Work and world...
This week I thought I’d respond to two questions that came in one after the other and seem to be related:
One thing I’ve been wondering about as I work obsessively on a short story—is it good to force yourself to stop thinking about your work for certain periods of the day, the week? To me, writing is supposed to enrich life, to make one more alert and receptive, but sometimes I find myself just trying to use my experience (“Could this go in the story? How would I put this into words?”) instead of fully experiencing it. How can I make sure my art is a way into life rather than a distraction from it?
It seems to me that as a writer you must invite the world in, or at least be open to the world – the news, other writers’ work, music, film, nature, conversation, art – but if you are too open, too porous, your creativity can be swamped, or that’s how it feels to me at times.
I find it hard to make peace with the voices on my shoulder that tell me my writing is both a) of no consequence (an indulgence, even) while wars rage around the world and the climate is in crisis, and b) not as original, vibrant and entertaining as the books I read about (and then buy for myself and devour) in the review section of the weekend paper.
Do you just have to shut the world out from time to time?
…and I want to address these interesting questions by making an honest confession of the way I work but that I don’t intend to be general or prescriptive or required or anything like that.
Basically, my hope is to approach the writing desk almost empty – of intention, of a plan, of any idea of “what I am responding to” or “what I hope to accomplish.” I don’t keep notebooks or journals of ideas or images or phrases or anything like that. My assumption is that if something wants and needs to show up in a story of mine, I’ll remember it, or even misremember it, and it will force its way in.
I try to live fully and notice attentively. But I see my stories as highly artificial frameworks on to which I graft my evolving understanding of life. So, if something happens to me in the real world, I think, “Well, that’s going to change the way life seems to me.” And I trust that this new understanding will very naturally make its way into my work, without any effort from me. Life changes my mind, my mind creates the stories – so it’s all in there. No need to push or advocate or plan or force anything. The worldview underlying the fictive invention gets altered through living, in other words, and that alteration shows up in the work, in ways I could never have imagined or planned.
Likewise, I don’t make a practice of recording phrases or sentences that come into my head or that I overhear. My feeling is that a sentence is good, in large part, because of its relation to the matrix of thought that is the story. That is, a sentence isn’t good in isolation. It can’t be. My experience has been that if a (seemingly good) sentence occurs to me when I’m out in the world, and then I come back to the story and try to wedge it in there, it tends to feel slightly off, uninvited (which it is).
It’s as if someone, in advance of a party, planned out a few witty one-liners to use. He hasn’t considered the question of which party it’s going to turn out to be, and so these alleged zingers won’t land as well as they would have, had they come out of the actual context of a particular moment at a specific party.
This is all part of a larger mission I’ve been on since I wrote my first book, which is to keep things simple. I don’t (or try not to) think about legacy, or my place in literature, or how my work is developing, or what relation it has to my past work or to contemporary thought or politics. There will be answers to these questions in the stories themselves, for someone else to think about, if and when someone chooses to – but because I find such thoughts obstructive, I’ve developed a way of working that lets me leave them outside the writing room.
So: it’s just me and the existing text, and my job is to go in blank and see how I react to it, a day at a time. And everything is contained in that approach.
That’s the aspiration, anyway.
Another part of this practice is to avoid thinking about the story when the writing day is done, since most of these thoughts and plans and corrections will be of the “out of context” variety.
With one exception: there’s a certain type of idea that, by now, I’m able to recognize. It comes unprompted, spontaneously, usually when I’m not thinking about something other than the story, or thinking about it very lightly. It comes (pop!) and in that moment I’m sure it’s right. I make a mental note to try that insight next time I’m working, and that’s it. Sometimes I might jot down a reminder (“move last graf to vicinity of giraffe sighting?”) but usually not - I just trust that I’ve got it. Valid ideas are insistent and persistent – they keep coming back, like an intense salesperson. And if an idea wilts or drifts away, it likely wasn’t that good anyway.
So, regarding Q2: Yes, I think we must be entirely open to the world. We should live fully in it and ask a lot of questions and try to maintain an open mind and make sure we interact with people with whom we disagree. We should travel if we can, work different sorts of jobs, be energetic participants in the cultural and political life of our time – all of that. I try to do all these things.
But I leave it all behind when I go in to write. I am in there to make something up. The thing I make up, will be colored and shaped by my “real” life. (How could it not be?) But the result will be more interesting if I just attend to the text.
