“When I started both of my books, at first I fell into the same mindset trap of thinking too far ahead — “OMG, 100,000 words to go, why did I get myself into this?!?” Now I keep the phrase “cutting stone” on a little white board on my desk, a reminder just to take each single, barely perceptible axe-chop at the stone at a time, and eventually it will be ground to dust.”
Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift that “the artist in the modern world must suffer a constant tension between the gift sphere to which his work pertains and the market society which is his context.” Hyde also writes of a “disquieting sense of triviality” that haunts artists in societies like ours. You know the feeling. Every so often we’re neck deep in doubt and ask ourselves “why bother writing, painting, etc. if I’m not going to be paid for it?”
Even the questions we ask ourselves are framed in terms of their market value. But John McPhee thinks different. The author Tim Ferris studied under McPhee at Princeton and in his class notes he wrote “McPhee never has suggested that the point of writing is to make money, or that the merit of your writing is determined by its market value. ‘A great paragraph is a great paragraph wherever it resides’ he’d say. ‘It could be in your diary.’”
But I think so long as the market exists there will always be a temptation to cater to its demands and become what Seth Godin cautions us not to become in The Practice, a hack.
But what about worth? Again Hyde says “I mean ‘worth’ to refer to those things we prize and yet say ‘you can’t put a price on it.’ We derive value, on the other hand, from the comparison of one thing with another.” When we live in a society where almost everything has a price and we’re bombarded day and night by adverts it’s hard to recognise worth apart from value, especially the worth of one’s art when we also believe time is money.
Writer’s block. That dreaded phrase. When it came time this past week for me to choose the topic for the next post I felt hesitant and uncertain. My last post ‘Marginalia’ got seven likes, my highest so far, which is a relative success (not that I’m counting) but about a day or two after posting it the block set in.
In Draft No.4: On The Writing ProcessJohn McPhee says “I think it’s totally rational for a writer, no matter how much experience he has, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something. Why not? Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.” Bear in mind this guy won the Pulitzer Prize.
Is there such a thing as writer’s block? Yes, but it’s not what you think. It’s no coincidence I felt blocked right after a relative success because now, it seems, there’s something at stake: my reputation. Seven likes on a blog post hardly makes a reputation but my Ego makes no such distinctions. Praise is praise and by god we’re not going to do anything to tarnish it. That’s when the thought of writing badly comes into the picture.
The thing about writing badly is I can only write bad when I’ve wrote good. Anything after a good piece of writing will be bad, or so it seems. But what makes good writing good? Is it really good or is my Ego so flattered by praise it can’t tell the difference?
Orwell wrote that sheer egoism was one of four motives for writing. E.B. White also wrote that “only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” Sounds bad doesn’t it. But both writers only acknowledge that Ego is necessary to some degree for creative work. The issue is when it steps out of line and it will because there are no lines, so to speak, in my mind where I can cordon off my Ego. But that’s okay. I’ll keep writing.
Writing isn’t just writing. Writing is rewriting; writing is editing; writing is brainstorming and organising; writing is all of these and more. According to writing coach Roy Peter Clarke, writing is a recursive process and every writer has their own process for each step.
In an interview with Conan a few years ago, the novelist George R.R. Martin revealed he writes on a DOS machine with Wordstar 4.0. The software is ancient but he’s wrote all the current books in A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) on it (some two million words) so, despite its age, it works for him.
At one point in his career John McPhee used KEDIT, a text editor, with two extensions, Structur and Alpha, to support and automate his system for structuring his writing. I tried his system for some of my essays and found it to be too much work. But it works for him.
When I wrote screenplays in university I tried the system Vince Gillian used for outlining episodes on Breaking Bad: a Sharpie and index cards. But that didn’t work either. I guess the magic isn’t in the Sharpie but in the person who wields the Sharpie.
In his introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of On Writing Well, William Zinsser says:
“I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking […] and the plain old tools of the English language.”