The Life of a Project
Yesterday while I was waiting to meet up with M for dinner, I was hanging out in Dog Eared Books, sitting on a hidden little bench near the cookbooks and surplus. I was working on a scene in the screenplay I began a few weeks ago — I’m about a quarter of the way through — and it’s been going well other than being somewhat painstaking because I’m forcing myself to handwrite a first draft. (It just feels right for this project for some reason.) At that moment though, I was stuck on how to move forward with the scene, starting to question if it was even necessary — essentially, getting way too in my head about it for a first draft.
Distracted, I looked to my right and saw on a small stand Austin Kleon’s new book, Steal Like an Artist, an adage often heard in creative writing programs. I read through Austin’s whole book excitedly. It was exactly what I needed, a little creative pick-me-up and positivity. His forthrightness and belief in creative community and hard work are what stuck with me the most. I particularly appreciated him sharing this “Life of a Project” graph. I got a kick out of it, since I was, exactly in that moment, experiencing (Dark Night of the Soul).
A suggestion he has in the book is to create a kind of artist family tree consisting of all the artists you really admire, the ones you aspire to be like most. He writes about how studying someone’s work you connect with very deeply, and then attempting to imitate it, leads to the creation of your own voice, style, or outlook. We are unable to be an exact replica of anyone, so ultimately, the process brings out how you are different and those differences are your gift — what you should hone in on and use most in your work.
Strangely, I was already thinking about this earlier in the day because I had just read Cheryl Strayed’s essay, “Munro County.” (Let me just get it out of the way right now: I have a huge writer/human/woman/mother crush on Cheryl Strayed. Also, who doesn’t?) The essay is about Strayed’s accidental love for Alice Munro, how she came to painstakingly copy and memorize whole passages of her work, and slowly that led to the development of her own voice in her writing and the publication of a story at 25, a copy of which she sent to Munro with a letter, and Munro responded. It’s a beautifully crafted essay and one I find particularly inspiring as a young writer.
I could really relate to Strayed’s intensity and love for Munro. She explicates in the essay how she later understood that the love she had was not necessarily for Alice, but was essentially for what she had come to represent, what role she played in Strayed’s formation as an artist, and in a more general sense, a person.
What I’m trying to say is, you should really read it, along with her new book Wild and every single Dear Sugar column currently housed at the The Rumpus. Each of these columns has made me feel more human in a very particular way.
Another thing I really appreciated about Austin’s book was this little “Recommended Reading” list at the end. I’ve already read a few of these: What It Is, Bird by Bird, and Flow (all of which I enjoyed and got me thinking and working), but I haven’t yet read The Gift; I’ve been really interested in reading it for a few years now. M is currently reading The Ecstasy of Influence and seems to be enjoying it.
I don’t know the others! If you’ve read them and recommend one more than the others, definitely let me know. My “to read” list is currently off the wall, so I’ve been having a difficult time prioritizing what to read next.
In the meantime, I am reading Julian Barnes’ The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and starting my family tree. So far, my artist relatives are: Jean Rhys, Sandra Cisneros, Leslie Marmon Silko, Nicole Krauss, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, and Jennifer Egan; not a bad bunch to force yourself into the likes of. Who are yours?