Here are some random thoughts on getting creative work done with a minimum of grief.
Basic Artistic Needs. In order to write, I need, at minimum:
3. Minimal levels of discomfort – i.e. not feeling feverish and sick (including being hung over, exhausted, or otherwise ill), the heater not turned all the way up / down, people walking back and forth through the room or shouting / throwing things against the wall next door, the gardener blowing leaves under the window, etc. The idea is to be able to forget one’s surroundings for a short period of time in order to free the imagination. This can’t happen with constant chaos and upheaval.
Artistic Time vs. Regular Time:
Artistic time is subjective. If I haven’t written in 3 days, it feels like a week. When I haven’t written for a week, I feel dead–like I may never have the enormous amount of energy it will take to find the particular emotional structure I was working on before. This is why Bukowski, Hemingway, Carver, and probably every other non-hack in existence worries about waking up one day and realizing that one’s talent has disappeared. But such worries just amount to performance anxiety. I get back into the process and they disappear.
Money and Making a Living as Justification for Complaints:
I am unable to justify any of these needs in terms of what I need to make a living. It is not persuasive to say: maybe if I had a regular schedule (i.e. a better day job, more money coming in) I wouldn’t be having these problems. Money has nothing to do with it and publishing advances will not ultimately validate these needs. Personally, I am writing highly specialized literary fiction. I will be most likely to publish in literary magazines and small / university presses where there is an audience for my work. I will not be able to support myself with my work because there are not enough consumers to make it profitable. Therefore, all the demands I make about needing time, needing space, and needing minimum levels of comfort must always seem baseless and unjustifiable in any practical sense.
Keeping on Keeping on:
Objection 1: Resentful voice from the Internet: “I am a scholar / artist / salesperson / programmer / thought-worker and I need time and space, too!” (Yes, I completely agree. This doesn’t mean that just because you are having trouble along the same lines, I stop having trouble as a writer.)
Objection 2: Spouse / flatmate / friend / parent / magical talking dog who lives in the closet: “I am doing my part to help you have the conditions you need to write (so stop complaining)!” (My complaints come from my sense of frustration not from any perception of insincerity or failure to help on your part.)
Objection 3: Regular reader of my blog: “But you write in crowded cafes all the time.” (I can write in cafes when I am surrounded by strangers I can ignore and only when they are sufficiently quiet or oblivious. I am unable to write in cafes (a) where there is someone I know staring at me or walking back and forth; (b) where people are emoting too much–like irritated tourists or upset locals; and (c) where people are sitting too close to me. Because the art-production process is rarely 100% systematic, there will always be experiences that stand as exceptions to these things. Still, I am talking in general, not about the exceptions.)
Objection 4: Upset writer trolling posts tagged with writing terms: “So-and-so produces ten times the amount of work you say you produce and has none of these complaints.” (So? Many writers and artists have these complaints. If you want to point out an anecdotal counter-example to me, I can again note that there will be exceptions. Unfortunately, I am more typical in my needs than atypical. If this makes me somehow complicit in my own misery, so be it. But if that is true, then I am joined my many, many others experiencing the same problems.)
Objection 5: My disillusioned ex-girlfriend who wanted me to stop writing and go into sales to support her modeling career: “Why do you choose to do this work in the first place when it is so difficult and thankless?” (Because even though it is difficult and thankless, writing fiction provides me with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relief that would be lacking if I were merely working to make money. People have said that an artistic calling is a curse because once you develop yourself artistically, you typically feel compelled to continue no matter the personal consequences. Nevertheless, I can say with a certain degree of conviction that if I didn’t have this relief, I would exit life as quickly as possible. This is not to reduce art to the level of therapy, but it is therapeutic. And I believe that is a large part of what makes it compelling. That said, no artist actually chooses art. It chooses the artist, my young apprentice.)
Objection 6: Well-intentioned genre writer with anxiety from listening to editorial advice on how to be more formulaic and saleable: “I read that in order to be a professional you need to (a) produce 1-2 novels a year; (b) write at a 7th grade level; (c) have your work vetted by test readers that function like focus groups, guiding your revision process to the most genre-acceptable trajectories; (d) spend twice as much time self-promoting as you do writing; (e) give away free content to entice readers, etc.” (No. These things come from a particular stratum of the publishing industry that is usually heavy with genre fiction aimed at a very tight reader demographic. These professional standards are neither right nor wrong. However, they are definitely narrow enough to apply only to the new pulp fiction industry that has emerged from the convergence of e-publishing, self-publishing, and a powerful online consumer base. If you are a literary writer or someone whose aesthetic does not fit into the highly calculated style sheets of these pulp houses, don’t fucking worry about it. The publishing industry is a lot bigger than it seems. Do not make the mistake of thinking that just because a particular writer on a particular blog says this is how it is, that is how it must be for every writer everywhere. Apply critical thinking. And don’t forget to do that with what I’m telling you here as well. Remember that I am just another writer with a perspective on his industry.)
Objection 7: One of my Facebook friends: “You like James Altucher, but he says publishing is dead and we should all self-publish. How do you reconcile that?” (I don’t. Altucher is a good writer and is entitled to his opinion about publishing. I don’t completely agree with him because I have had some success in traditional publishing. I have not made much money; though, I am not concerned with making a living this way. I will probably always have a day job. If I were writing Harlequin romances to make a living, I would be very concerned and would probably put all my books on Amazon.com via Createspace instead–because I fundamentally believe what he is saying about skipping the middleman in the publishing process. It makes sense. I actually like that idea and am not ruling out self-publishing for myself at all. I just don’t think that self-publishing is the only viable way to publish. And if you’re alright with the (admittedly crazy) traditional methods, then relax and put your manuscript in the mail. He uses 50 Shades as an example of a successful way of bootstrapping oneself into publishing using self-published material. Okay but I would like to point out that the books he mentions reading are somewhat different from that and any given piece of his own writing is superior to that of EL James (I have read some of her work and am not making this criticism arbitrarily). Altucher is too modest to make that claim for himself. I also think 50 Shades of Grey is a good example of a turd that everyone has decided to eat. For that matter, I think Eat, Pray, Love, She’s Come Undone, The Notebook, and most of what Random House releases every year is comparable. This doesn’t mean I won’t read such books. I will read them to learn more about what I like and don’t like. Maybe I’ll check them out from the library instead of giving my money to the Big Six.)