Permission and practice
Permission and practice
Some thoughts on the creative process, from smarter folks than me
I'm on vacation! Spending it at home working on The Dark Age and having tickle fights with Squish and playing Carcassonne with the fam. As I write this, it's Monday, the final day of an insane heat wave here in the northwest. Yesterday the highest local temperature I saw was 111℉; today we might top that.
This week, a few thoughts I've borrowed from better-known, more-experienced artists about getting the most out of your creative process, whatever it might be:
Ethan Hawke on creativity
Last year, Ethan Hawke gave a remote TED Talk on the subject of creativity and permission:
I think that most of us really want to offer the world something of quality, something that the world will consider good or important. And that's really the enemy, because it's not up to us whether what we do is any good. And if history has taught us anything, the world is an extremely unreliable critic.
About why the arts are important:
Do you think human creativity matters? Well, hmm. Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry. Right? They have a life to live, and they’re not really that concerned with Allen Ginsberg’s poems or anybody’s poems, until their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart, they don’t love you anymore, and all of a sudden, you’re desperate for making sense out of this life, and, “Has anybody ever felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?”
Or the inverse—something great. You meet somebody and your heart explodes. You love them so much, you can’t even see straight. You know, you’re dizzy. “Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me?” And that’s when art’s not a luxury, it’s actually sustenance. We need it.
On finding out who we are as creative people:
First we have to survive, and then we have to thrive. And to thrive, to express ourselves, all right, well, here's the rub: We have to know ourselves. What do you love? And if you get close to what you love, who you are is revealed to you, and it expands.
Mads Mikkelsen on making everything the most important thing
Mikkelsen was interviewed earlier this year about his career:
Is there a life philosophy that you feel has carried you through your career?
My approach to what I do in my job—and it might even be the approach to my life—is that everything I do is the most important thing I do. Whether it’s a play or the next film. It is the most important thing. I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. That’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something—a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.
My wife Felicia lives according to a similar principle: How you do anything is how you do everything. It serves her well.
There's little coherence to the writing career I've built so far: From self-published science fiction novels to grown-up literary fantasies to coming-of-age young adult stories. Right now it just looks like a mess. But maybe, if I take each one of those things seriously as they come, when I look back in thirty or forty years, I'll be able to make some sense of it.
Or maybe it's not about the things I've created in that span of time, but what those things say about me.
Kiese Laymon on not being good enough not to practice
Laymon, the author of Heavy and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, wrote this excellent blog post in 2015. Here's a snippet:
One of the hardest parts of writing is committing to a routine, committing to regular practice. That's crucial. I write and revise almost 4 hours a day because I don't have kids yet, and I'm not good enough not to practice. You probably aren't either. If you don't commit to a routine, you're likely to think everything you finish is good simply because you wrote it. It's not. It's probably really somewhere around just okay, or lightweight bad. But even that lightweight bad work is important because there's likely a sentence, a paragraph, a word or two in the piece that's doing some important work. It's okay to write 3000 words to find 15 that really glow. That is the work.
We're not good enough to not practice.
The whole piece is worth reading. If you let it, it becomes a mantra.
The post ends with this:
You come from a lineage of wonderful practitioners whose practice eventually saved lives. Even Baldwin, Morrison, and Hurston practiced.
We're not good enough to not practice.
It doesn't matter how accomplished you are, how musical your sentences sound, how many awards sit on your shelves. The work of an artist is practice.
John Swartzwelder on how he writes a Simpsons script
If you don't know who John Swartzwelder is, that's all right. I didn't, either. (He wrote for The Simpsons for 13 years.) As described by Mike Sacks in the New Yorker:
Swartzwelder has been deemed “one of the greatest comedy minds of all time.” He is famously private and never grants interviews.
(I confess, I haven't watched much of The Simpsons and its 327 seasons. I do have a favorite episode: "Homer at the Bat," in which the Springfield nuclear plant's company softball team is stacked with ringers from the major leagues. That episode was fuel for the ongoing debate between me and my childhood best friend. Wyatt had Ken Griffey, Jr., posters on his bedroom wall. I wore a Darryl Strawberry T-shirt. In "Homer at the Bat," Strawberry comes out smelling like a rose: He hits home runs on command; he shows his sensitive side; he's Mr. Burns's favorite. Griffey, on the other hand, naively drinks Mr. Burns's snake oil and is sidelined by the side effects. Of course, in real life, while Strawberry had a solid career—and struggled with a slew of personal demons—Griffey wound up in the Hall of Fame, and ranks 7th on the all-time home run list. I think Wyatt won the debate.)
