This afternoon I participated on a great panel called “How do you write so fast?” about habits of productive writers, alongside Devin Harnois and moderator John Hornor Jacobs. All three of us had taken the vow to write our novel “now” rather than “some day,” and followed through.
I’m not the only one whose Chief Muse is the Angel of Death.
All three of us are National Novel Writing Month “graduates,” but we realized that the first draft isn’t the final draft, the first novel isn’t The Novel but first of a series, every project is different …
I’m not the only one who’s had to re-invent work process, framework, “outline” or other structure, for each new project.
… and that there’s a paradoxical balance of individual, solitary effort and the support of communities of practice. Raised Catholic, I still think of the “community of the saints living and dead,” all the people who’ve taken up the task of creation and carried it through. We need to surround ourselves with examples, learn how this work was done in other times and places by people who nonetheless had struggles similar to ours (words-to-page, day after day, being the Primal Struggle).
I talked about the toxic reader (a frustrated writer a generation older) who told me my fiction was shit when I was 17, and how careful I have been ever since about whom I choose for my artistic fellow-travelers.
John talked about the feedback of editors, those invaluable and under-sung heroes who help writers make their books better, and the tricky balance between his own creative rhythm and what might be workable as a book deal.
In response to an audience question about how to handle the distraction of the Shiny Thing, that idea for Yet Another Project that arrives in the middle of the project you’re working on now, Devin pointed out that they visit her about a third of the way through any given project. She writes them up, sticks them in a folder called “Story Ideas,” and moves on. The Shiny Thing can be distraction or gift; it’s all a matter of how you handle it.
I remembered in response that the Moment of Artistic Despair typically marks the 85-90% point of any of my projects.
And perfectionism is the enemy of excellence, and nobody’s sure when their book is “done,” only that it’s time to finish it and move on. That’s where that second or third or fourth set of eyes can be invaluable.
I saw couples in the audience snuggle and look at each other fondly when we talked about how to treasure the supportive partner in your life, the one who believes in you even though you’re not making Big Money. George Sand and Frederic Chopin were my first example, working side by side, she at her desk and he at his piano, believed in each other’s work in the most practical possible way, just as our NaNo buddies believe in us when we work side by side at a write-in.
In American culture, we talk a lot about individual accomplishment, often to the exclusion of the context of community. What are writers, really, but the communal story- and truth-tellers? There are real people in our lives (friends, colleagues, life partners) who make our work possible. As I read about writers in the past, I always find communities of practice, folks working alongside, bouncing ideas off each other, riffing on each other’s work like jazz musicians.
Over the years, it’s been great to read about the artistic communities of the Literary Immortals. That reading taught me to recognize the Real Thing when I finally had it.
So it’s an early Thanksgiving in Kansas City, a pause for gratitude to all the folks, living and dead, who have made my work — our work — possible.