Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Advice to Writers (and Other Creative Types)

I. The Purpose of Advice

Advice is worth squat, in terms of teaching us what we don't know.

NOTE: I'm not talking about advice on stuff like how to change the mechanism in your toilet tank, which I recently had to do.
[Doesn't this toilet flapper look like a certain starship?]
That's not advice; for people like me, that's lifesaving.

No, I mean "Advice on How to Live the Creative Life," specifically advice to writers.

It's good stuff, but its purpose, I'd say, is not to advise us.
Rather, its purpose is to be a
permission slip
marching orders
affirming mirror
of what we already know. But that we don't credit enough, or are afraid to act on or commit to.

When it comes to advice, most of us are like Rose, Olympia Dukakis's character in the movie Moonstruck: we're looking for a reflection of what we already sense is true.

Rose's husband is having an affair, and she goes around asking everyone why men chase women. She suspects it's because they fear death.
People give her different answers, which she brushes off. When someone finally says, "It's because they fear death," she is elated.
"That's it!" she says. "Thank you for answering my question!"

We like to give advice for the same reasons, eh?
We get to shore up the constantly eroding shores of our beliefs.

If both adviser and would-be-writer need to say it and hear it a million times, it's not because we don't know it but because somehow we don't do it.

I mean, come on: what possible use could it be to advise writers to set aside time for writing?
That's not advice.
That's stating the bloody obvious.

Unless you're a blithering idiot, you've figured out that you have to sit down and write to be a writer, and that means taking time for yourself.
Time you don't have because you have a baby/job/sick parent/dry houseplants/dirty hair that all legitimately need attending to.

The use of that piece of advice isn't that it imparts information but that it gives us a permissions to be selfish, to take like a toddler.
If you're not brave enough to be selfish, you probably aren't going to create much personal work.

If I were to give advice to myself or any other writer/artist/creator, that'd be first:

No. 1. Cultivate Selfishness
No one's going to give you what you need to write, and probably no one's going to thank you for taking it.

And second:
No. 2. Take Your Life Seriously.

(Ooh... already I'm getting that rush people get when we write lists of advice--makes us feel like we have a clue. Could be addictive.)

II. The G Element

Here's what I think:
Hard work--making time to write and all that--is 99 percent of success.
So, by all means, let's take time to write, read, research...

But if you don't have that mysterious 1 percent of the G element (grace/genius/guts), you'll just be a hardworking success no one reads tomorrow.

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see."
— Arthur Schopenhauer

Is there anything we can do to cultivate the G element?
(Sheesh. This sounds like a crap bestselling book.)

Well, I think there is.

We all have some genius---the Roman term meant one's guiding spirit:
the genie in the bottle.
We all see something no one else can see:
what it looks like when we look out of our eyes.

The genie feels all warm and floaty and protected its confinement, like a baby growing in the womb.
So, how to get the genie out of the bottle?

I think we know, even if we don't want to.
We could probably all write a list of advice--advice to ourselves.

So, here's my Advice to Myself and Others Who Would Pursue a Creative Life.
(The first 2 are above.)

3. Get Into Yourself
The only--only--raw material we artists have is our selves. We may work on paper, bronze, musical notes, binary code, wool, whatever, but the matter is our own being.
Attend to it.
As a friend who is a huge proponent of therapy says, "Do your work."

4. Get Out of Yourself
After we've mined our past, done our therapy, written our memoirs, we might want to look around.
We are not alone.

This may be a special challenge for Americans.
It was for me.
NOT because Americans are a mutant species of humanity, but because [relative] privilege and geopolitical isolation on a huge continent are like lube--they reduce the friction of rubbing up against others.

5. Get Over Yourself
It's human to get attached to stuff we make.
Get over it.
Criticism is hard to take.
But here's a weird thing: praise is not necessarily any easier.

For me, praise triggers more of the shame-and-blame cycle than criticism. Because praise makes me want to figure out what I did to deserve it, and then keep doing it.
If this isn't a killer recipe, I don't know what is.

Criticism makes me retreat to my bed.
But if/when I get up and write again, I know it's because I want to, other people's criticism notwithstanding.

6. Figure Out What Success Means to You
If you want to make money as a creator, say, praise/criticism will be a good guide--like an invisible electric fence.
It will give you a shock when you go outside its perimeters.

