I left the house early last Friday to meet a young writer for coffee. She was the friend of a friend, and she’d sent me an email saying she was working on a novel, and wondered if I’d talk to her about writing. Her timing was perfect. I’ve been thinking about the creative process a lot lately–not just about writing, but painting, and music, and cooking, and making beautiful handmade goods–and I see how the rules about craft and artistry are the same, no matter the final creation. It also helped that in the last few weeks, I’ve either heard something on the radio or friends have sent links to articles or essays that inspired me to think about my own work and the commitment I’ve made to this crazy, maddening, life.
We to met at Cafe de la Presse, downtown. It was early enough that the streets were quiet, the sidewalk freshly washed. The morning was uncharacteristically warm, so I, being first to arrive, sat by the open window and watched the shadows recede. What would I tell this young woman? What did I wish someone had told me? I wanted to be encouraging and I wanted to be honest. These are some of the thoughts I shared:
True Grit – Not long ago, I heard an interview with Jonah Lehrer, author of the Imagine: How Creativity Works, who argues that being a successful writer, painter, composer, inventor, etc., has less to do with high IQ scores, or talent, or even inspiration, and more to do with stubbornness, deliberate practice (think back to Malcom Gladwell’s New Yorker article “Late Bloomers“), and the psychological trait known as “grit,” defined by researchers as a “a consistency of passion and a consistency of effort.” Think of grit as one’s willingness to become obsessed with an idea or project, and not be detered or discouraged by setbacks. It’s determination and tenacity. Here’s what Jonah Lehrer (he’s the guy with the glasses) has to say. He talks about grit in relation to writing, but I think it’s true of any creative endeavor:
I can relate to what Lehrer is describing. They say it takes a first-time author seven to ten years to write their first novel. It took me twelve years to write Queen Sugar. I wrote five, sometimes six days a week, excluding holidays. The only time I didn’t write was when I was too sick, and even then I’d lie in bed thinking about my story. I don’t share this to brag. That’s just what happened. Queen Sugar wasn’t just a book, it was a world, a small universe to which I traveled every day. After a while, I forgot that I’d created it. It simply existed.
I remember a walk I once took with a friend. “How do you do it?” she wanted to know. “How do you sit at your desk, hour after hour, day after day, year after year? I’m not that disciplined.” I remember just shrugging, unable to offer a satisfactory explanation. I thought back on the eleven years I’d spent working at my family’s business, selling aluminum to aircraft and aerospace companies. I was desperately unhappy. I wanted to write, in fact, I’d write every day after work, but I was afraid to take the plunge. Then I met a guy named Ramon who, after listening to me whine and complain, said simply: “Make your decision and chart your course.” . . . Make your decision and chart your course. So clear. So simple. It was the best advise I’ve ever received. Two months later, I gave notice. So, the only explanation I could offer my friend was that for me, writing is a privilege. I spent so many years wishing I could write every day, that when I finally had a chance, I didn’t want to squander a moment.
And then there’s this: once I started writing, it never occurred to me to stop. There were days when the words flowed like water, and I lost track of time. Days when the another piece of the puzzle fell into place and I’d have trouble sleeping because I couldn’t wait to get back to the computer. But there were plenty of dark days too; days when having a root canal would have been less painful; days when, after sitting at the computer for hours, I’d only have a single, measly paragraph to show for my efforts, and sometimes, not even that. Writing Queen Sugar took me to the outer reaches of my creativity and emotional places to which I never thought I’d go. I experienced moments of pure ecstasy and moments utter despair. In the darkest hours, I’d call my friends and say, “I can’t do this. Who am I fooling? This story is too big. Who am I to think I can tell it?” and they’d have to talk me back from the edge. And yet . . . And yet . . . I never dreamed of walking away. Not when a trusted reader told me she thought my main character was ruining the story, not when an editor to whom I’d given the manuscript, thinking it was finished, suggested I scrap it and start over. Because even when I’m miserable and discouraged and exhausted, I’m also strangely content. Call it stubborness, call it grit, call it obsession, or pure insanity, I know I’ll never abandon this writing life.
The morning I had coffee with the young woman I warned her. “Writing this novel is going to take longer than you think,” I said. “And just know that when you’re positive you’ve given it everything you have, you’re going to have to give more.”
“I’m ready,” she said. “I love writing.”
“Good,” I said. “Remember that feeling. Hold on to that enthusiasm, because you’re going to need it.”
