What It Takes to Be the Best (Of daemons, drive, and dedication)

I saw this quote and it made me think of you:

“Amateurs practice until they get it right.  Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” — Unknown

We all start as amateurs, regardless of the task at hand, for by its definition “amateur” means “a person who is not an expert” (Merriam-Webster).  One does not become an expert on the first try.  Furthermore it is safe to say that we creative types first got into the arts not with the goal of becoming “professional” but more likely as an outlet for our imaginations.  Webster further defines the amateur as “a person who engages in a pursuit for pleasure and not as a profession.”  A show of hands from those who remember a time, past or present, when you engaged in creative pursuits for pleasure, with no delusions that you could do this for a living.  If you’re like me you certainly had this experience as a child.

I wrote my first story as soon as I could form letters.  It was called “Wagon Train,” and I wrote it for my dad who loves Westerns.  The story was one page long, written on thin paper that smelled like wood and was the color of a coffee stain.  The words were written in pencil, the letters over sized and cryptic in my scrawling, child’s penmanship.  More than a story, it was a gift.  I don’t know how old I was.  Seven, maybe.  I had no aspirations of being a professional anything, I just wanted to write my dad a story.  He kept that piece of paper for many years.  I have no idea where it is now.  Story heaven, I imagine.

In seventh grade my friend Kenny Reed and I each decided to write our own crime novels.  It was Ken’s idea first.  For more than half of the school year we wrote almost daily.  I think I had up to seven chapters before somewhere along the way I lost some pages, lost the story, lost momentum.  I’m not sure I knew at that point I wanted to be a writer. In any case the idea of doing this for a living was not much of a real consideration.  I lived in a pretty economically depressed state, and higher education and high aspirations were reserved for “rich” kids who had the means to go to college “up north.”  The desire to write never left me, but without a clear understanding of what it took to actually be good at something I floundered for years waiting for brilliance to strike.

Thirty years later I sit at my computer for who-knows-how-many-days-in-a-row and I write.  I write this blog entry.  I revise my novel for the fourth time.  I play with lines in a poem.  I add notes to the outline of a play.  I ruminate on the short story idea I have for an upcoming contest.  When I leave this desk I pick up books.  Books about writing, about revision, about the writing life.  I read plays and novels and short stories and poems.  Memoirs, sometimes.  I listen to music, not for the beat and rhythm so much as for the lyrics.  I imagine capturing the emotion, the essence of these songs in my own stories.  Metallica, Coco Rosie, Jason Molina, Daniel Johnston, Nirvana, Nick Cave.  I read the free pages of sneak-peek novels on Amazon – those novels similar to mine and those that are different.  Away from all of that I listen to my friends: the ways they speak, what they say, how they use language and tone and profanity and their inadvertent motifs.  I watch the ways they hold their drinks, how they dress, the ways they stand and sit and turn their shoulders and flip their hair.  When everything is quiet I return to my own stories, think about what my characters have done, what they could do differently and still be themselves.  I edit the pages even when they aren’t in front of me.  I almost can’t be bothered to answer the phone, to answer the door or go to a meeting or chat on Facebook.  There are too many things to think about.  Ideas abound.  I am consumed by the daemon of creativity and it drives me to incessant contemplation of my writing life.

When I was a desk jockey for fourteen years I pretty much despised my cubicle (later, a corner office with a view) for what it represented of my day.  I wanted to be writing.  Not composing memos and meeting minutes and reports, like I was doing, but stories and poems and plays.  Sometimes I did those things even in my office.  Otherwise I worked smart, refusing for the most part to work the 60-80 hour weeks of my colleagues.  I was committed enough to be on time, to work hard, and to stay until my scheduled hour was up.  Many times I did stay longer.  Working not until five PM, or seven PM, but sometimes until nine PM.  But I didn’t do it as a rule and sometimes I made up for it by coming in later the next morning or leaving early at the end of the week.  I was not a bad employee, but I was not driven to be the best in that field.

Today, most of the time, I work seven days a week.  I work day and night.  I talk about work in ways that are both concrete and abstract.  I talk about writing and the writing life and character and plot in ways that, to my associates, sound like I’m talking about their interests, their lives.