Finally, the second part of Q2 (“I find it hard to make peace with the voices on my shoulder that tells me my writing is both a) of no consequence (an indulgence, even) while wars rage around the world and the climate is in crisis, and b) not as original, vibrant and entertaining as the books I read about (and then buy for myself and devour) in the review section of the weekend paper.”)
Well, re the voice in part b), I think a reasonable response might be, “I know, right? I’m worried about that too, little voice. What should we do, you and I, to make sure that we are as, or more, “original, vibrant, and entertaining” than other writers?” To which that voice on our shoulder should respond, if it’s being fair: “Well, there’s no way of knowing for sure, but it seems to me we’d better get to work.”
As for part a), allow me to be a bit ornery in my response (because that same voice that is often yapping in my ear). If it could be proven that your writing is “of no consequence… while wars” etc. etc. – would you quit? If you quit, would the free time gained be spent ending wars and addressing the climate crisis? If not, the question is, perhaps, a bit moot. If so, and if you can quit, sure: you might want to quit and go do that work.
For me, the answer is: I am not going to be as good at ending war and fixing climate change as I’m going to be at writing this story. That’s just how it is. It’s a function of the abilities I was born with and also the limitations. So I can be ineffective at those two things (ending war and fixing climate change), or effective at this one which, maybe, will do some work to soften hearts and bring people together and so on. (Which is not to argue for being politically inactive - we’re talking here about one’s primary focus.)
But most of the people who, over the years, have posed some form of this question to me had no real intention of quitting; rather, the question was an (honorable) delaying tactic. They believed so much in the power of fiction that they didn’t want to let the craft down. So, they constructed thought-obstacles for themselves, hoops for themselves to jump through before they begin.
I caution such people (and myself, when I am in that mode, which is often): You may be indulging in a form of what a friend calls “backdoor ego.” The idea is, the person who says, “I’m so cute,” and the one who says “I’m so ugly,” are both coming from the same place: they are thinking intensely of how they look. So, the voice saying that your writing is of no consequence might be understood to be really saying: “We want so badly for our work to be consequential. We’re worried about this, aren’t we?” And your response to that voice might want to be: “Right. We are worried about this. But let’s not let this worrying obstruct us. Let’s put it to bed once and for all, so that, twenty years from now, we’re not still asking the same question, which we will be if we don’t get moving, because there is no conceivable answer that is going to free us from those worries, because, come to think of it: we shouldn’t be free of them - they are actually the essence of craft.”
Yes, right: worry is the essence of craft. “I’m afraid my story will suck” can become “How might my story suck?” which can become “How is my story actually sucking in this draft?” which can lead to “Let me attend to the possibly sucky component parts of my story, in order to ensure that it no longer sucks, or at least sucks less.”
Writing is an indulgence. Those of us who have even a little time to do it are privileged. What a shame it would be if we squandered that privilege (merely) worrying. Better we should say to ourselves: “I pledge to make the most of my privilege and write something that will help somebody somewhere, if only by giving that person a few moments of joy or suspense or immersion or increased curiosity.”
That’s how it seems to me anyway. Having taught some of the most talented young writers in America for twenty-five years now, I’ve seen that what this writing thing is all about, really, is not talent, but the talent for having talent. Or: the talent for having your particular talent. A big part of that is learning how to work with one’s thoughts and, if you will, get on your own side, by way of self-generosity (or, sometimes, by way of a helpful, positive self-strictness).
If we find ourselves blocked, we can turn to ourselves and ask about that. (“Hi blockage! What’s your deal? Can we be friends? I actually don’t think you’re all that scary. I find you workable. I believe you have something to teach me.”) As is the case with real people, this bit of frankness is appreciated, and can even lead to the easing of the blockage.
I know the above might sound sort of New Age/self-helpish. But I really have tried to train myself to think this way – to turn away from self-created obstacles as much as I can. Sometimes I think about those scenes in prison escape movies, where some prisoners are trying to dig their way out. If we imagine ourselves part of such a group and find ourselves wondering, “What if it doesn’t work?” or “What job will I get after the escape?” or “Do I really want out?” or “Am I doing this in the right spirit?”– well… such questions are not useful and are, in fact, obstructive: all there really is to do, is dig.
Sunday, behind the paywall, we’ll be doing a session on the beautiful Katherine Mansfield story “The Doll’s House.” Join us over there for a fresh look at this heart-rending classic.
And finally - if you have any moral objections to merch, please stop reading now, and go forth and have a nice day…because after the three delaying bears will come some news of same…
Over at the Story Club Store are some new things: mugs, notebooks, the much-requested women’s t-shirts, some new uni-sex shirts and sweatshirts…have a look and thanks for your support.