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?
I’ve been thinking a lot about rules (in relation to writing, of course) now that things have finally settled a bit and I’m back into a routine. I go to a small writing group at work almost every week for an hour. Sometimes one of us can’t make it because we’re too busy, but for the most part, it’s a treasured time each week that we all look forward to. One of my writing buddies sent me an article a few weeks ago that’s a list of writing tips from Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and George Orwell. Margaret Atwood’s is my favorite because I feel like it’s quietly signaling to me in code, “Don’t come to me. Make up your own goddamn rules and write what you need to write already.” I appreciate this.
In our writing group last week, we were talking about these writing tips and others that we’ve seen circulating before. The writer who sent the list said how she finds comfort in them, not necessarily for the wisdom or suggestions they impart, but that their existence is a testament to other writers’ struggles to get the work done and done well. I hadn’t thought about it this way before. It was a sort of revelatory writerly moment where a once shut blind was suddenly opened: the discovery that the point is not to follow others’ rules (or even believe that any really exist!), but to discover what your own are as you continue to work, fail, and work.
Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth between the “write-when-I-am-called-to” school of thought and the “show-up-at-the-page-even-when-you-are-miserable-and-feel-worthless-and-have-no-ideas-and-hate-yourself-and-your-work,” and I’m finding that somewhere in the middle is what seems to work best right now:
– Setting small goals for myself that are reasonable for me to meet on a daily basis and I can feel good about, and even better about, if I exceed them.
– Not making excuses for myself, but being forgiving when I have to prioritize something else in my life over the work I want to do for the day (helping a friend, being on the phone for hours with student loan providers or hospital billing, taking a nap or a bike ride because I am deliriously tired, stressed out, or bummed out! about the previous, etc.)
– Knowing it’s okay to have no idea where I’m going because that’s actually why it’s continually fun.
I watched Woody Allen: A Documentary a few weeks ago per M’s suggestion. It’s a two parter, three and a half hours long. I was a bit disappointed the doc didn’t delve more deeply into Woody Allen’s personal life and how it’s shaped his work; I thought it focused a lot more on Woody Allen, the persona. (The times it got close to pushing beyond this, it felt as if the camera shied away, as if embarrassed or wanting to crack a joke, a little like Allen himself.) Overall, however, I was really taken with the story, specifically, the amount of time devoted to how Woody works. I loved hearing him discuss his process, showing scraps of yellow legal paper with notes for stories scrawled on them, and his crude writing and editing process, which requires nothing but a typewriter he’s used since he was young, scissors, and a stapler.
He said in the doc, and in other interviews I’ve read with him, that writing isn’t rocket science; it’s easy. There’s something about his nonchalance when it comes to his work that has continually titillated me because it’s something you never hear from other artists. We hear about the struggle: the multiple drafts of novels, hundreds and hundreds of pages rewritten, and then there’s Woody saying, “You just write it. It either works or it doesn’t. It’s not difficult.”
What I love most about Woody saying this is that I don’t believe the work is really easier for him than any other artist. In the doc, there’s a shot of him in the editing room, clearly a little frustrated over a scene they’re working on because it hasn’t turned out the way he wanted. Earlier in the film, he also reveals he was disappointed with his much adored film, Manhattan, that it didn’t quite meet the standard he had set for it. Clearly, there is a desire in him to continually improve, to push himself to do something different, something challenging, something difficult.
The difference between Woody and other artists is that he seems to accept the challenges inherent in writing and filmmaking. He doesn’t make a big fuss about it. He begins to write something and he either finishes it because the story keeps working, or he hits a block, realizes the idea doesn’t work, and moves onto the next idea. As much as the characters Woody Allen has played in his films seem to be in their own head, riddled with neuroses, he’s able to sit calmly back, do the work, and trust the process. He’s able to keep working, even when he can’t create.