On the other hand, if authenticity is what makes you happy, take this fence too seriously and you'll imprison yourself.

Once when I was out for a walk, a border collie came rushing out of her unfenced yard, up to me. Her person called her back, explaining to me that there was an invisible fence, but
"She's learned that if she runs fast enough, it doesn't hurt."
The woman's golden retriever had stayed happily within the yard.

It pays to figure out what type you are.
A golden doesn't thrive without boundaries. If you need them, put them in place.

Western culture tends to hero-ify those who rush through borders. Or else it shoots them as they try to get through.
But that's rubbish.
It's who you are that determines how tightly you need to be held or how much open space you need.

7. There's No Right or Wrong Way; Its Your Way All the Way

This--self-determination--is an element of all the above steps, but it deserves to stand on its own, because it's hard to believe. Or, it has been for me. It's been hard for me to grant this truth to others; but that's key too.

8. You Have Genius
Believe it.


Anonymous said...

Hey! Yay! UR BAAAACK!! If I didn't see a post by the middle of this week, I was gonna start looking for you lying prostrate on some snow bank out near the lakes or poised with fingers flittering over the keayboard at some local java joint. Happy to see this; made me laugh out loud and warmed me up after a 6mile trek over the lake paths over to SLP, which was pleasant enough, butd me to the bones! Have to finish reading this post, but I LOVE IT so far, especially the inspirational pix. There are some spiritual parallels, geometric similarities and shared symbolic resonances between the 2 objects you chose, (which I think are both able to convey great feelings of adventure, power and security/insecurity--depending on their states of repair/disrepair and where we find them. Certain birth control devices and nasal irrigation systems share many of these traits. Do you agree?) My brain is all hyper from walking and then reading your work!

ArtSparker said...

Lately I've been considering something that relates to several of your points...it's a mistake to put one's talent at the service of one's ego/individulaity, rather than the other way around. This may have something to do with discomfort around praise, sometimes it addresses the ego rather than the work.

Fresca said...

STEF: You always make me laugh--thanks! The similiarity of toilet-tank flappers to the Enterprise was easy for me to see, but you take it that one step further---to birth control devices!
And the genie's pot is a neti pot!
Of course. How did I miss that...

ARTS: That's a great way to put it: the ego serves the talent, not the other way round."

Mmm... and yes, praise and/or criticism of the work iteslf *is* very useful. When I interpret it as praise/criticism of "me", I lose that value.
Both are part of what I mean by "get OVER myself."

Some of this stuff seems so obvious, it could be bumper stickers. But looked at closely, from inside, it's much more complex.
It's not theory for theory's sake, it's our lives, and how we live them.

momo said...

My dear, I stumbled across a site today of a writer giving advice to other writers about gettign published, and I thought of you: because I love reading your writing, and I would love to read any book of yours.

The Crow said...

I was thinking of doing a post on finally figuring out what I want to be when I grow up (a writer) and synchronicity strikes, yet again! Here you've given some very sage advice for writers and I intend to put it to good use.

Thank you, Fresca.


Lee said...

Great suggestions! Hope you don’t mind my jumping in with comments on each one. :-)

No. 1. Cultivate Selfishness

The farther I’ve come in writing, the clearer it gets: if you’re going to excel, you’re going to have to be selfish. It’s a rather terrible thing sometimes, since those around you may suffer for that selfishness. But the good news is, if creativity is what you REALLY need and want to do, then you’ll probably make those around you happier than you would if you were less selfish but more alienated from the wellsprings of your life.

No. 2. Take Your Life. Seriously.

I don’t see how anyone can make anything of great value who doesn’t see themselves, the world, and the life they are living as miracles deserving—nay, demanding—a creative response.

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see."

Awesome quote! Schopenhauer rocks! (aside from his views on women, I mean)

3. Get Into Yourself

The sources of creativity are within us, that’s right. We need to cultivate this inwardness because, in fact, few of us are naturally good at it. We are reflective in that we reflect what is outside us instead of “reflecting” on what is in us. So turn off TVs, internets, music, etc.! Get bored! Make silence! Make time! Make space!

4. Get Out of Yourself

What’s inside us cannot do it all alone, I agree: we need to seed our creative water vapor with big and little gritty bits of world.

