Writing is Madness

There’s always a new article/post/thread calling people out for either being too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and, although of course I’m biased, I find it’s especially true in writing circles. We’ve all heard the advice to “develop a thick skin” to get by in this world and not let every little thing faze us on one hand, and on the other how important it is to listen to other people’s experiences and take them to heart. These two imperatives seem paradoxical, but in general–specific cases vary wildly–the crux of the problem is both matter.

And this is my theory for why people pursuing creative endeavors are often a bit bonkers, at least when it comes to their creation. (Well. One reason why, anyway.) I’m going to talk about writing, because it’s what I know, and it goes like this:

There is the story you want to tell, and there’s the story you do tell. There are the words on the page, and there’s the story readers glean from them.

Bad news: they don’t match perfectly.

Good news: that’s one of the beautiful things about art, that we all take different things from it. Reading the same book at different times in our lives can make for vastly different experiences.

But for the author, it’s complicating. Because you want them to match as closely as they can. The story in your head is the asymptote the words on the page get infinitely closer to but never fully reach.

Because no two readers have the same experience. But how much of that is because of what the reader is bringing to the text versus what the author has put into it? How do you know when you’ve gotten it right?

You can’t, because there’s no such thing as right. There’s better. There’s the best you can do. It’s craft, which means you work and whittle and hone your skills. But there’s no such thing as perfection, because it’s also art.

The fact is that no one else can tell your story. As the creator, you have the strongest vision of your own work and what you’re trying to do.

But you don’t have the strongest sense of how it’s working outside your head. You need feedback to tell you when something you did on purpose failed, or something you did on accident is Very Bad.

But readers disagree. Periodically I see the advice to get good readers, but I’m here to tell you that intelligent, experienced, skilled critique-ers don’t all agree either. They never will, because people want and need different things from books.

Which is great in the scheme of things! It means there are markets for lots of different kinds of stories, which is lovely, because it means we have an incredible variety to choose from.

But it also makes it hard to determine, for any given project, whether feedback has more to do with the one person’s read or with the words on the page.

So you get lots of critiques to make sure you’re not just revising to one person’s tastes–unless you are, which simplifies things–but then you really can’t take all the feedback you’re given even if you wanted to, because that would make the book incredibly disjointed. Maybe if lots of people agree you pay special attention to those notes and disregard that one person’s particular bugbear–but maybe that person also caught something incredibly important that everyone else happened to miss.

Some critiques you’ll read and be like, YIKES you are absolutely right I can’t believe I did that THANK YOU for bringing this up so I can fix it O_O. And some you’ll look at and go …woooow this is super off base, wtf?

You’re not always going to agree. Sometimes the crit is right anyway. Sometimes it’s not.

Which means the author, although they need feedback to make their books better, shouldn’t take all critique to heart. Taking every piece of criticism given can be just as bad as taking none of it.

It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Every change will make the story better for some people and worse for others. It’s choice after choice with no objectively correct answer. So how do you choose which change that’s hard should be taken to heart, and which discarded?

IT DEPENDS.

*jazz hands*

You have to be able to be open to readers’ experiences in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to close off and hold on to what you want for the story in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to do both together, and this is why authors are bonkers.

 

(but at least we have help)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Flexibility and Strength

I’ve been doing physical therapy for the last couple months. Long story short: I twisted my ankle a while back, and when it failed to heal as quickly as I thought it should, I mentioned it to my doctor. I explained how I used to twist my ankles on a regular basis during adolescence, which is why I had a metric for what recovery should be like, and she looked at me in horror and recommended me to a physical therapist.

So I made an appointment, and on the way to an examining room my new physical therapist confirmed that I was there about repeated ankle sprains. After about a whole minute in my company, she said, “We’ll do a couple tests, but just by looking at you I think I have a pretty good idea what the basic problem is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked from where I’d sat casually on the exam table, propped up on my hands.

She pointed at my arm. “Your elbows are hyperextended. Also, your wrists are bent past a ninety-degree angle. I’m guessing all your joints are unusually flexible.”

I glanced down at my arm askance, as it of course looked and felt perfectly normal to me. I’m a dancer, and I’m aware that my muscles are flexible. My joints, though — perfectly obvious in retrospect that they’re unusually flexible, too. But while my muscles are naturally flexible, I’d consciously worked to increase their flexibility to do things like the splits. Not so with my joints; they just came that way.

Further tests revealed, unsurprisingly, that my ankles have a much wider range of motion than normal human ankles really should.

As we worked through exercises, my physical therapist explained, “It’s not that your ankles are weak,” which is what I’d long thought. “It’s that because of their ridiculous flexibility, you need corresponding strength to control their movement. We have to work with the body you have. We can’t decrease your joint flexibility, so we need to increase your strength even further. ”

At any rate, I love my physical therapist (which is INCREDIBLY rare for me with doctors), and this process has been both a hilarious discovery of things I didn’t know about my body but also working.

