Tag: Art

Favourite Haiku (2)

prayer
without words
spring rain

Bill Kenney

final resting place …
wherever
the wind decides

Michele L. Harvey

dregs in our glasses
you lay your day
on top of mine

Frank Hooven

someone’s newspaper
drifts with the snow
at 4am.

Jack Cain

searching the cupboard
for the answer
to why I opened it

Frank Dullaghan

Redefining Writing Success

“What I wish I could have told myself when I was hopeless about my writing prospects is that I should have defined artistic success in ways that weren’t shaped by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, success is getting a handful of words you don’t totally hate on the page. Sometimes success is working a full-time job to support your family and raising your kids and finding a way, over several years, to write and finish a novel. Sometimes it’s selling a book to a small press for 25 copies of your book and a vague promise of royalties you may never see. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, artistic success is marked by the glittery things so many of us yearn for — the big money deals, the critical accolades, the multicity book tours, the movie options.

Writing and publishing are two very different things. Other writers are not your measure. Try not to worry about what other people your age or younger have already accomplished because it will only make you sick with envy or grief. The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work. […] All the other writers in the world are not having more fun than you, no matter what it might seem like on social media, where everyone is showing you only what they want you to see.

Write as well as you can, with as much heart as you can, whenever you can.”

Roxane Gay, ‘Ask Roxane: Is It Too Late to Follow My Dreams?

Sage Advice from Steinbeck

In a letter to his friend, fellow writer Robert Wallsten, John Steinbeck included some writing advice that I read many years ago and ever since then that advice has been part of my own writing process.

One piece of advice he gave was to:

Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

In general writers tend to dread first drafts because for some the stakes are too high every time (their identity as writers!) but I’ve learnt to love first drafts because, since I know I’m going to cut or rewrite most of it anyway, my focus is more on the amount of words rather than their quality. I think Steinbeck is right to say that when you suspend any judgement upon your writing until after the draft is done you relate to the words differently and out of that relationship comes more natural writing.

Stay on The Fucking Bus, or How to Be Original

In his book Four Thousand Weeks Oliver Burkeman quotes the Finnish American photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen on the topic of artistic originality. Conventional wisdom presumes that originality is something you either have or you don’t, but Minkkinen proposes an alternative view through the metaphor of Helsinki’s bus routes.

In Helsinki’s city centre there’s a particular bus station and every bus that comes out of that station follows the same route for a while but, past a certain point, they diverge and go their own way. We can imagine ourselves as one of those buses and each bus stop as one year of our artistic career. Whatever our craft may be, we all want to be recognised but, if we take a shot for recognition, we may be rejected because, for one thing, our work isn’t original enough.

Discouraged, we get off the bus and hail a taxi back to the station where we board a new bus, try a new style or craft, and soon the same thing happens again. What to do?

Minkkinen advises this: Stay on the Fucking Bus.

It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.

Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it.

Your vision takes off.

And as the years mount up and your work takes begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started!

You regain the whole bus route in fact.

Finding Your Own Vision

Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio show This American Life, made the same point:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.

Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.

And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.

What Every Successful Person Knows, But Never Says

Stay on the bus.

On Potentially Writing a Play

For years I’ve had a mild yet persistent interest in writing a play. I like the limits of the stage just as I like the limits of haiku because when there’s only so much I can do behind a closed curtain or on a page with three lines those limits become creative restrictions. And yet I have thoughts that there’s no point writing a play unless it’s guaranteed to be produced. What are those thoughts? Why is it so important to have a guarantee before starting?

A while ago Alan Jacobs wrote a three act play based on the friendship and correspondence between J.R.R. Tolkien and W.H. Auden. I have no idea if the play is any good because I don’t yet have playwriting standards (the mark of a true amateur perhaps?) but I admire that he gave it a shot and then published the play on his website as if to say it didn’t need to be produced by a stage company to be validated.

Sometimes I find that rather than trying to identify what feelings are holding me back from starting, in this case, a play, it’s easier to group them together under the umbrella of ‘resistance’. Could those thoughts be fear disguised as reason? Yes. Could those reasons be valid? Yes. But I suppose, if I really wanted, I could find a good reason not to do anything if I thought about it long enough.

Perhaps the creative impulse never “makes sense” because it doesn’t always lead to money and recognition in an artist’s lifetime (or ever) so I may never find an airtight reason to fulfil that need. And yet, it still makes me happy and I still need to do it, with or without guarantees.

Favourite Haiku (1)

entering the forest enters you

Ruth Holzer

_

one coyote –

the entire mountain

howls moonlight

Sandi Pray

_

chime shop

the dialects

of wind

Peter Newton

_

not seeing

the room is white

until that red apple

Elizabeth Searle Lamb

_

a screendoor’s quiet

rain and the sound of spoons placed

carefully away

Burnell Lippy

Slippery Meanings

It’s not that words themselves are slippery. Their definitions more or less stay the same, but instead it’s the meanings we use words to find (and later express) that are slippery because, more often than not, we don’t know what we want to say until we have something down on the page (or screen) and go, “nah, that’s not it.”