This is what it takes to be the best.  An amateur will spend some time doing something and hope, one day, to get it done right.  It’s an inconsistent practice, though with a little dedication the amateur might find success once or twice.  But the professional – the professional is blessed with what the average person considers an illness.  The professional is obsessed with being the best they can be, operating at such a high level that every end result is right, so that nothing goes out into the world that isn’t ready.  This is the mentality of the serious artist.  In all things make good art (says Neil Gaiman).  In joy and ecstasy as well as tragedy and pain – make good art.  Do this because you have to.  Be encouraged when others doubt your sanity for being so driven.  If your intention is to live the writer’s life then be prepared to live it all the time.  The goal is to practice until you can’t get it wrong (you still can, and you will, but the professional knows what they can salvage and what they cannot).

My attitude about writing is very strict.  I have this attitude because for years I was an amateur believing that the pleasure of writing was enough to satisfy me.  It wasn’t, and I wasted a lot of time doing other things that never really amounted to much.  Now, every day I wake up and I am ready to do everything I can to learn, to practice, and to do it until I cannot get it wrong.  This is not the same as being perfect.  I’m striving only to satisfy my drive to write, to write well, to be what I am supposed to be.  A professional.

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Artist As Child (Spoil her and be rewarded)

*Sigh*

I have been neglecting my brat.  Oh I keep it fed, keep it busy with ideas and lots of work.  My brat returns the favor by playing along, heaving with a groan as we sit, yet again, at the keyboard while sunshine abounds outside the window, satisfied enough to be playing in the imaginary worlds of my word-works.  But something is wrong lately.  My head is full of dense and heavy gelatin.  I can hardly move it around on my neck.  I feel a little lost.

What am I talking about?

My work area is littered with materials.  On the floor is a small stack of notebooks and loose papers.  On my desk, more notes and my computer (and a picture of my physical muse – my s.o., shells collected from the shore, a ruler, a tape measure, pen holders).  My nightstand holds a stack of books half-read, another notebook.  In the air over my head swarm the ideas for revising my novel, writing the next two in the series, two or three unfinished poems, a new play, two more novels, articles . . . I am surrounded by a clutter of creativity.

The other day my s.o. suggested I take an artist’s date – something I have not been doing.  I was reminded again of this important factor in the creative life by one of my colleagues in the writing milieu when she mentioned Julia Cameron, morning pages, and artist dates.  Do you know about these artist dates?

According to Cameron all artists have an inner child who needs time to be recognized and celebrated, even spoiled.  I’m sure psychology has identified this in other terms, but I like the brat concept.  There is no scolding or training the brat to be respectable and upstanding.  This brat is not destined to take part in the grown up world where it is expected to do good works for the betterment of humanity.  No, this brat does all of its philanthropy through the existing adult in which it resides.  This brat creates art, and it had better be given some time to play or there will be consequences.

I’m at the consequence part.  My brat needs a little nature time, some over-stated praise, and maybe a nice coffee or lunch.  It goes against my own serious nature to take time out for this.  I don’t have time for Dionysian orgies when there is work to be done, by god.  I forget my own rule that the work is never done, and that sometimes you just have to step away and play a bit.  Not play, like, on the computer or the video game system.  Play with the little creator inside, by doing fun, even childish things.

This is not the idle time I have written about before, either.  On the artist’s date there isn’t supposed to be any work done.  No dwelling on the story at hand, or the story to come, no contemplating revisions, visions, decisions.  These dates are all about play of a different sort.  Spoiled, bratty play.

I live, as I’ve mentioned, in a literal paradise, and my inner brat knows this.  My inner brat and the dog are furthermore in conspiracy for my time.  As goes the dog – in, out, in – no, out! so goes the brat.  Neither of them let go, really let go of their want to play until they get it.  It only lasts for a little while but, as with the dog, the well-exercised brat is more willing to come home again, plop down somewhere comfortable, and get back to being what it naturally is – in the case of the dog, a lazy sleeper.  In the case of the brat, a hard working and creative energy.

There is one main caveat with the artist date, and it must be honored if the date is to be successful.  You must go alone with your brat.  You cannot combine this event with a date with your partner, or even by dragging the dog along.  The brat demands its own attention.  I suppose this fits in with the idea of the erotic muse.  Relationships need their time, even those we have with ourselves.

