Wearing the River Rock Down.
The most important thing, I’ve found is putting it away. Well, that’s not nearly important as picking it up again every day but we’re just going to go ahead and say that that is the bare minimum of a an artistic practice, and take that as a given: You’ve got to pick a target and stick with it, and you’ve got to make sure that target is achievable even in your lowest of energy slumps. At present, I’m writing a novel and I’m staying conscious about my artistic practice. Of the two of those things, the latter is infinitely more important than the former. I’ve been ‘writing a novel’ for years, and while that’s been fun, it’s gotten me a lot of interesting and unfinished projects and not a lot else. Working on the practice, however, has been one of the most exciting and soul nurturing things I’ve ever come across. I’m sticking to my commitments (becauase I keep them achievable,) I’m falling in love my art again (because I almost never burn out,) and a very exciting, self contained little story is coming to life (because I have the bravery to put the story away after a while and understand that it will be there tomorrow.
I was talking to my friend Brooks about his tennis practice and he says (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he aims for 60% power 100% of the time. If you go for those 100% swings all of the time, you’re going to hurt yourself. You’ll pull an elbow or a shoulder, or you’ll just plain miss. All you really need to do, is to keep that steady 60%. Keep the ball moving back and forth until you can find a weakness in your opponents defense and strike like hell.
I’m not sure that there is a one to one correlation between sports and art. Sports, after all, are about competition and art, one would hope, is about the art itself. But I turn to something I was often reminded while I was a competitive swimmer: you are only ever racing your best time. Perhaps that’s why enjoy this new approach to my practice so much. I’m not trying to beat a time or to get an idea down as fast as I can, but the same part of my brain that was activated while I was deep into lap 2 of the 100 fly, my shoulders on fire, my lungs feeling like they’re going to collapse from breathing so heavily that is also activated here on the page. The same part of my brain that has to tell me: “Maintain. Maintain. Stay in this until the finish line and push yourself just a little harder.”
Perhaps I’m lucky in the sense that if I am not making art of writing, things become very dark for me very quickly. I turn to substances (used broadly here to mean anything from candy to weed to pornography) to try to ease that ache that only a good mental workout can provide. But after years and years of just “Showing up on the page,” and getting nowhere with the stories I wanted to bring into the world, I realized that that wasn’t enough. If I were training for a race it wouldn’t be enough to just ‘show up in the pool’. I would need a distance goal that increased every week, with a variety of different workouts to train my endurance, my technique, my speed, and my breathing. Like I said the correlation isn’t one-to-one, but I think I’m making my point. To be a great artist (and ‘great’ here does not imply rich or famous. I define a great artist as someone who can bring their ideas into form. That’s it.) you need a goal to shoot toward. You need a practice.
My current practice is evolving. It’s in the embryonic stage and I know that. I’m humble about the fact that my life is actually very long, and I am in the first one hundred steps of the journey of a thousand miles. Knowing that, let me take you through what my practice looks like right now, where I’d like it to grow toward when its ready, and how things have been different for me since I made this change in my way of living.
I write inside my story every day. I have come to learn that plotting and planning your art (the ideation process) is incredibly important. I used to be what writers call a ‘pantser.’ Someone who ‘flys by the seat of their pants’ or whatever the phrase is. Someone who shows up at their desk and just starts writing, with no idea where the story is going to take them. It’s a fun and liberating process, and you really feel energized as word after word gets slapped down from your fingers. And who doesn’t love the constant clickety-clackety sound of a keyboard typing away? The only problem is: it doesn’t work.
When you’re writing a novel, it’s really true that you have to have some idea of how the story is going to end so that you can write to that ending. The best stories have a sense of inevitablity. That “of course all of the choices the characters made led up to this inevitable conclusion” kind of feeling. Don’t ask me why, it honestly seems kind of fatalist, but they do. As a pantser, I have had to sit down and get some outlines together. Admittedly, they’re still chaotic and all I can really hope for in terms of an outline is a “begining, middle, end” idea for whatever scene I’m working on, but a chaotic person like me it’s a good start.