Anyway, back to Swartzwelder. Though he was a stranger to me, what drew me to the interview was his writing process:
How much time and attention did you spend on these scripts? Another “Simpsons” writer once compared your scripts to finely tuned machines—if the wrong person mucked with them, the whole thing could blow up.
All of my time and all of my attention.
Sounds a bit like Mikkelsen, doesn't it? Swartzwelder continues:
It’s the only way I know how to write, darn it. But I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.
"I've taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting": The interview is worth its weight in words just for this one nugget, I think. So many writers shy away from the revision process in the beginning; the ones who hone their craft discover its power, and embrace it.
I've experimented with versions of what Swartzwelder describes here, and have had the most success not with writing skeleton chapters with placeholder dialogue or setting, but with writing progressively detailed outlines. My first outline is always pretty loose: It gives me the general shape of the project, and lets me start writing. Eventually, though, my writing starts to meander, and I realize I don't have enough detail about where I'm really going. That's when I'll take a step back, write a new and more detailed outline, and that'll carry me through the full draft.
(I've made the mistake before of trying to write a very detailed outline up front, and that almost never works for me. Outlines that begin as amorphous blobs and gain clarity over successive drafts, however, almost always teach me something about what kind of book I'm writing.)
"But it's easy for them, they're already successful..."
How many times have you witnessed some new creative talent burst onto the scene whose ability just leaves you breathless? For a moment, you stand in awe at the universe that somehow permitted this person to succeed...and then you find out their dad was a famous actor, or their mom is a studio exec.
For most of us, the road doesn't take a straight path to success. Our road is knotted, tangled; sometimes it gets lost in the undergrowth, and we have to hack it clear; sometimes the road's washed out, and we fall into a ravine.
So far as I can tell, none of the four people I mentioned above got to where they are because someone else opened all the doors for them. Ethan Hawke's mother was a charity worker, his father an insurance man. Mads Mikkelsen's father was a cab driver. Kiese Laymon's mother was a teacher. Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia knows almost nothing about John Swartzwelder's parents...but they probably didn't run Fox TV.
It appears all four of these people just did the work. They're all at a stage of their career where they can look back over a breadth of work and understand something about themselves. They already know the outcome of their work; they've built noteworthy careers. Yet they're still doing the work. They're not good enough, and never will be, to not do the work. And neither are we.
As Ron Hogan writes in his newsletter, work the process, not the outcome.
Retaining a little mystery
You know, I almost didn't read the Mikkelsen interview. I once enjoyed profiles like these; these days they sometimes strip away what I appreciated about the subject in the first place, or tell you something about the artist that changes your ability to enjoy their work.
An example of what I mean: While the band was never a favorite of mine, I enjoyed listening to The National here and there...until I heard them dissect a song on the Song Exploder podcast. There they described their process like this:
- One of them might record an interesting riff
- Then they send the riff to the singer, who records himself mumbling nonsense words on top of it
- Ta-da: A song
Before I heard that interview, the band's lyrics felt complex and challenging, like little puzzles to reason out. But there's something about knowing the band's actual process that, for me, robs their songs of their power or meaning.
By contrast, a single well-written line can transform how much I care about a songwriter's work. Josh Ritter's a great example of this. When someone shared Ritter with, some 15 years ago, I just didn't click with his music. A few years after that, though, I heard his song "Thin Blue Flame". That song is bursting with great lines, like Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs or The lake was a diamond in the valley's hand—but the one that imprinted itself on me was The trees were a fist shaking themselves at the clouds. I still think of that line when I see trees sometime. And ever since, I've listened to anything Ritter releases.
(Which will probably change when I see the inevitable interview in which Ritter reveals that his process involves getting high on cough syrup and throwing darts at a bulletin board covered with nouns and verbs.)
Here I am talking about the notion of retaining some sort of mystery about process and art...while producing a weekly newsletter about process and art. We are all filled with contradictions.
Tune in next week for another Dark Age newsletter (and sign up for those if you haven't already).
In the meantime: Practice!
✏️Until next week,
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