But what occurred to me while I was doing my first set of PT exercises today is that there’s a loose analogy to the writing process — and life — here. (I know, I know, of course this is where I’m going with this. Bear with me?)

Greater flexibility necessitates greater control.

As my writing craft improves, I have more skill to do more things with words and stories. But what should I do? That’s the crux of the difficulty with receiving critique, especially when readers suggest solutions: plenty of people have good ideas for what I could do with a story, but they’re rarely in line with what the story needs.

In my experience, a lot of writers new to receiving feedback (myself included, back in the day) get caught up in the feedback from people who are excellent writers or editors in their own right and lose track of what their story needs. It’s easy to get blown off course. And sometimes you need to be to find the right course, but learning how to tell the difference is hard. Learning what your artistic instincts are even telling you is hard, let alone learning to trust them.

There are endless ways a story could go. What makes it my story is not just where I choose to go with it, but how I choose to go there, and that choice matters. As writers we learn what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we learn to work with what we have, the artistic cards we’re dealt, be it a natural gift for or tendency to rely too heavily on voice or story structure or one of the myriad other tools in the writing craft box, and we learn to improve what we can.

The more I level up, the greater narrative control I need, the stronger I need my vision to be for what my story really is at its core. There will always be people who wish for something different from a story. In the end, though, if I’m the author, the onus is on me to make sure I’m writing my story, the way I think is right. And the ability to do that is a skill, and also, I think, a form of artistic strength.

Now, back to the editing mines.

Making Magic

I’ve been thinking, lately, about how many stories — often portal fantasies, sometimes urban fantasies — talk about how there is no magic in our world. Or how the magic has been leaving our world, often due to the growth of technology, like the fae vanishing due to the presence of iron, as if in the pursuit of scientific discovery we sacrifice magic.

The idea that I might live in a world without magic, or with dying magic, made me sad. Because of course I’ve always wanted to live in a world with magic. Sure, magic can be terrifying and devastating and maddening, but it’s magic, and it is exciting and wonderful and inspiring. It can break or it can build or it can fail to serve any useful purpose at all, but its existence — I have always wanted magic.

I wanted to be a sorcerer, wielding magic with my hands, shooting out beams of sheer power to shake the world, to defeat my enemies, to change people’s minds and heal their hearts.

And I thought of the role of the scop, once upon a time, or the bard or minstrel in different ages and cultures. Storytellers who were revered not just as sources of knowledge and wisdom, but for how they shaped the tales and the words within them, for how they delivered them, and how those tales shape us.

And I thought about how, once upon a time, writing was a rare and mysterious skill. The ability to read runes, to take symbols from a rock or sheet and make them into messages, to make sense out of nothing, was a kind of magic.

And I realized, shockingly belatedly, that this is why I write: because storytelling is magic.

The act of writing is an act of creation, my pen is my wand. And without my wand, how can I take magic from intangible idea into a physical reality? No wonder I have always thought my fingers understood story better than my brain.

Writing is an art, but it is also a craft. What it feels like to have magic can’t be taught, but how to wield it must be learned. Because we all know what happens when the arcane summoner misses a critical symbol in their circle: they will fail to contain the demon. The sorcerers that never learn their power will cause critical damage to the world, to the people close to them, or to themselves.

Like magicians, we learn to use smoke and mirrors to shape and direct our stories. I may not be an adept magic user yet, but I am devoting my time to training, and it consumes my life in a way I recognize from archetypes of mad alchemists fascinated not just by the magic itself, but by how it works, by the possibilities. That it takes time, but that I can love the work even when the exterior results are frustrating or incomprehensible to people who are not mad alchemists.

Writers are the sorcerers: words are the vessels for our magic, stories our spells. And if our magic and spellcraft are strong, they act upon the world. They seep into the hearts and minds around us, and they open new worlds. And every story is another act of magic, and every time we cast them into the world we fill the world with a little more magic, and we draw more people into the circle. We inspire more people to make magic in their worlds, in our world.

Magic was once rare. But little by little, we bring it out of everyone. The quantity of magic may vary from person to person, as well as their skill to use it, but the magic is here. It’s everywhere, for those who seek to find.

My world is full of magic, and I am a sorcerer.

Talking about Passion and Creativity

Okay I need to elaborate a bit on this panel about passion, because it really pushed my buttons.

First, passion and creativity are not the same thing. Can we all agree on that? “Creative drive” and “passion” have some things in common, but they are not interchangeable terms.

Great. Glad we’ve settled that. Pressing along then.

Are artists passionate? Sure. You know who else is passionate? People. Professional artists may be more passionate about what they do than other people, or they may not. Something is driving them to pursue what they love with little assurance of monetary compensation; that doesn’t make them crazy, or necessarily any more passionate than people who pursue non-artistic careers.