5. Get Over Yourself

I think, in creativity, you have to come to terms with the fact you’re serving something larger and greater than yourself. YOU are not the point! What you are MAKING is the point! If you yourself are the point then you’re just, creativity-wise, jacking off. (And please note that although many great creators were very into themselves most of the time, I’m convinced they were NOT into themselves while actually creating. Indeed, at such times they may have even been the most selfless persons imaginable. In which case creators are often this bizarre blend of egomaniac and mystic all in the same body!)

6. Figure Out What Success Means to You

Sometimes I contemplate the fact that actually being “successful” might hurt me, both as a human being and a creator. Would my “career” and sales rankings and reviews become more important than just creating things and living joyfully in the world? In short, be careful what you wish for.

7. There's No Right or Wrong Way; Its Your Way All the Way

No matter what you do, go balls deep!

8. You Have Genius

Another way to phrase this is, “you are capable of ACTS of genius.” I like this because it lifts the burden of having to feel (or of not feeling) like you ARE a genius. If genius isn’t a thing you ARE—like being a man, or short, or in Minnesota—then it’s something that could flash out of the darkness if only you’re patient and work hard and get lucky. That ol’ cliché about untapped potential being inside you—yes, it’s a cliché, but I’m convinced it’s true. But you have work hard for it to come out.

Or as Conan O’Brian so wisely put it, work hard and be kind. Do this, and you really can’t lose.

Fresca said...

MOMO: You're the second person to mention writing a book recently. I don't know if I have it in me to undertake such a long trek, but maybe I should give it a try....

CROW: You are a writer! Or do you mean, make your living as a writer?

LEE: Long time... Nice to see you.
Thanks for your thoughts.
The only place we really differ (besides anatomical references) is that last bit--I wouldn't say hard work and kindness are any guarantee we can't lose.

bink said...

Yeah, never listen to bink, she's just bink, she doesn't count... :) ...just want to mention that I've been suggesting a book for how long...? including recently... and yet I know I've not been been counted among the "2" who recently mentioned you should write a book.

Fresca said...

You're right, bink, but I DID listen to you about those Spartans and their lack of humor!

Lee said...

I meant "can't lose" in the narrow context of creativity. Work hard + right attitude= finding/winning your own success.

By the way, have you seen "Dodgeball." "Go balls deep!" is a line from that movie and refers to playing dodgeball with all you've got. Women can do it too, since in dodgeball women have balls. :-)

deanna said...

Fantastic post and comments. If my computer weren't driving me bats, I might add more. You realize, though, (and maybe this is my golden retriever side speaking) that if you presented these eight points as chapters to an agent, you might well be on your way to selling a book. You could do the work of adding more layers and depth to each statement, and dang it lady you'd sell copies.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, or that you'd wish to do that...I'm just sayin'.

bookworm said...

Thank you - this post was just what I wanted to hear!

And yes- you should write a book!

Jennifer said...

"The G Element" is so very much a the name of a bestselling book on unlocking your creative genius. :) I like your advice. Especially (for me right now) getting out of yourself. "Write what you know" sounds simple, but you also have to venture out and find out what (and who--especially who) we DON'T know and try to imagine it. Great stuff here and wonderful thoughtful fodder...

Fresca said...

Thanks, all.

I'm afraid comments are getting away from me.
Of course I eagerly read them all--they're forwarded to my e-mail, as you know-- and I am grateful for them, but lately there've been a few more than I'm used to and I find I'm not responding to them all promptly...
Sort of a nice problem to have!

JEN: The G Element sounds like a weird variation on the G Spot, eh? : )

Jennifer said...

Darn you for getting me hooked on Mortmere and then, via the joy of "you might be interested in this," various other Star Trek fan videos!

Have you seen this one? I decided to leave the comment here as I think Kirk has the G Element in spades...albeit a sort of physical genius, in some ways...

Jennifer said...


Might want to actually leave the link... *facepalm*

Fresca said...

Oh, Jen, that--Kirk's "Razzle Dazzle" --is one of my all-time favorites! It is so perfect for the big schmoozer.
You noticed, I'm sure, the vidders include the pair who made "Closer." I have seen no one else edit mashups like they do.
Thanks for that---I need a good show-biz-bullshit pick-me-up when I get lost in seriousness (which is a lot).