But even though I’ve started outlining, making character profiles, and designing scene cards, none of those things are a part of my practice. Your practice is something you do every day without fail. And if you do fail, you don’t try to “make up for it” the next day by doing double. You just get back on the horse and you try to let the number of days you fail shrink and shrink as time goes on. All of the prewriting and planning I described is what I like to call being above the story. Looking at your work from a birds eye view so that you can see all the moving parts and how they fit together.
This, as I’ve already said, is a very important part of any creative project. If you’re making a mural, you should sketch it out. If you’re writing a song, you should pick a rhythym. If you’re starting a butt-plug business, you should make a business plan. You get the point. But even though being above the project is really important, I would often let that part of the process terrify and paralyze me. I would obsess over the moving parts, trying to make sure that they fit together perfectly before I even put one word to paper. If I were a busines owner, I wouldn’t sell any butt-plugs because I wouldn’t have even opened up my store because I would have spent a year looking for the perfect location, while also trying to design the perfect, hydrodynamic, totally original butt plug, while also making sure I had the perfect staff for each position. Can you see how I was teetering between absolute chaos and debilitating perfectionism?
This was something I delt with for a long, long time. I would either write myself into a corner by pantsing it, or not write anything at all because I’d spend all my writing time journaling on what I planned to write. This wasn’t an issue that was solved for me until I spoke with A.S. King, author of “Still Life With Tornado” an amazing YA novel about art, abuse, and identity. I asked her the question that had been baffling me for months: How much time do you spend above the story as oppsosed to inside the story. Her answer: I write 3,000 words of the novel every day without exception.
That began to clarify things for me. King said she wished she spent more time above the novel, making sure everything fit, but she also works and is a mother and it seems like if she had to pick one, she would pick writing inside the story.
So, that’s what my practice has been like since the beginning of summer. Every day without exception I write 1,000 words inside the story. I have my general outline and I’ve made sure to keep the story simple, and we’ve all read or watched or listened to so many stories that I think we intuitively know what pieces need to go where in a plot. I don’t write in order either. and I listen to my subconscious.
Putting it Away
Listening to my subconscious, or rather giving it the room to speak to me has also been a tremendous source of inspiration for me with this project. I’ve read that Hemingway always made sure to stop when he knew what was going to happen next so that he could pick up the next day where he left off. That kind of qualitative (rather than quantitative) thinking is important.
As an artist everything we DO is about the subconscious, the invisible and unseen, the darkness, the shadow. So if you’re not leaving room for your art to speak to you, then where are you going to get those soul nurturing ideas from? The ones that make you stop mid-jog, take out your headphones and say “oh my god that’s fucking brilliant.” Suddenly, your trilling with energy, you feel so jacked up you could punch through a wall. But you never would have gotten the idea if you hadn’t put the paint brush down and gone for the jog in the first place.
This metaphor is over-used so forgive me, but there’s a story of a man who spent his entire life chipping away at a mountain to create a more direct path for his village to get to water. By the end of his life, he’d done it. With small direct action every single day working toward a larger goal. The “progress” he made at the end of each individual day was probably negligible, maybe a foot, maybe only a few inches. But over the span of a lifetime, a few inches a day will get you there. When I’m writing I see my flow of ideas a slow moving, calming river, and the novel is a giant river rock that’s causing the water to swirl and eddy around. But if I can keep writing, if I can keep the water flowing, eventually the river rock will bend to the river, carved into a beautiful shape I can eventually sell in bookstores.
But to be able to keep the water flowing, I have to make sure I don’t run out of water, which is why after I write my 1,000 words (or more if more wants to come out of me) I have to have the courage to not write myself dry. To be humble and realize that I will probably not make any “significant” progress on the novel in just one day. Another way to put it is that I need to lower the bar of what I consider to be significant progress. Then I have to go about my day. I have to attend to whatever business life requires of me, I have to move my body, I have to workout, I have to spend time with friends or loved ones or my partner, anything to get me to stop thinking about the story so that my subconscious can have a turn.
