Thursday, June 09, 2011

Thoughts on the Craft Expanded Redux-- cannegardner

"I thought that a man, to be a writer, must do at least five thousand words a day. I thought he must say everything all at once -- in one book -- and collapse afterwords. I didn't know a thing about writing. I was scared shitless. But I was determined to wipe Horatio Alger out of the North American consciousness. I suppose it was the worst book any man has ever written. It was a colossal tome and faulty from start to finish. But it was my first book, and I was in love with it. [...] I didn't dare to think of anything but the "facts." To get beneath the facts I would have had to be an artist, and one doesn't become an artist overnight." -- Henry Miller on The Tropic of Capricorn.


That quote is from the book "Henry Miller on Writing." A very good friend of mine, and fellow author, sent this down to me, and even though I am only a few chapters in, there is a lot that can be gleaned from it. No, it is not one of those notorious style guides, and no, it isn't one of those how to write for the market books either. It's simply the very objective thoughts of man as he took a moment to reflect back on his journey, the journey that made him a great artist. I think any artist whose passions are driven by the word will find a kindred spirit on the page. It's full of all of the joy and all of the futility of being a writer, written in Henry Miller's very blunt and often times crass style. Well worth the read for Indies and pretty much any artist, writer or not. Miller is a self-styled and self-taught talent. I don't always care for his subject matter, but his genius is without question, and his lessons are those of the "hard way" variety. We can all take value from them.

There has been much debate over the last week or two -- heated debate -- about daily word count. Some writers are just very prolific and enjoy working on a schedule. They write every day, and they feel productive when doing it and lazy when they don't. Other writers simply can't write to a schedule, or the writing schedule is muddled up with other things such as contemplation and research and outlines and … living a life even. Your writing schedule in no way defines you as a writer nor does it indicate whether or not you will be a successful one. Writing isn't just about the literal act of putting words to paper. That's just too narrow a view for so creative an endeavor.

If you write non-fiction or historical fiction, research is a huge part of the writing process, and the writing tends to come in the form of extensive note taking. In Fiction, you can make up a lot of shit. Fiction allows for that, of course, but making shit up will only get you so far. A little time and effort in the research department goes a long way to suspending disbelief in the reader. Sadly, I have read way too many self-published books where it was obvious the writer didn't do enough or, in some cases, didn’t do any at all.

It takes me a long time to write a book, with or without research. The words have to be just right because my inner poet tells me so, or rather, screams it until my eardrums bleed, so I have days when I seem to be cranking out the words, and I have days of note taking and outlining and out-to-see-the-world time, which is also very important. I also have a family, other hobbies, and a full time non-writing career, so writing gets squeezed in where I can, when I can, but I never force the issue. If I don't feel like writing because I can't get my head in the game, then I don't write. The words will be shit, and I can't deal with that. I can and do work on multiple writing projects at the same time to avoid such editorial burnout, sometimes it's a blog post, sometimes it's a journal entry, and sometimes it's flash fiction. I do try to write one flash fiction piece a day during the workweek, 500 words or fewer, but sometimes that doesn't pan out either, and again, I don't force it. There is a huge difference between procrastination and your muse taking a smoke break. Unless you are a deadline junkie and can create under that kind of pressure, then it is best not to force the words. I've seen forced words, and they stink like an editor’s rotted lunch sack. If I had to force five thousand words a day, I often wonder what kind of words they would be? Probably a lengthy dissertation on my own impending suicide, no doubt. Writers write. No Shit! Can't argue with that, but so do people in insane asylums, in feces, on the wall. They do it all day, every day, and it's not like the psych review board is announcing Pulitzers every week, month, or year.

If you want to be a writer, you are going to have to write, but don't let anyone else tell you how to do it -- except when it comes to grammar. Every writer has to get Zen with their own process. Find one that suits you and your writing will come easier. Adopt your own philosophy. Think for yourself. Being creative is not about strapping yourself into some arbitrary schedule designed by the latest productivity guru. It's about finding your own creative identity and crafting your writing life around it. When you got a good fit, you’ll know it.


Anonymous said...

It is often said that Miller's non-fictional musings are more powerful than his autobiographical fiction (self labeled as such). 'On Writing' is a compilation of both, but the author deliberately chooses to select pieces which closely relate to writing. Whether it is his self discovery of a failure, such as in the one you mention here, or whether it is a more obscure piece dealing with the reason behind writing, Miller's message shines through and, indeed, offers a lot to be learned from.

Although I, myself, have never suffered from such delusion as to having to write 5k words per day, I too fell early in to the trap of setting goals. Fortunately, this phase is gone now. It never happened when writing longer works but only when writing short pieces. Short story submission guidelines are mostly flexible, offering some leeway in the terms of a word count, still, I found myself either prolonging certain pieces or shortening others to fit within the margins. It was not a good idea and none of those works exist today. The lesson learned: The creative aspect and the business aspect of art should not be allowed to collide, sending the creator into an early grave in an explosion that barely registers with even those close to you, but, should remain separate so the original intention behind a piece reigns free and unrestricted, just as the artist must be if we expect of him/her to bleed for our pleasure.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Yes, his messages are certainly potent ones. I fell prey to goal setting early on as well. Word count has never been an issue for me, since I write only novellas, but self-imposed editing and publication deadlines ended up making me insane. Fortunately, someone said, "Breathe...the work just is what it is, it will be as long as it has to be, and it will end when it wants to." Wise words.

The business of writing will certainly be the demise of its mystery and majesty.

On the subject of creative deconstruction and destruction, my next quote by Mario De Sa-Carneiro will address the subject of bleeding on the page. Look for that next week.