A week ago Sunday I returned from a lovely few days of basking in writerly goodness—a writing retreat to Lummi Island, two events featuring Cheryl Strayed in the ‘ham, and then four days at AWP in Seattle. Coming down over the past week has been a gentle process. I’ve been motivated to work. This blog a day thing is keeping me writing. The daily haikus, too. I’m also reading a lot about writing. I finished Theo Pauline Nestor’s Writing is My Drink—wonderful book, motivating, inspiring. I just bought Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. I had the privilege of hearing her read a bit from it at AWP. Can’t wait to read it.
Currently I’m reading Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The first edition of this book came out in 2001 and it’s currently in it’s 13th printing, so it’s done quite well for a slim volume on art.
I noticed on the end cap on the Memoir section at Village Books the other day—I’m always hovering around the Memoir section, hoping something will happen (irrational, I’m aware)—and there it was, speaking to me as so many of the books do. I passed it by twice before I finally gave in and bought it.
I’m not quite half way through as I type this—turns out it is one of those books best savored over a couple of weeks rather than inhaled overnight. Every night I pick it up and read a few pages. I toss it in my book bag as well and take it with me in case I have time to read something other than my iPhone during the day.
Here’s the first line from the first chapter: “Making art is difficult.” I’m hooked. Go on. The book seeks to answer, I think, these questions: If art is so damn hard, how does it even get done at all? What are the obstacles that artists must overcome to create?
I only have to get to page four to find this nugget: “Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do and what you did.” Isn’t that the truth? How different is that paragraph I just wrote from the one that I thought I was going to write five minutes ago? The paragraph in my head practically danced off the page it was so lively, but now there’s this big brown poop pile of words that I actually typed and it bears absolutely no resemblance to what I intended to type. Why is that?
Bayles and Orland would argue that we need to type out many, many ugly piles of mediocre art in order to get to the one golden paragraph, the golden paragraph that shines the proverbial light in the inevitable darkness. Our job, the authors so helpfully point out, is to learn from our work. They say that “the function of the overwhelming majority of [our] artwork is to simply teach [us] how to make the small fraction of [our] artwork that soars.” We learn to work by doing our work.
Everyone has said this in every writing book I’ve read: Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Theo Nestor, Natalie Goldberg, Dani Shapiro are who pop into my head at the moment. . . we have to put our butts in the chairs, we have to churn out shitty first drafts, we have to live in The Cave. We have to do the work. Cheryl Strayed said it last week when she was in town for Whatcom Reads. Multiple panelists at AWP said it last week. The book is not going to write itself, the painting won’t paint itself.
They also stress the importance of audience. Most people quit producing art when they lose their audience. For many folks, this time comes immediately after finishing school because our audience is suddenly gone. No more teachers, classmates, peers, student showings. It all vanishes and no one has taught us how to find our audience.
The authors make two recommendations. First, make friends with others who make art and share your work. Second, start to think less about showing your work in, say, MoMa, and more about showing it to those friends who make are.
I’m not sure what my point is here except to say that for me, there are two realities about writing—at least for me. The first is that no matter how much I think about writing something, nothing happens until I start actually writing. The second thing is that community is good. A writing community—being among so many writers, so many people with the same purpose, last week awakened the sleeping lazy writer in me. If all these people can write books, so can I. Because they are here to talk about it—they are here to help, to light the way, to pat me on the back, and to just sit across the table from me behind another laptop, working with me.