Well, hey there.
I’ve just finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s short story collection, Fresh Complaint, and now I’m on to a couple of nonfiction books: David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Oh, and Matthew Norman’s Domestic Violets. That seems like a lot of reading, but I’m sort of muddling through at the moment. Reading has been an inconsistent experience for awhile now, hasn’t it?
As the past year has worn on, newsletters have started to feel like little missives from faraway lands. I’ve subscribed to many, and unsubscribed to a handful. I’ve devoured archives, and left others unread. Those that click with me are doing a great job of reminding me that people are still out there in the world, making things and thinking about things.
One recent discovery is Mason Currey’s Subtle Maneuvers. Each week he’ll choose an artist and investigate their process. How do they think about work? What does that work mean to them? Are they dead? Did their work kill them?
Once a month, too, Currey takes questions from his readers. The most recent question comes from a writer who, upon finishing a project, reports feeling lost and incapable of starting the next. The question and Currey’s reply are both interesting, but he referenced one author whose point of view really landed for me:
Often I believe I’m working toward a result, but always, once I reach the result, I realize all the pleasure was in planning and executing the path to that result.
Currey attributes this to Sarah Manguso, from her book Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. I’m not familiar with Manguso’s work, but this observation sharply revealed flaws in my own process. Flaws that I’ve been consciously trying to work out this year. I realize it’s not that different from it’s the journey, not the destination, stupid, but hey, it worked for me.
My wife, Felicia, is quite good at this thing (unlike me): She derives pleasure from each project based on the doing of it, not the finishing of it, or the sharing of it. Lately, she’s using a new sock-knitting machine, and with each project is learning the intricacies of how it works. The process satisfies her; the process of making is enough. She’ll never describe herself as an artist, despite the hundreds of tangible, beautiful things I’ve watched her create since we met. She doesn’t need anyone else to see her as one, or to tell her how good she is, or how expert a finished piece looks; she’s immune, I think, to any need for external validation.
I’m the absolute inverse. As a kid, I always admired the silent, mysterious types in books and movies I watched; maybe, I think, that’s because I see myself that way, and I’m so obviously not that way. When I’m writing, I need to talk about it. Even though each day’s brilliant idea will fall apart tomorrow, and be replaced with a new one, I have to share that idea, in detail, and pair it with some metaphor or anecdote that codifies it into something meaningful. When I finish a project, I want it to be in people’s hands. I want to know what they think of it.
This is…poisonous. If not all the time, then at least a good amount of the time. It’s limiting, this need to see yourself through another person’s eyes. And later, when you’re sitting alone at a desk, struggling to create something, you aren’t really alone. You’re sitting there with a thousand strangers, trying to make a thing that’ll please all of them.
There’s pleasure to be found in the quiet work of making something. Before it’s shared. Before anyone else knows about it. Before it’s held up for scrutiny. Pleasure in making something that is, at least for a while, exclusively yours. That only has to excite you.
During this year of isolation, writing has been challenging. For months at a time, it felt impossible. For other months, it felt necessary. I’ve been writing mostly in a vacuum. In September, I finally handed in a project for which my editor had been patiently waiting, and then, after a few weeks of not writing at all, I began a project for me.
This new project—I described it a bit in a recent newsletter, I know—is a deeply personal one. It’s also extremely challenging…and very, very fun. I am not writing daily, but I write more days than not. The project turns itself over and over in my head fairly constantly. Several times in the last week I’ve rolled over in bed, or woken up from sleep, to dash off some idea that’s just come together.
Last summer, I took Nina LaCour’s Slow Novel Lab workshop. During one of the regular Q&A sessions, as we all discussed our projects, I described this one. I thought it might be an epistolary novel, told entirely through letters and journals and things, and confessed that I’d never done this before. Nina’s advice was simple: “Revel. Just revel in this exciting challenge of writing something that demands something new of you.” I wrote this down, then mostly forgot about it. I mean, I’m not much for reveling.
But here I am, several months later, and…that’s exactly what I’m doing. The challenge is exciting. I wrote thirty thousand words, then one of those middle-of-the-night realizations occurred, and I went back to page one and started writing them again, fitting the narrative to a new, stronger frame that gives the story a real shape, and some urgency. Not urgency to finish—but narrative propulsion, I guess you could say, where little previously existed.
Manguso’s note sums up this project for me. I’m unfolding this story as I go, trying things I’ve never tried before, and seeing what works or doesn’t. The push and pull of it all, the doing and redoing, is extraordinarily satisfying to me. I suppose most of that is because I’ve learned to enjoy the work of writing. Not the finishing, so much, or the business of it. I mean the rewriting, the demolition and restructuring.
I’m not just a writer; I earn my living as a designer. What I’ve discovered is that these two paths don’t exist separately from one another, but that they’re in constant conversation. Revision is as critical to the process of designing software as it is to writing a novel. Without spending years developing that skill as a designer, I’m not sure I could have found pleasure in revising novels. At least, I think it would have been much more difficult. And design teaches you a way of looking at problems that can be extended to almost any problem, regardless of specialty or industry or medium; the way you approach a problem—the research you do, the investigation of constraints, the study of guides and libraries—is the act of design, not the pixel-pushing. That’s taught me a real sense of confidence in regards to writing work. Now and then, an editorial note comes down that just shakes the foundations. But because it can now be pulled apart, just the way a design project can be, it can be understood, and then tackled.
And both writing and design have taught me things about myself. Namely, to be open to, even excited about, a constant state of self-evaluation and self-revision. There’s no such thing as arriving; there’s only steady progression, or stagnation. The more pleasure we find in the doing and undoing, the pattern-rewriting, the unlearning and re-learning, the better artists we can be. The better people.
It’s important to be clear about all of this nonsense: I am not great at any of it yet. I am open to it, willing to contend with the things I learn about the work or myself. Contending is how we grow; we grow, often, after screwing up an awful lot. Sometimes a lot more than we’re comfortable with. (I am very adept at this part.) If we’re open to all of this work, then it’s possible, as Manguso wrote, to find pleasure in the work itself, rather than the outcome of the work.
This is a rather different take from Dorothy Parker’s famous observation:
I hate writing, I love having written.
I subscribed to notion this once. Maybe we all do. It’s more interesting when it seems like writing is this mysterious obligation that none of us can refuse. That worked for me once, but then it just seemed like an exhausting put-on. The truth is, I like to write. I like to erase, too, and rewrite. It’s all hard! It’s very rarely not hard. But when I’m done, I want to take what I’ve learned, and go do it again. (And learn something new.)
That feels a little like progress, or something.
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