At some point in the day (and the exciting thing is that this is happening with more and more frequency) I get an idea, or a scene comes to me, and I just have to smile to myself or write it down somewhere because I know that this means that my subconscious has spoken to me, and that I’ve got an assignment for next 1,000 words.
Eventually, as I get stronger, I am going to bump the word count up to 3,000 words but I’m honestly conflicted about that decision. I like having to say more with less. I like having no room to ramble (something you’d never guess by reading this essay). But even if I do get up to 3,000 words a day I understand that this piece of the practice is just the beginning of something much bigger.
The Quick and Dirty Technique
While I’m inside the story, I do not try to make it pretty. I don’t try to fill up my word count with fancy sentences. I don’t stress to much about layered themes or multiple plotlines converging in a single scene. That’s not where I am in the process of this novel. Writing is rewriting, sure, but to rewrite you have to have something already written, and right now until the end of the summer when I finish this novel’s first draft the only goal is to have something tangible, with a solid beginning middle and end written.
I know so many writers who think that their first sentence has to be beautiful and do all the things (both for plot and for theme) that they want it to do, before they can move on to the second line. Maybe that works for some writers but it doesn’t work for me. I like my stories to have this “already told” quality (to quote Susan Sontag in her introduction to the English translation of Pedro Paramo) to them. I like my stories to feel elloquent and well practice, but with an effortless flare that seems like I just sat down and wrattled the story off in one sitting. But of course, to make anything good that also appears effortless, you’ve got to put in a lot of effort. To quote Hawthorn and then later Angelou: Easy Reading: Damned hard writing. Easy writing: Damned hard reading. (Something I’m sure you’re feeling now as you read this stream of consciousness essay of mine.)
Unlike those other writers, my first draft at a scene has to do only two things: have an ending, and be over 1,000 words long. That’s it. The rest, all the stuff I love about writing (making sure the beginning alludes to the end, matcing dialogue to theme in a subtle but interesting way, rich imagery, good pacing, etc.) That only comes after washing the river rock down from it’s original significantly crude shape.
But crude is beautiful.
Think about Japanese Rock Gardening. The whole purpose is sculpt the rocks in the direction that they were already headed, to improve upon and perfect the natural process. Your subconscious will give you raw, sometimes underdeveloped ideas, but those ideas have a purity to them. Why not let them come out pure and (when your ready) make another pass at that same idea, but make it only slightly better? Then, do it again. Then put it away. Then do it again. I think you get my point here.
In an earlier version of this practice I used to do this chapter for chapter. I’d get the first draft out, and then I’d see if I could notice any interesting ideas hiding inside the story that I hasn’t noticed while writing it, and then I’d try and improve upon those. Then, I’d give it another go the next day. I’d give it my best shot, writing straight for the end, trying to make the draft just a little better the one on the day before. At a certain point I didn’t even need to read the drafts from the morning before, I’d gone over them so many times, I had them memorized.
For this summer though, I’m expanding that out to the entire novel. My goal is to create a workable draft of a simple story that feels true. I’m done trying to light the world on fire, the world is already fire. I’m just trying to create one small thing that feels true to me.
So, it’s going to be quick and dirty for a while, just bouncing back and forth between inside the story, to see what I can learn about it, and above the story to see how what I’ve just learned fits into the bigger picture. After that I’m going to have to go into these dirty little boys and engage is the repetative yet oddly satisfying process of wearing the river rock down for each act, section, sequence, chapter, sentence, word. After all that is done I’ll have to show it to my writing group, and I’ll have to go back in for another arduous round of edits. After that, It’ll be sending it to an agent where even more changes will need to be made. After that I’ll find a publisher, and who knows how many more rounds of edits this story will have to go through before its done. But it will be done, and committing myself to my practice has made all the diffeence.