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Working from Within

Lemoille Canyon, Nevada. Credit: P. Pettit
I learned this from Robert McKee. A hack, he says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn't ask himself what's in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for. The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he's superior to them. The truth is, he's scared of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting. He's afraid it won't sell. So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them.
- Steven Pressfield, "The War of Art"

This essay by Steven Pressfield, from his interesting nonfiction book "The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles," delves into one of the trickier sand-traps for any writer attempting to make his or her way creatively in the writing profession. When the writer begins to look outside himself, to think hierarchically, that is about success and achievement, the rankings of others, the effect of his work not its authenticity, he is no longer working organically. He has lost touch with his ability to be genuine, to work as Pressfield calls it, "territorially."

Why not keep a firm eye on the market as you write, the trends in sales, the "likes" of everyone from agents to critics? Because to do so takes the writer out of that inward untempered mindset that produces powerful, authentic work. Writing to hit a trend, influence a sale, or deliver a predictable "hit," drops the writer into an uncertain anxiety - straight into the commercial realm of the hack. The hack doesn't have a true personal commitment to his or her work. The hack doesn't work from an unstoppable faith or passion in his or her idea. And while the hack may produce work that sells, it is destined to never be fully satisfying. It is not the truly original creative work only he or she is capable of.

Without a doubt, Pressfield is right. Yet. Does the writer not need to make a living, and aren't writers in everything from television to book adaptations working within market trends and demands? Yes. I think it is wise to know where in the business you want to be and what you're willing to risk. I also think it's possible to write for the market (e.g. produce commissioned freelance work) and go home at night and tune in to the great masterpiece in your mind, typing away on your laptop late into the wee hours. Most of us do this. Split ourselves between bread and butter work and what we're deeply passionate about. We take care of the bills with writing that pays those bills.

I met with my tax accountant recently, and the subject of the amount of years a writer can lose money at the "business" of writing came up. There is a set period of losses that are tolerable before "self-employed writing" falls from a business to a hobby in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. Our commercial outlook as a nation is oriented to bottom-line profit, and the concept of working on pure speculation - your opus may or may not ever find a market home - is neither encouraged or valued by society. Van Gogh painted masterpiece after masterpiece yet never found a buyer during his lifetime. What did his accountant advise him? We can guess.

The hack is therefore a practical artist. But inevitably, the question must be confronted: Is the work is to make authentic art or make art that sells? While not necessarily at odds, usually art must come first to be original and distinct. The writer must work territorially, as Pressfield put it. That is, from within. And all the success to follow will then be long-lasting and meaningful.

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Door Into Nowhere

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh
by May Sarton

There is no poetry in lies,
But in crude honesty
There is hope for poetry.
For a long time now
I have been deprived of it
Because of pride,
Would not allow myself
The impossible.
Today, I have learned
That to become
A great, cracked,
Wide-open door
Into nowhere
Is wisdom.

When I was young,
I misunderstood
The Muse.
Now I am older and wiser,
I can be glad of her
As one is glad of the light.
We do not thank the light,
But rejoice in what we see
Because of it.
What I see today
Is the snow falling:
All things made new.

This humble and poignant poem by New England poet May Sarton stands as the final poem in her book, Halfway to Silence. What I love about this poem is the poet's quiet sense of slipping through experience into a sense (as writer Julian Barnes put it) "of an ending" - opening to wisdom. Aged, reflective, questioning still, in her lifelong creative work Sarton sought an elusive muse; bolder, nobler inspiration and answers. In writing "Of the Muse," Sarton reveals a slowly distilled personal truth: that her lifelong art has not been the gift of inspired flights of stark originality, but the gift of incidental moments of awareness. A found truth along life's most ordinary path. Leaning in is looking closer. Opening into nowhere. What Sarton expresses when she writes, "We do not thank the light,/ But rejoice in what we see/Because of it."

"There is no poetry in lies," Sarton writes. Truth, not appearances or form, mark the beginning point of meaning. Unvarnished and unaltered. Whether we speak of the heart or the earth, our ambitions or our sins, perceiving others, ourselves, and our surroundings honestly is the beginning point. Listen in. Hear the tighter, deeper, stronger, resonating beats of growing older: understand there is no mantra or magic. Not for enhancing creativity, or for making a life. There is only this: a more honest awareness. A raw truth.