In his latest blog post Alan Jacobs quoted the German philosopher Heidegger on the nature of art which I think applies to us:

“What art is we should be able to gather from the work. What the work is we can only find out from the nature of art. It is easy to see that we are moving in a circle. […] It is said that what art is may be gathered from a comparative study of available artworks. But how can we be certain that such a study is really based on artworks unless we know beforehand what art is?”

And on it goes.

I think the very slipperiness of writing, where we exert ourselves to discover meaning, makes it creative and I think this is apparent if we compare this ‘creative’ writing to writing we may find in some workplaces where meaning comes ready-made in the form of abbreviations and jargon. When we create our own meanings, in whatever form, that makes the writing creative or, at the very least, interesting to read.

Do it for Yourself

William Zinsser working in his Manhattan office.

In his book Drive Daniel Pink writes about two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Autonomy, mastery and purpose motivate us from within. Money, praise, status and all the rest motivate us from outside. Writing includes both kinds of motivation but I think what motivates us to write more than anything else is the need to be read. Why else would you write? But what happens if we aren’t read as much as we expect to be read, or worse, what if no one reads our work at all?

The danger of unchecked expectations like wanting to be read by so many people a day or to be followed by so many people in the space of a month or two is that, if they go unfulfilled and unnoticed long enough, we quit. It’s hard to stop and consider the possibility that we’re missing something. Maybe people can’t find our work because we haven’t marketed it enough or because we haven’t optimised it enough for Google and other search engines? Or maybe, like Steven Pressfield writes in Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, “It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy.”

Also, as Seth Godin writes in The Practice, “people who are fairly satisfied say nothing.” If I like a newsletter or a blog post I don’t usually comment because I assume the author won’t reply and I’m wasting my time but for all I know that comment may just be what they needed.

So if people are busy or they don’t feel the need to comment and you don’t know what to think because no one’s giving you any feedback, why keep writing? I think William Zinsser can console us. He writes in On Writing Well:

“‘Who am I writing for?’ It’s a fundamental question and it has a fundamental answer: you are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualise the great mass audience. There is no such audience – every reader is different person. […] You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”

As for those troublesome expectations I think the poet Robert Bly can help us too. When Bly asked his mentor, William Stafford, how he was so prolific Stafford replied, “I lower my standards.” I feel we can do the same with our expectations.

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Rejection

Credit: istock

Seth Godin writes in The Practice:

“[…] because there’s far more supply than demand, most of the feedback we receive is rejection. Rejection comes not just from the market, but from self-confident gatekeepers who we perceive as knowing more than we do.”

In my experience the worst thing about a rejection is not that they said no but that they won’t tell me why they said no so, in the absence of an answer, I supply my own answers. Maybe I’m no good? Why else would they say no?

Science tells us that our brains evolved to seek certainty even when the evidence, in a more critical light, is sketchy and unfounded. When confronted with uncertainty, in particular the uncertainty of a rejection without feedback, we scramble for an answer and in our haste we can latch onto beliefs that just aren’t true.

But sometimes there are good reasons for withholding feedback in a rejection. If you’re a magazine editor you can expect abuse if you tell a writer why their work wasn’t accepted because most writers pour themselves heart and soul into their work and any criticism of the work is a criticism of their very being. When a critic gave one of his novels a bad review the writer Richard Ford bought one of her books, blasted it with his shotgun then mailed it to her.

I’m astounded when I read of people being rejected hundreds of times before they finally broke through. For example, the actor Mark Ruffalo was rejected for 600 auditions. Can you fathom the emotional toll of being rejected that many times? We know, in hindsight, that he eventually succeeded but at the time he didn’t know. I applaud anyone who keeps going. Perhaps the only guarantee of success is that we don’t stop.

Og Mandino writes in The Greatest Salesman in the World:

“[…] it is not given to me to know how many steps are necessary in order to reach my goal. Failure I may still encounter at the thousandth step, yet success hides behind the next bend in the road. Never will I know how close it lies unless I turn the corner.”

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Finding the Right Words

Hemingway at his desk.

Each time we sit down to write something new we commence, as T.S. Eliot would put it, “a raid on the inarticulate.” We hunt for the right words to say what we mean but we often discover that we don’t know what we mean or that in the act of writing new meanings begin to present themselves so then the writing becomes a matter of reeling in the emerging meanings before they slip away.

Peter Elbow, a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been a lasting influence on me since I discovered his book Writing without Teachers. In it he questions the conventional model of writing, that we first make our meaning clear before we start to write, and instead proposes an alternative model to “think of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start writing at the very beginning -before you know your meaning at all- and encourage your words to change and evolve.”

For me the real treasure in this book is when Professor Elbow articulates the writer’s paradox, that it’s often difficult to figure out what we want to say until we say it, and says “The consequence is that you must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words; but keep writing till you get the right meanings in the right words.”

It happens to us all.

When The Paris Review asked Ernest Hemingway what made him rewrite the ending to his second novel A Farewell to Arms thirty nine times Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.”