I'm giving over my blog to the great Laura Harrington, author of the wonderful novel Alice Bliss. Thank you, Laura!
“If you’re in control, you’re not going fast enough.”
At every Q & A for a book event there’s always the “how” question. Various forms of: How do you do it? How do you create/ write/ find the discipline/ stay motivated? Given that we are all creative beings, what is it that separates those who write from those who wish they were writing? I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years. What follows is my own very personal list.
Doing what you’re afraid of.
The new age version of this is: Embrace your fears. Sounds a little too cozy for real terrors, doesn’t it? And actors would say: Use your fear.
We all have our fears; fear of failure, fear of bungee jumping, fear of not being loved, not measuring up, etc. In college I was so afraid that my dream of becoming a writer might not come true I stopped writing altogether. This became so uncomfortable over the course of several years that I finally decided to confront my fear of failing and figure out whether I was going to write or not. The need to know one way or another trumped my fear. I enrolled in a graduate creative writing program and took the course that sounded the most terrifying: playwriting, about a subject I knew absolutely nothing about: plays. Taught by a type of writer I did not really know existed in modern times: a playwright. It changed my life.
In order to create anything you have to learn to tolerate uncertainty for long stretches of time. Most of us hate uncertainty and avoid it as much as we can.
In the beginning: There’s the “contemplating the void” period, when you’re starting a new project but it’s not actually a project yet, it’s hardly an idea, it’s something inchoate and is only beginning to take form and swim in your unconscious. You have to sit with the emptiness day after day, week after week, taking notes, showing up, not knowing. Robert Anderson, author of Tea and Sympathy, calls this period ”fishing.”
In the middle: When I’m in the middle of a book or a play everyday is uncertain. Will I have ideas? Will my characters talk to me? Am I moving in the right direction? Is there a story here? Does anyone care? Do I care?
In the end: Will my book be published? Will my play be produced? Will I survive the critics? Will I make any money? Can I quit my day job?
Here’s the secret: Hidden within all of this uncertainty, this not knowing, being off-balance are the questions that lead deeper into the work, the obsessions, the writing.
Creating a practice.
I find it more useful to model my working life on musicians rather than the romantic idea of the writer waiting for the muse. Waiting for the muse has never worked for me. While waiting for the muse I get overwhelmed by uncertainty and doubt and fear and by the crushing need for chocolate or coffee or companionship or anything at all that will take me away from the uncertainty and doubt brought on by waiting for the muse.
Showing up everyday with a pen is the only way I can circumvent the uncertainty. I’m just sitting here, I’m just writing, I’m just going to see where this idea takes me. Like practicing scales on the piano. It’s not a big deal. It’s not art. It’s not important. I’m just warming up. It’s just practice.
This is why you see brilliant writers like playwright August Wilson writing on napkins. It’s just a napkin. There’s no pressure for this poor napkin to win another Pulitzer.
When Caroline invited me to write this essay about creativity the first word that popped into my head was faith. In the middle of a book or a play I’m living on blind faith. I might have a map, I might know that there’s a bridge I’d better be sure to cross, but finding my way? Faith. Stumbling around in the dark. My writing practice often feels like simply showing up and trusting. Doubt, faith’s twin, is with me every step of the way, biting at my heels. Blind faith can be exhilarating: days when a new character appears, fully formed. Doubt can be overwhelming: days when it’s just too damned difficult to trust, to be patient, to follow the path rather than control the itinerary.
But I always come back to this: I have faith that writing is important, that I will finish this book or this play, faith that what I am obsessed with will matter to a few other people, faith in the written word, faith in the process, faith in my practice to see me through one more time.
For me, none of this would be possible without getting physical and getting playful. Getting out of my head and onto the beach or into the quarry or the ocean or the pool. I have ridden horses, taken boxing lessons, learned how to salsa, practiced yoga, walked, hiked, biked, skated, played volleyball, just about anything to engage my body and give my mind a vacation or a new challenge. I’ll never be a boxer, a yogi, or a professional athlete; but each of these things refreshes my spirit and both allows me to experience the joy/fear combo of being a beginner again and reminds me that progress, like writing, comes in very small steps.
In a recent interview, painter Frank Stella quoted race car driver Mario Andretti:
“If you’re in control, you’re not going fast enough.”
There are things in our life that we can control, or that we like to think we can. Controlling your writing is not such a great idea. Arthur Kopit, my first playwriting teacher would say, “Consider the word “play” in all its meanings. If you are not playing and having fun when you’re writing your audience won’t be having much fun either.”
Great writing has the promise of a wild ride or a bacchanalia within it; the best party you’ve ever been to, where unexpected, sometimes terrifying life-changing events occur.
So I try to be fearless, I try to enjoy the fact that I don’t know where I’m going or if I’ll ever get there, I remind myself to play, to be a beginner, I try to have enough faith to let go. And I remember playwright Suzan Lori Parks saying: “Every morning when I wake up I get to say: I’m a writer. Today I get to write.”