June 11, 2012
One of my favorite books on writing is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It was the first book I picked up years ago when I decided to return to writing – back when graduate school and a full time job had resulted in mental paralysis. I couldn’t focus. I was burned out. Bereft of energy and enthusiasm for pretty much anything, I longed for release.
Writing Down the Bones was recommended by a friend of mine. I picked up a pocket size copy and took it with me to Starbucks. I had no journal, nothing to write with, no computer. I hadn’t any real belief that this book would get me back to writing, but I knew I had to start somewhere. So with a big dose of skepticism and an even greater dose of hope, I turned to the first page and began to read.
It took only a few paragraphs to hook me. Goldberg seemed to speak directly to me, and I realized that I was not alone. I felt excited again … and anxious to begin. No intimidation, no fear, no belief that I’m not good enough. Just the realization that one must start somewhere, and keep practicing. Whatever it takes. Whatever the result.
I went out that same evening and purchased a journal (my favorite kind – a lightweight moleskin with lined pages). I found a pen I loved to write with – one that rolled easily over the page without smudging,and felt easy in my hand. I held it loosely. Let it guide me.
Soon, words flowed from mind to hand to paper without any conscious thought on my part. I did not worry about grammar, style, punctuation. I ignored the lines, as Goldberg taught me. I wrote in large, swooping letters – sometimes filling a page with only a single sentence. It wasn’t poetry. It wasn’t technically perfect. But it was inspired. It was mine.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this process. Each time I get back to these basics, I’m surprised by what lurks in my depths – the creativity and emotion I’ve bottled up. It’s far from perfect … far from good … but there’s something freeing in knowing that what will emerge will be just that: not perfect. Not good. For the writer who is more editor than creator … who lives for the tweaking and fixing and correcting … this is a major departure. Ignoring the technical dos and don’ts, scrapping the formatting, the lines, the precision of typed words on a virtual page …
It’s comforting, in its way. It allows room for movement, for growth. It allows inspiration to flow without hindrance. And every now and then, from the muck my brain expunges in great, angry bursts, emerges a jewel of an idea. An image. A blossom. A rainbow.
I encourage all artists to try this. Take yourselves away from the computer (or your usual medium, whatever it may be). Focus on the basics. Don’t paint, sketch. Don’t sculpt, knead. Don’t act, improvise. Free yourself from the confines of your art. Don’t think about it. Just let it happen.
And keep practicing. Over and over and over.
You won’t regret it.
For more works by Natalie Goldberg, go her website: http://www.nataliegoldberg.com/
January 20, 2012
I recently read a list on Facebook – “How to be Miserable as an Artist”. I don’t know the original author of the post, and I can’t give credit where it’s due. But I do appreciate that so many people have shared it, because it really hit home. And at the risk of infringing on someone else’s copyright (take THAT, SOPA!), I thought I’d publish it here, as well.
- Constantly compare yourself to other artists.
- Talk to your family about what you do and expect them to cheer you on.
- Base the success of your entire career on one project.
- Stick with what you know.
- Undervalue your expertise.
- Let money dictate what you do.
- Bow to societal pressures.
- Only do work that your family would love.
- Do whatever the client/customers/gallery owner/patron/investor/*fan* asks. (I added that last one)
- Set unachievable/overwhelming goals, to be accomplished tomorrow.
The two most important lessons in this list – for me – are #1 and #10. I find that when I’m feeling the pressure … when the muse refuses to cooperate and all I produce is absolutely craptastic, I start comparing my work to other writers and identifying all the places where I’ve gone wrong. Why didn’t I come up with that turn of phrase? Why don’t I see the world that way? How did I miss this, that, or the other? There is nothing worse for your self esteem than to compare your work with others’ and berate yourself for being somehow … less … than they are.
I’m pretty lucky. I’m part of a group of fantastic writers who create within the same genre. I’m always learning from them. I’m always inspired by them. I get fantastic support, incredibly helpful editorial advice, and the belief that no matter how long it takes, I will get it done. But there are times when I have to remind myself that these amazing writers go through the same struggles as I: sometimes, inspiration just hits … and sometimes – often – they have to work for it. Instead of comparing myself to them, instead of identifying all the places where I fall short, I can look at the work of these artists and think, “Wow. I want to work harder. I want to do better. I want to feel about my work the way I feel about theirs.” And you know what? Eventually, I do. When I produce something I’m genuinely proud of, I know what it’s like to not be miserable. So … lesson learned. Use other artists as inspiring examples … but never compare yourself to them. Never try to be like them. Your art is yours. You are unique and different, and your voice deserves to be heard.
And that brings me to #10, which I’m pretty sure has plagued me since the day I started this blog (possibly before). Avoid setting goals that are unrealistic, unachievable, overwhelming … and expecting them to be done tomorrow. Life gets in the way. Careers matter, and bills, and kids, and spouses, and pets. Your commitments are important, and if you allow yourself to be derailed every time something else needs your attention, you’ll only beat yourself up when you don’t accomplish what you set out to do.
