A couple days ago, I found myself reading Martin Shoemaker’s blog, wherein he discussed what he’s learned over the past few years. I got to thinking about that question. I’ve been doing this for … well … a long while, now. My bibliography says I was first published in October of 1994. You can do the math.
So, what have I learned in this time?
Of course, there are the things Martin talks about: persistence, how to stop giving up, writing often. If you’ve read my blog here, you’ve seen that stuff come up a bit. But, yeah, those are kind of givens. I mean, if you’re going to make it out of the early years as a writer, that stuff is your garden variety ticket out. And I definitely like Martin’s second item, too: “don’t stop learning.” In the past, I’ve also blogged a lot about things as I learned them—a lot of specific stuff like how to think about and use story structure, the value of grammar, how to deal with information flow at both the micro and macro levels, etc., etc.
So, yeah, there’s always something to learn. But, you know what? You can say that about almost everything that has any meaning. For example, I was always learning something when I was in my string of jobs in Corporate America ™. I actually enjoyed that aspect of things quite a bit. Dealing with people means you’re never really sure of anything, and there’s always something to learn.
But still something seemed amiss.
While I liked Martin’s discussion, I got to thinking about it more deeply than those kinds of things. What, I asked myself, beyond these “basics” (ha!) have I really learned about being a writer? Seriously. It really got to me. I’ve been thinking about it since I read Martin’s post, and I think I’ve come up with the right answers. There are five of them. Five things I have learned. I will write about them here in my inimitable free-form style, and then see if I can summarize in the end (assuming I remember to, anyway).
Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is this: When I sit down to write, I need to remember that I’m making art.
Yes. That’s it. The act of writing is making art.
Perhaps you think this is a stupid statement. Maybe you don’t think writing is an art (I know people, writers even, who don’t actually think this), or maybe you take it as such a given that writing is making art that I shouldn’t have to state it. Maybe you look at my statement and just kind of scratch your head and shrug. But for me this was an important realization, so important that I have to remind myself often.
It’s this realization, for example, that led me to completely understand my next learning, which is this: Words are not important.
That’s right. Words are not important.
All right, I hear you saying. Now I know for certain that I’ve had enough of this idiot. Words are not important? To a writer? Seriously? It’s time to put this Collins dude onto “ignore mode.”
And, you’re right. But, like Martin said, I’m a writer and writers lie for a living. So, this is a lie (except for the fact that it’s also the truth). What I mean here is that I’ve learned that the words I use as a writer are only important in that they are essential to the form. They are tools like colors or the selection of oils vs. watercolor are to a painter. Or, if I can go out on a limb, a writer’s relationship to words is like that of form and stance to a dancer.
You cannot be a writer without using words, but creating words are not the point.
The point is that you’re making art—or at least trying to. You’re working your ass off to create a series of impressions and thoughts and questions and emotions inside the people who are your audience. The words are just the things you’re using to create that series of things I just laid out. In this light, I don’t want to pick the right word just for the word’s sake. I want to pick the right word because I want to control the sense or image (or whatever) that I’m planting in a reader’s mind.
It’s a fine line of a difference, but it’s a difference—and, for me, understanding that difference has been a very important thing.
The third thing I’ve spent time fretting over is the piece of transitive logic wherein I say if writing well is the hardest thing I’ve ever done (which is something I’ve often said), and if writing is making art, then making art well is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I am here today, of course, to say this isn’t correct.
Actually, what I’ve learned is that doing art is incredibly easy, as long as you can actually let yourself do it. Making art is a strange thing. It requires only that you be brave enough to actually touch the things that are inside you, then get out of the way and make them happen.
This is the point behind Amanda Palmer’s quotable quote of her song “Ukulele” (Quit the bitching on your blog, and stop pretending art is hard…), which I totally love for everything strange and wonderful about it (and which I’ll embed below).
For me, “writing” becomes “making art” when I am able to let my characters say and do what they want to, regardless of whether I would ever actually say or do these things. It’s cutting into that vein of thought and existence that lets me write characters and events that might actually scare me if other people heard them coming from my mouth. It’s not letting concern for what people might say get in the way of making my points and my views filter through the work I do—letting ugliness in characters stand as they need to stand, or allowing pain to exist, or … well … whatever.
And, sure, it’s about words. Picking the right ones to create the right images, etc. But, screw it, you know? The words only matter if they create images, ideas, and other stuff that make a difference. The words are yours, of course. But, in a very real way, so are the images. In fact, in the end, you are your art’s own first audience. If your art doesn’t speak to you, then what’s the point?
The problem, of course, is your relationship to the rest of the world.
The surest way for me to get cranky and blocked up and unhappy with my work is to reach a point where I pull back merely because I’m worried someone might not like what I’ve done, or if I reach out and touch something important to me, but then decide not to include it because it’s too personal or too sensitive, or that I might somehow be embarrassed of it. This is death to me.
This learning then gets tied up with my fourth lesson, which is this: Stories that matter are about things that are important to me, and things that are important to me—even highly positive, bright and shiny things—can feel scary at their cores.
I have to constantly remind myself to be brave here. When I write about things that are important to me, I can let my fears about how the world will judge me keep me from making art that matters.
For example, these feelings of anxiety can show up all over the place when I write “the other” or write about cultural issues. As a white male I suppose it’s only natural that I can get tied up in knots when I attempt to write from the point of view of (let’s say) an African-American female (what if I get it wrong?). These feelings of fear and doubt can come out when I write characters who are not me in a billion other ways, too, of course. I have learned that I need to face these situations straight-up, and that I have to dive into them even if they don’t feel totally like me, and even if it scares me to put them out there (or especially if it scares me to put them out there).
Which leads me to my last learning, which is this: try as you might, you cannot control what reactions you’ll create in the people who consume the art you’re making.
Everyone is different. There will be, for example, those who will listen to Amanda Palmer’s “Ukulele” (which I referenced above) and absolutely hate it. But I love it. In that same light, I’ve had had stories what received both glowing reviews, and reviews where it was clear that the reader wasn’t certain if I understood what I was doing. Lois Tilton, for example, recently reviewed my story “Tumbling Dice” in Locus in a way that I really loved, even though she was clearly antsy about the work itself. “Tumbling Dice” is essentially a re-telling of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, so it’s gritty and unflattering to its characters. They are not particularly nice people, even though they are working their way through their lives as best they know how. While other places reviewed the story quite positively, Lois wasn’t so convinced—but even as she was rubbed the wrong way, she pegged the characters well, and apparently walked away at least feeling something off-kilter about them, which was great, in an odd way. [I am, BTW, a fan of Lois’s reviews—I’m not here to say she was wrong or inappropriate in anything she said about this, or any other story of mine.]
So, yeah. That’s what I’ve learned about writing. Five lessons. Here they are again:
1. The words aren’t really what matters
2. Writing is really about making art
3. Making art is easy, as long as you let yourself do it
4. Stories that matter are about things that are important to you
5. You cannot control how anyone reacts to the impressions you create within them
Oh, and one more thing I’ve learned—which may even be the most important thing of all. When I sum it all up, I have to admit that even now (after all these years) I can rarely ever say if anything I’ve made is “good” or not (see #5 above), but I’ve finally come to the point where I always know whether I’m proud of it.
And in the end, I think that’s the whole point.