So, I am planning to spend some brat time.  I have to, because the brat holds a bevy of creative treasures for me when we get back.  Greater progress with my revisions, for example, and maybe completion of the new story idea that I’ve had for two weeks now (and done nothing with).  I don’t yet know what we will do, but a little money and a little excess will make the investment all worthwhile.

When we get back perhaps we’ll update you on how things went.

Meanwhile, what do y0u do for your artist dates?  Do you do them at all?

See my guest blogger post!

Just a quick note to let you all know that I have had an article published just this morning as a guest blogger at Writer’s Relief. You can see it here: http://www.writersrelief.com/blog/2013/05/psyched-to-write-overcoming-the-transition-barrier/

It’s a lot like my blog posts here except that it’s short 😉

Be well, friends

The Erotic Muse – A love affair with Art

I had a painter friend who once said about his relationship (in so many words), “I have relations with my partner, but I am in love with Art.”

We laughed about it at the time, and his partner, a wonderful woman with a good sense of humor, took it in stride.

They aren’t together anymore.

He still paints like a mad man while she has gone off and married someone else.

I used to admire my friend for his daemonic obsession with art.  Art and travel, that’s what his life is mostly about.  When he uttered that phrase all those years ago, however, something stuck in me that I wasn’t ready to accept back then.  And now, years later, I sit here contemplating the erotics of art, the artist and his relationship with craft, and I think yes, in so many ways, my friend was right.

I suppose we should clarify a few things for the sake of  . . . well, for several reasons.  A relationship with another human being is something entirely different from our relationship to craft.  Human beings interact, have needs, wants.  Human beings share time and conversation, physical love, sunshine, etc.  For many of us our partner is a life line for when we sail too far from shore, and they help us back to port before we become Van Gogh, Sid Barrett, or Paul Reubens.  I’m joking about Paul Reubens.

The point is, for those artists who are attached, we are attached because we want to be, because of all the reasons two people become attached, and, even when the relationship interferes with our work, we are grateful for the other person because of what they bring to our lives.

And then there’s the jealous mistress.

Being an artist of any type is a demanding vocation.  The amount of discipline, self-determination, courage, and will it takes to be creative often requires us to be isolated.  We cannot always take out the trash, hang curtains, go to breakfast, watch a movie.  We must stay focused, we want to stay focused, because we are engaged with another who fulfills us in ways no human being can.

I imagine this is true for other disciplines as well: scientists, doctors, and investment bankers all have a drive to discover, to improve, learn, evolve.  Anyone who is following their calling is sure to feel the pull to get back into it as soon as possible when they are away.  This is not unlike a love affair.  Speaking for writers and other artists, those of us who practice a craft seriously are engaged on a relationship level.  We love our art, we love being artists.  Art is the perfect lover.  It feeds our ego and it rarely, if ever, leaves.  Art fills our world with sound and color, with discovery.  In being an artist we are titillated by the smallest successes, and our arousal inflates us inside, lifts us above the mundane and makes us feel alive and sometimes even immortal.  We never truly get away from our craft because it lives inside us so that everything we see in the world is measured against the graphs and lenses of artistic mimesis.  What we see we desire to duplicate in the highest form we can, and then turn it back into the world and say, “look at what I have done.”  If we do it reasonably well we get high, and for a moment we are convinced that there is no greater love than the one we have for our craft, and which our craft has for us.

No doubt the reason so many artists are single is because it is impossible for another human being to do for us what Art does.  Practically speaking a human partner is more reasonable, and the right person in one’s life becomes a steady presence, not a source of extreme highs and lows, but a regular hum in the rhythms of our day-to-day.  But Art leaves us striving, and this effort to achieve is addictive.  Like the unobtainable lover our craft demands that we serve it, and it promises, if we behave just so and do what we are told, some small reward.  When that reward comes, often through long, difficult periods of work, we are hooked anew and the affair carries on.

When looked at in a certain light the relationship an artist has with his or her craft borders on unhealthy; can in fact be unhealthy.  The same can be said for any relationship, however, and in consideration of that I offer a final thought about the artistic life.