Then there’s this idea that people who pursue art full-time are somehow more passionate about their art than others. I hope I don’t need to break down all the reasons that doesn’t make any kind of sense.

Let me just mention one, though: the number of people who seem to ignore the help of financial stability (be it due to spousal/parental support, not having to pay off loans, what have you) is remarkable. None of that changes that an artist has to sit down and do the work, but easing that burden is a huge help.

So we come to the actual producing. Plenty of people want to write a novel. The difference between those who write them and those who don’t, or who get started and can’t finish, is not degree of passion. Often it’s discipline. There are also MANY OTHER reasons, and the rationale “But if they only WANTED it badly enough they’d be successful” is bullshit. Art requires more than wanting. Passion may get you started, but it isn’t what carries you through. If you love your project enough, if you love being able to be a writer enough, if you love every single scene or print or whatever, there are still going to be times when it is hard to make art. Getting yourself to do it anyway, again, is not a matter of passion.

And on that note, the idea that if you’re truly passionate, everything inspires you, and so you can’t help but make art, you always want to be art-ing! That you should just wait for The Muse to descend and inspire you and the art will just flow out of you in a magical fucking stream!

NO NO NO.

Do I love writing? Of course. Do I sometimes have to force my fingers onto the keyboard? YES. Can I be inspired by anything? Absolutely. The world is a fascinating place.

But ideas are fickle things. And in all likelihood the random idea that inspires me is going to be tempting me away from the hard part of a project I love towards something easier with all its NEW SHININESS — until the luster wears off and there’s another NEW SHINY IDEA and very few projects (at least, not big ones) ever get finished that way. Not drafted, and certainly not edited.

I think what really gets me, though, is the idea that there are degrees of passion, that there is such a thing as being passionate enough. That if you’re somehow sufficiently passionate, that you won’t “allow life to get in the way.” That if things aren’t working out career-wise for other artists, well, it must be because they just don’t care as much. Their passion is comparatively, quantitatively less.

And as a corollary, that people in other industries are less creative because they’re not pursuing art, even if they’re passionate about what they do. That people in the arts are more creative, that this somehow makes them a different sub-species of human (where did the term “creatives” come from, anyway?) That we’re just channels and art happens all on its own.

THESE ARE ALL DAMAGING WAYS TO TALK ABOUT CREATIVITY.

So let’s try some different ones, shall we?

Creativity wells can run dry. Steven Gould explained in a lecture at Viable Paradise that you have to take in art in order to be able to put art back out, and I’ve found this to be completely true.

How excited I am about a project can ebb and flow. Sometimes I need to force myself to make words; sometimes I need to take a break. Knowing which to try is something learned from experience.

What works for other writers and artists may work for you. It may not. There’s no Right Way to art.

I can be passionate about writing and have a full creative well and still not want to sit down and make words. It doesn’t mean my passion has vanished, nor my creativity, nor my drive. Reaching a wall with a given project, or with a kind of art, doesn’t mean I’m “blocked” (“writer’s block” is a different can of worms, but a related one: I think much of the idea of it stems from how we talk about creative work). It probably means something else in my life is wrong and needs tending to. Sometimes it means there’s something wrong with the story and I need to let my subconscious sort out how far back I need to delete.

Plenty of people who pursue art, even as a career, maintain day jobs. Often for financial reasons, and often they’re also passionate about those jobs. That they are not art-ing full-time doesn’t make them less passionate about art.

Other jobs require creativity. Living as a human requires creativity. People are constantly creative. This is not the same as producing art. I’ve never met someone who wasn’t passionate about something, even if they don’t realize it. Passion drives all of us in different ways. Calling a person passionate in and of itself doesn’t mean anything. Passion, I think, is largely about connection, to ideas, pursuits, and people; it isn’t something that exists in a void.

Inadvertently creating a myth that people who pursue art are somehow inherently different is others artists and makes it even harder to choose to be an artist. How many people with fantastic stories inside of them are scared away by the idea that there is a set of characteristics they have to have to be a “real” artist? No doubt if they’re “sufficiently passionate” they’ll get over it and art anyway — or maybe they’ll apply that creativity and passion to another field exclusively and that story will be lost.

There are plenty of other things that make artistic careers hard. Talking about them like some sort of mythical transcendent experience that only the chosen few can have makes it harder for people to learn to navigate them, if they think that they’re Doing It Wrong or Aren’t Good Enough because they’re an actual goddamn human being and not a mystical conduit.

And we don’t want less art in the world. We don’t want fewer artists.

An old quotation from Albert Camus popped up in my Twitter feed today: “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.”

I know perfectly well that the process of creating can feel magical. I know my connections with other writers tend to be different than those with friends and family who do not pursue art. But can we stop talking about passion, creativity, art, and artists like they’re made of magic, the both victimized and valorized Other? Please?