I’ve been working on the same story for almost four years (egads! FOUR YEARS!) … and so many times, I’ve had to step back because what was going on in the rest of my life took up my time, my fuel, my creative energy. I’m still working on this lesson, and many days it’s a major struggle. But it’s necessary to remember that, ultimately, we’re not creating for other people. When we start to do what others want or expect, when we produce for them instead of for ourselves … we lose sight of why we started in the first place. So what if it takes four months to write a craptastic chapter? And what if it takes another two or three months to turn into something wonderful? Well then, so be it! Don’t set unreasonable deadlines. Let the muse guide you. (I say this with a sheepish hint of irony, given that I set a New Year’s resolution to finish my story by year-end).
When all is said and done, the only pressure we artists really need to listen to is the one that comes from within … from the voice that says, “Make the time. Trudge ahead. Don’t give up. Keep practicing.”
So keep at it, friends. However long it takes. The work will always be there – it’s up to you to decide how you’ll approach it. Just remember to have fun with it! Laugh a little! Give the muse a good beating now and then! But never … NEVER … make yourself miserable doing it. If you’re miserable … then what’s the point?
Happy New Year!
October 19, 2009
After more than two months without writing a single original word (I’m not counting a few all-too-brief editing sessions), I’m starting to go just a little bit mad. What has gotten into me? Or rather, what has left? Self-pitying, I know. I’m not going to bore anyone with a long diatribe about the angst of writer’s block … what good would that do? Instead, I’m going to share a quote that makes me feel like a complete ass.
” You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” The brilliance of Jack London, bless his soul.
I’ve packed my laptop with me today, and no matter how crazy my work becomes, I’m determined to leave the office and get in a writing session during my lunch hour. I don’t know what will come of it. I have no idea if there will be anything worth keeping. But at least I’ll be writing. Going after my inspiration with the proverbial club … stoking the fire, so to speak. Now if I could just find some lighter fluid and a match, I’d be in business.
April 16, 2009
“O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”
– William Shakespeare, King Henry V
There was a time not that long ago when my only goal was to finish chapter 17. It was a chapter that plagued me for months, hounding me with the minute details of an investigation – the dry police work, the slow revelation of clues …
In that moment when the last word was written, when I’d finally placed the last period and written the fateful “Chapter 18” at the top of the next page … all I could think about was my desire to move on, to immerse myself in the next scene, to explore the emotional angst that was sure to present.
I’ve been working on 18 for a few weeks, and with each writing session, the chapter gets longer (3,627 words and counting), the writing stronger. Words leap from my fingers to the keyboard, give me no time to think them through. They simply … appear. I can’t imagine what’s happened, though I suspect it has something to do with the glorious freedom I feel having rid myself – if only temporarily – of the hell I experienced with the last chapter. Whatever the reason, I’m not going to worry over it. A writer must never question her muse. She must accept what comes with her whole heart, ride the wave of inspiration, allow it to carry her where it may.
And believe me; it’s carrying me to places I never expected. New storylines are forming in my mind – new emotions and symbols that add additional levels of complexity to the ongoing saga. I’m experiencing “the bug” for the first time in ages …
And I can’t get enough!
Descriptions come pouring forth. Images manifest on the page before they’ve formulated in my mind. One minute I’m directing myself down one road, and then a fork pops up and I realize I’ve changed direction. It’s amazing. With all this inspiration, a girl could get lost in the process and forget the point.
And so, I face a dilemma: how to keep up momentum, but still allow the chapter its natural conclusion. I don’t want it to end! I don’t want to let go!
What’s a writer to do?
I don’t know what other writers would do in this situation, but I’m going to take a chance and share some of that inspiration in the hope that by putting it out there, I’ll be more inclined to reign myself in and finish what I’ve started. It’s a long shot, but it’s worth a try!
* * *
The tunnels were quiet at this late hour, though she heard the occasional message over the pipes … a gentle tap-tapping like the forbidden whispers of siblings – secret exchanges that occurred only during those long nights when childish excitement precluded the need for sleep.
She’d never shared in such fellowship, never felt the twinning of souls, the blood bond of a brother or sister. And yet … she’d practiced for the occasion, prepared herself for it, indulged in the possibility. She smiled now, remembering those nights … remembering her – the imaginary friend she’d conjured as her sole consolation after her mother’s death. Sara. She was the one person who accepted every revelation sung quietly beneath a heavy patchwork quilt, every giggle released within that tent of warmth and light where a single flashlight cast glowing ripples across her skin.
In those hours when the house was eerily silent, when her mother’s absence seemed somehow more present … when her father’s solemn face haunted Catherine’s thoughts, she’d cover herself with her favourite pink pony quilt and whisper to Sara her most desperate wish – a prayer which, even now, she daren’t speak to another soul, caught as she was in the juvenile belief … the hope … that one day, someday … it might come true.