The call to create, once acknowledged, begins the affair.  Whether one keeps partnerships, employment, children, pets, perhaps even the extended family, is the choice of the individual.  For my own purposes I seek balance in all things. But I am never satisfied with my craft.  I know that the creative life is always going to be there and that it must be addressed.  I write, not because I cannot think of anything else to do, but because it feeds me and my starving ego.  Writing is sexy, it is bold, and it is fulfilling (it can also be frumpy, dull, and frustrating).  Just like an erotic relationship.

Artists are the feminine to Art’s masculine.  As the incubators of creativity we are impregnated by inspiration and the need to produce.  This is a symbiotic relationship.  Art does not create itself — it is created by the artist.  The artist does not create in a vacuum but is inspired by ideas, by experience, and by aesthetics.  In this way the affair is complete, the relationship ongoing, the progeny infinite.

Read for Inertia, Not Imitation

How often is the fledgling writer told to “read everything” if they want to write well?

The inference is that we should read presumably for the sake of understanding good and bad writing, how to do it (or avoid it), and to know what has already been written so as not to waste our time doing what has been done before.  Few of our teachers and mentors really take the time to explain the concept further, however, sending us instead to wander among the monoliths of literature with a magnifying glass and a dictionary, never realizing that, to the novice writer, the letters in those infamous tomes are seven feet tall, each word ten yards wide.  And thus (dis)armed we proceed to the next easiest thing we can think of in the face of a vague and overwhelming concept: we imitate what we see.

One reason we imitate, of course, is out of respect and admiration for a favorite writer (Raymond Carver launched thousands of imitators in his day).  This is a natural desire, and not a bad way to practice the craft in private, but for professional publication there’s no more value in it than there is in the next reason we imitate: because we think that copying the style of those already in print improves our own chances for publication.  It’s a reasonable assumption – obviously the editor of that publication liked what they saw the first time – but this behavior slows the development of the writer’s own voice, possibly forever.  Finally, maybe more common than all of the above, is the simple fact that it is far easier for our species to copy what has already been done than to come up with something unique on our own.

Everything has been done, we are told.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Yet, frequently something new does appear.  That old bug-a-boo of style shows up, again and again, in fresh new ways, re-creating the ancient stories of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Joe-anonymous and his special story, old tales that have never been told quite this way.  And so the novice sees . . . yes! . . . this is my future, and they rip-off the latest thing, possibly even getting published once before the market is flooded with other copycats.

There is, however, a more useful purpose for reading which is much more valuable than imitation.  By reading widely the young writer can tap into and collect the energy of those various pieces, can come to understand the vortex of creativity being generated on the shoulders of dozens of original voices.  The purpose here is to get connected with the current of whatever it is that’s powering the genre.  By feeling this energy the new writer becomes free to say what has not been said, in ways that have not been expressed in the writing they have witnessed.  These things have not been expressed because they are the unique flavorings that the young writer brings with themselves, having learned where their own voice fits in the gaps of a multitude of other voices.

Of course, so much about finding that unique voice rests on a number of other things we have already discussed: writing a million words, reading broadly, writing regularly.  As the writer evolves through these phases of growth the practice of creating first drafts in              accordance with Natalie Goldberg’s basic rules becomes more and more valuable not only for getting the work done, but for finding that unique voice.  Recall that Goldberg tells us, among several things, to 1) keep our hand moving, 2) don’t think, and 3) be specific in our details.  By combining these practices with our experience of reading, we will indeed find at least a glimmer of our own voice starting to appear.  From their we will revise and revise until that voice comes through.  With enough work the diligent writer stands a very good chance of breaking through.

Within the attentive mind all of those voices, those writing styles and stories, become a sort of map for finding the place where one’s own work belongs.  When all of these elements are combined the young writer builds inertia and this inertia creates a kind of buffer on which the writer is carried over the rocky landscape of the literary terrain.  By studying the opening paragraph of a number of works the writer can find a new paradigm for her own opening.  The same can be said for finding one’s way through the middle of a story, for handling difficult plot concepts, pieces of description, and effective, stunning endings.

Admiring another writer’s style is well and good for appreciating literature overall, and for practicing style and voice as part of learning.  After that the serious writer must leave behind the desire to imitate.  With so many voices vying to be heard across an ocean of media outlets it is as important as ever to foster a unique style.  By reading widely the novice writer may hear the singular timbre of their own voice among the chorus, may find the inertia to carry them into the fray, and thus join in the conversation as a peer once and for all.