one thing that has stuck with me since I read the commentary a few days ago:
It’s not important that people think you’re smart.
After eight years of teaching at the graduate level, I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this work when I see it; I’ve written a fair amount of it myself. But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best. I told a few students over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better. Those who didn’t get it were stuck on the notion that their writing was a tool designed to procure my validation. The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving someone a wonderful reading experience, that’s the cleverest writing.
If he’d only written that, I would have told everyone to read that article as the best writing advice I’ve encountered in a long time.
That said, I’m not 100% what Boudinot means by “entertain.” You don’t want to just write the first act of Into the Woods, you want to write the second act, too–the one that challenges your reader. I would add the words “and challenge” to Boudinot’s “entertain.” You want to write what will help enhance the reader’s experience in the world, even if it means giving them a good kick in the rear end with what happens to your characters. (See: The Wire.)
Never mind about when you started writing, or whether or not you have talent. These are things that don’t actually matter. What matters is the doing of the thing. The practice. Write about what obsesses you, entertains and fascinates you*, challenges you, convicts you, pisses you off, and makes you cry or laugh or both at the drop of a hat. If you write for validation or anything else besides the chance to make connections between the people, ideas, and things you care most about, you are cheating yourself out of the Life (capital L) that the writing practice has to offer you.
But Boudinot is so right when he says: don’t write to make yourself look smart. If you are writing because being a writer makes other people think you are smart, you are cheating yourself.
Write because you want to share something with your readers that will somehow enhance their lives.
*For instance, this blueberry flavored popcorn I spotted at a movie theater in Bangkok really fascinates and entertains me:
Facts bring us to knowledge but stories lead to wisdom.
Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, “Introduction” to Kitchen Table Wisdom
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.
Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction
The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation.
From the introduction of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis” by Thomas J. Sugrue:
No one social program or policy, no single force, whether housing segregation, social welfare programs, or deindustrialization, could have driven Detroit and other cities like it from their positions of economic and political dominance; there is no single explanation for the inequality and marginality that beset the urban poor. It is only through the complex and interwoven histories of race, residence, and work in the postwar era that the state of today’s cities and their impoverished residents can be fully understood and confronted.
Economic and racial inequality constrain individual family choices. They set the limits of human agency. Within the bounds of the possible, individuals and families resist, adapt, and succumb.