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The unintended consequences of creativity

April 13, 2012

I’m extrapolating, here, on a post made by cool dude/fellow Nightmare Mode writer Dan Cox over at his blog. Because I think it bears repeating.

A couple months ago, I read “On Becoming a Novelist” by John Gardner. I disagree with a lot of things he says, of course (we are very different types of writers), but I highly recommend the book to those of you who want to write fiction. It’s nuanced, intelligent, and it teaches a lot of important lessons.

The big one it taught me was how not to be “productive”.

There’s two competing impulses in the young writer’s mind (at least in my mind): that my work is utter garbage, and that my work is amazing. More usually the former, though the latter is more destructive. I write a short story and I say to myself, “This is tripe, I’ve wasted all this time,” and I get into a funk because I’ve wasted so much time!

What Gardner’s book teaches, most importantly, is that this is okay. Writing is a long climb. This guy, who wrote a ton of novels and works before he died young, didn’t get published for years. He traveled with a stack of novels, typewritten, in a suitcase. And, while we don’t write the same, he’s a pretty excellent writer. No one succeeds immediately, but that’s not the impression people get: people get the impression that Hemingway was always Hemingway because, well, that’s the only time they ever knew him. They see failed writers like their grandfather, who worked for the railways for forty years and wrote stories on the side, and they see Hemingway, and they place you with the grandfather: why haven’t you given up yet?

Well, writing’s a building process. I do a lot of writing without getting paid a cent for it. I write 2000 words on a not good day. On a good one, I’m going towards 5000. But there’s more than that: I’m also editing myself, editing others, learning how to market myself and my work, and absorbing media so that I can understand it better/write more exciting thing. Not getting paid for what I do is, frankly, immaterial: people probably shouldn’t pay for the work I’m doing. If they’d want to, that’d be lovely, and I keep putting it out there, but I know it’s not the best I’m capable of. So I write to get better. I write to walk down my own words, to find more stories I want to tell.

It’s hard for other people to understand this, of course. For the past few decades we’ve gone through a major shift in the perception of “writing”. It’s perfectly crystallized in Mad Men where Pete Campbell, an accounts executive, tries to write copy. He does a shit job of it, but the next episode he tries to get a story published in a high fiction magazine. The average person views writing like Pete Campbell: anyone can do it, and don’t have to work too much at it. It’s just putting words together. Their first short story would be good enough to be published, and they can sell products as well as someone who actually knows their shit. It’s why major modern websites would rather pay web developers than writers: anyone can crank out content. A computer can do it.

This isn’t true, though. Anyone can put words together, but only someone whose practiced their craft and honed their voice can do so enjoyably. You notice this when you watch young writers: they see their heroes writing conversationally, and they try to write like they talk. It falls apart. Writing like you talk is damn hard. Of course, a lot of young writers also have more of the other half of the writer’s view of their work: they think it’s amazing. And for some it’s hard to knock them out of that mindset. It was hard for me: I’d spent years in school praised for writing better than other people that I had no impetus to improve. It took me a while to realize that I had to really work at things to succeed. It’s only then that it struck me that I had to “waste time” to write well.

It’s hard to think, in the modern day, that the secret to something, the secret to writing is to take your time, but it really is. You have to do it a lot. You have to fail a lot to succeed. I’m falling down hill after hill now, but one day I’ll be where I want to be. And it won’t be at the pace I, or anyone else, wants it to be achieved at.

  1. Dan Cox permalink

    I like the idea behind Malcolm Gladwell’s book Tipping Point for many skills. If you invest the “10,000 hours” into something, you gain a mastery. However, for writing, I prefer something one of my professors said once: “Instead of 10,000 hours, think of it as 1 million words. If you can’t stomach writing over 1 million words before you are ‘good’, you probably shouldn’t be a writer. It’s a very long and often lonely journey.”

    I don’t know if you view blogging in the same light, but I took it up last year as a way to force myself to write something every day. I had written a novel the year before and had mostly been ignoring my writing. At the time, I was considering a MFA program and was trying to train myself to write something, anything, day after day. Ironically, I’ve found I like writing about videogames more than writing characters most days and I changed my plans accordingly.

    • Yeah, I did similarly with blogging. I wanted to write more fiction, so I started a fiction blog. It sucked. I like fiction more than games writing, actually, but I have fewer fiction ideas usually, so games are easier.

      And yeah, I agree on a million words. Sounds about right.

  2. I just spent the better part of a week (40 hours since Wednesday) completely botching a piece of metalwork in the shop — feels like a waste of time but I know I learned something from it. So, it has parallels with everything.

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