"But in crude honesty/There is hope for poetry." Can it be put more beautifully, or simply? Sarton lays aside the ego and its masks. Dispenses with falsehood and fakeries. Only comprehend, she writes, what is before us. Bow, willingly, to the pre-eminence of what is in all things, and therein, wonder. To see the snow fall, all things made new.
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Truth and Interest

Luzern, Switzerland
“As you get older, you get more confident that if something’s true to you, there is a way to represent it entertainingly. If it happens to a person, it can’t possibly be non-art. So in the story ‘The Tenth of December,’ there’s a moment where, because of the structure, the character’s thoughts turn towards his wife. And I just turned my thoughts towards my wife, you know? What came out was probably the truest thing I’ve ever written about our relationship, for sure. And it wasn’t sappy; it was actually pretty good prose. I wasn’t trying to make it anything other than what it was; I was trying to make it true as quickly as I could. So that was a big moment for me. Even the really positive things that you feel, that you’ve always roped off as being too sappy, if you say them urgently enough — of course, why not?”
- George Saunders, excerpt from the Longform Podcast, The New Yorker Magazine

George Saunder's first sentence is an important one: "...if something’s true to you, there is a way to represent it entertainingly." I believe this maxim forms the spine of most good fiction and memoir. (And is absolutely relevant to nonfiction as well.) Why? Because people read to engage in thinking, and that process, like all of learning in life, is a response to curiosity. For a story to be entertaining is in most instances the ability to arouse emotion and curiosity. If you think back to when you were a child, the power of books had everything to do with a story's ability to snag your imagination and open up worlds that beckoned and delighted, scared and satisfied. As an adult the hunger to learn, the curiosity to follow an idea or subject deeper is a primary motivator in choosing a book to read. And once we have cracked opened those pages, any creeping lack of engagement, any sign of impinging boredom - the emotional flat-line of reader engagement - will be the reason we put that book down, unfinished.

Curiosity. Engagement. Emotion. Entertainment. For the writer, these elements are as daunting and complicated as a technical climb up the sheer face of Yosemite's Half Dome. As writers we know that a reader's interest can be hooked and sustained through good writing craft and the subtleties of technique, but every great story possesses a nugget of magic. That necessary, undefinable element that captures our attention. George Saunders writes about that moment. His personal experience, his truth translated seamlessly to the page. The spark to an intimate author-reader conversation. Honest, truthful, insightful. The door that opens us as readers to our own thinking.

The writer finds a way to sustain exposure by trusting in technique, and backing uncertainty by adopting a fearless attitude to the task. On that sheer rock of narrative it would be impossible to free-climb without faith in one's equipment, technique, and experienced judgment. But bridging uncertainty requires a goodly amount of courage, and comfort with risk. As readers we expect our authors to be unpretentious on the page, and if not fearless, then undaunted. As writers, we know readers will never follow our words down the twisting dark trail of storytelling, with its deliberate shadows and dead ends, without growing curiosity. Readers engage with a journey they feel is both real and fascinating. Writers, where is the cornerstone, your truth in the story? Make it urgent, entertaining, and those books will fly off the shelves.
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The Origami of Light

Floating Flower Market, Amsterdam
Flower and fruits are always fit presents; flowers because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty out values all the utilities of the world.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Gifts"

I hear the violoncello or man's heart's complaint.
- Walt Whitman, "Leaves of Grass"

Yesterday my husband brought fresh flowers into the house, red tulips. Tight and closed, the deep green leaves folded against the buds, I placed them in a vase on the kitchen table. Hour by hour, basking by the window in the sun's warmth, they opened. This is how late winter feels today. The cold earth, the trees and shrubbery hunkered bare and tight against the winds and bouts of snow and freezing rain, lift, hour by hour, by new angles of light. The northern hemisphere of earth is turning once again toward the sun, and the pale watery light that sweeps away the cold wakes the growing things. Light has opened the red tulips on my table. Light opens the heart.

I'd like to share with you the words of Mary Oliver as a small meditation on the peace and beauty to be found in the ordinary. A small poem - in origami folds - opening to a moving, deep appreciation of simply being alive.


So I put them in the sink, for the cool porcelain
was tender,
and took out the tattered and cut each stem
on a slant,
trimmed the black and raggy leaves, and set them all -
roses, delphiniums, daisies, iris, lillies,
and more whose names I don't know, in bright new water -
gave them

a bounce upward at the end to let them take
their own choice of position, the wheels, the spurs,
the little sheds of the buds. It took, to do this,
perhaps fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes of music
with nothing playing.

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