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QUINTESSENCE

Genius Has An Inside Out


My slow painting, I tell myself, is like life; you don't know how it's going to end. But that doesn't release you from choosing from moment to moment, from point to point.
- Andrew Forge

I've finally come to the conclusion that you must accept what's bad about your work along with what's good. Maybe they are one and the same.
- Lillian Hellman

Spring is having a party outside my study window. There they are, the tulips languidly soaking up sunshine. It has been such a long gray winter, I, too, want to bask in the sun, supine on the grass. The perfect excuse to defer diligence and discipline at the computer re-working my "creative genius" of the day before.

Fact is, I don't always know if I'm improving or damaging my original efforts as I mash with my sentences. A coffee cup sits on my desk, proclaiming in large black letters EPIC FAIL. It always makes me laugh. Somehow, in the big scheme of life and work, acknowledging right up front how often my chin hits the concrete frees me to try it again. But today, the plan today is to bail and read in the garden. My current read is the wonder of Anne Tyler's, The Beginner's Goodbye. I lose myself in Tyler's story even as I am aware of an inner envy that accompanies each good paragraph. It is impossible as a writer not to fully admire another. The craft demands it.

But the real topic of today's blog is not spring fever, but writing blocks. Specifically, blocks that are self-induced. A belief that you are a) Less productive or efficient than your peers churning out publishable work, or b) Your awareness of your own writing style issues is messing with your confidence in your writing strengths. Either way, you're not writing. And that sucks.

A recent mystery writers conference highlighted the difference for me between genre writing timetables and those of mainstream or literary fiction. Genre markets are built on a proven, expected schematic for the romance, sci-fi, fantasy, or mystery story. In mystery, a dominant character rides within the frame of Plot +Action, and this is repeated throughout sequels; which permits the mystery writer a more efficient and quick build of serial work. The roadmap is laid out, the main frame of character and setting has been defined. The hapless fiction writer on the other hand, meanders through the ideas at hand, picking out a new path toward each story. A story populated by major characters and story arc that might also include a host of subplots, minor characters, changing eras and landscapes - interwoven with discourse on all manner of things that might provide interesting reader "wall paper." Depending on those sub-characters and that inward-looking context, a fiction novel can take two years to a lifetime. So yes, I have "production envy" of my fellow writers skilled in mystery.

The big confidence canyon on any given day for me is a "working problem" wedded into the publishing experience: all critiques stand. Your work is out there. Agents, editors, book salesmen, librarians, booksellers and readers...all have weighed in on your your writing and henceforth, forever will. With each published work, a new notch on the high-jump pole is set for the writer - beat your own last performance. Whether athlete or actor, writer or painter, the drive to hit excellence is incredibly intense. That "excellence point" becomes a moving target: a major source of artistic anxiety. Eric Maisel, a California psychotherapist to people in the arts said, "Criticism and rejection are twin demons in the sphere of social evaluations. It takes courage and a persistent dismissal of the evaluative powers of others for the writer to resubmit his manuscript after a dozen agents have panned it... Sometimes what fails the artist is not his courage but his ability to keep these critical evaluations from getting under his skin. He's come to believe his novel really is too quiet, not because he's come to that judgment himself but because others tell him so." (A Life in the Arts).

So what do you do? The book you want to write (that I am in fact writing) must be as good if not better than whatever mysterious novel charisma launched the one before, and yet also be fresh, different, and not disappoint readers. This next book must be in synch with moveable market trends to calm a risk-averse publishing acquisition committee. And finally, because you, the author, now have sales data - this new work must meet or beat your last book. Writers call this pressure the "second book block." It's not enough to write a book - again - the trick is to do it better. Every book out.

I find myself working to keep the outside voices out of my head, but in fact, they're in there, loud and clear. I generally feel the critics are more or less right. As a writer, I have a subjective inside-out view of my writing, but publishing professionals and readers frame a more objective view. (Insofar as "objective" refers to the affect of the writing on the page. Good or bad is always subjective per individual, but if enough people say the same thing, it's a given your writing has some specific impact.) I turn to Lillian Hellman's dry surrender: own them both. What you do well is part of what you do poorly.

Genius has an inside out. Examples from history are instructive, if not particularly comforting: Van Gogh's unorthodox paint stroke was both his bain and his triumph; Martha Graham's modern choreography earned early ridicule before praise; Melville's Moby Dick, the work of years, was considered a failure in his time. But the persistence of the artists reminds us we must not let judgment (our own or the critics) block the progress of the work itself. Perhaps it is enough to do as Jackson Pollock is said to have done after each masterpiece dried - call it crap and then watch unbelievably as it sells. The key is to do the work. And if it takes, well, may we all be so lucky!
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