Art is work – My friend Gregory composes classical music. Once, at a residency, we sat at the piano and he walked me through a concerto with which he’d been struggling for months. The second movement was covered with pencil smudges and eraser marks and crossings-out. In some places, he’d erased so much the paper was almost worn through. I’d never seen a score before, but I recognized the process of creation and revision, the struggle to translate what he heard and imagined into something tangible. “This looks like one of my chapters,” I said, struck by how similar our processes were. It was the first time I understood that there was really no difference between writing a novel and composing a concerto or sculpting a figure from a mound of clay. At some point, the fantasy, the magic, and the dreaminess falls away, and the creative process becomes work. Good work, intensely fulfilling work, but work nonetheless.
“How many times have you revised your novel?” the young woman asked.
I thought of the binders stacked up in my office. “Nine times? Maybe ten? Honestly, I’ve lost count.”
Then I told her the story of my second residency at Ragdale. It was the summer of 2010. I’d worked on the novel for eleven years, and believing I was finished, I sent it to a small handful of agents. Two said “no,” immediately, but the other three wrote back to say they liked it very much. The characters were clearly drawn; the setting unfamiliar and compelling. They offered detailed feedback and criticism and said if I decided to revise again, I was welcomed to resubmit. I was close, they said . . . just not close enough for them to offer representation. I’m not exaggerating when I say that was the hardest, most depressing summer of my life. The day I received the final rejection letter, I sat on the steps and wept. To be so close to the finish line was almost more excruciating than losing by a mile. I took the manuscript with me to Ragdale, not knowing if I had any juice left. I’d given the book everything I had . . . or so I thought. Then, in the cab on the way to Lake Forest, I read an interview with a young singer who talked about never giving up on her music. She didn’t care what obstacles she faced or how many times people said no. Nothing would stop her from realizing her dream. I thought, “Well, if she can do it, so can I.” Until that moment, I wasn’t sure. Still, I spent the first five days working on short stories because the act of opening the binder that held the manuscript, let alone reading the first chapter was physically painful; like swallowing broken glass.
I told this story to the young woman. “So get ready,” I said. “Because writing your story is going to be the hardest thing you ever do.”
Which brings me to the third idea I’ve been contemplating. My friend, Dylan, sent a link to an essay by Jonathan Franzen who says, ” . . . Literature cannot be a mere performance: Unless the writer is personally at risk–unless the book has been, in some way, for the writer, and adventure into the unknown; unless the writer has set himself or herself a personal problem not easily solved–it’s not worth reading. Or for the writer . . . not worth writing. . . As as writer, nowadays, you owe it to your readers to set yourself the most difficult challenge that you have some hope of being equal to. And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that the next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have to dig even deeper and reach even farther, or else, again, it won’t be worth writing. And what that means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself.”
I have an idea for the next book and I’ve been asking myself, “Who will I have to become to write it? What will it ask of me? Where will I have to go?” I’m terrified, but I must say, I’m always intrigued. Because looking back, I can see that I’m not the same person I was when I started Queen Sugar. I’ve been tempered by the process. I’m still dreamy, but I’m more clear-eyed too, bolder and less well-mannered. Writing Queen Sugar forced me to be more honest, more vulnerable, and less cautious. I had to be, or I knew the work wouldn’t be true. And now that I’m looking ahead to the next book, I know I’ll have to do exactly what Franzen says. I’ll have to dig deeper, be even more honest. I’ll have to expose my self to more, feel more, BE MORE, and not turn away if I want the work to be good and true.
When I finished Franzen’s essay, I printed the quote and pasted it into an album I’ve decided to keep. I want to chronicle the next leg of my journey. I have no idea where the road will lead, who I’ll meet along the way, or who I’ll be when I reach the end. But I can say, I’ll won’t regret a single step. That’s the thing about writing, about art, about living a creative life. You know, going in, that it’s going to be a fantastic adventure. Painful, yes, and scary, but also rich and satisfying.
Beyond the open window, the city had come to life. Busses and cars and tourists had begun to fill the streets. It was time for me to go. I thought about trying to explain this last point to the young woman sitting across from me. But no. A person has to experience some things for herself.
“I hope I’ve said something you’ve found helpful,” I said. “I feel like I’ve talked your ear off.”
“You have,” she said. “And you haven’t. Not at all.”
“O.K., then. Stay in touch,” I said. “Let me know how it goes. And most of all, good luck.”
Good luck most of all.