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Getting to Work

section installation of "Summer Circle," Richard Long

Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.
- Igor Stravinsky

It was Emile Zola who kept a motto in his workroom: Null dies sine linea. "No day without line.' He wrote one thousand to fifteen hundred words a day, until in thirty-one years he finished with businesslike dispatch something like twenty-five novels and twenty-three other books. When you have nothing to say, you write anyway, if only to keep in practice.
- Sophy Burnham

There are many divergent arguments for how and when to write best. There are "sit down and do it anyway" disciplinarians who manage to scratch out something even in the grip of a creative block to make their page a day; those who, as Sophy Burnham points out, find putting pen on paper (fingers on keyboard) is plain good practice. Stravinsky points out quite accurately that simply beginning may be the best catalyst - inspiration may arrive in the middle of what was just until then, aimlessness on the page.

Then there is the other school - first dream the idea, and write when the spark ignites. Famously championed by Truman Capote, who confessed, "I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee hand." Now if that were me, I'd fall asleep. Agatha Christie cleared a space on a kitchen table - any flat stable surface would do. While some writers need a blank wall, a closed door, and zero distraction, others, like Harriet Doerr, begin with visual stimulation - "I have everything I need. A square of sky, a piece of stone, a page, a pen, and memory raining down on me in sleeves."

I think the key to a successful work life in the arts begins with an acknowledgment that creative effort is exactly that: creativity plus effort. For a writer, it may put the cart before the horse to pound out 500 words without a clue as to what you're going to say. Then again, halfway through that paragraph, the theme may announce itself and you're off and running. Musicians often find a composition riff follows routine practice, when fingers and mind are warmed to the music. Painters discover a color palette and stroke that inspires. Dancers choreograph in the process of working out their moves. There is some essential part of art that occurs in execution, some other part that is guiding concept. But idea without effort is just fancy, and effort without direction is aimless.

But back to Capote on his couch and Zola scribbling out his pages. Both writers are maximizing their capabilities. Both understand how they work best. First and foremost, we must look within to understand how we get work done. When desperate for inspiration, how do we encourage flow to occur conceptually, to anchor a viable theme or idea? Is dead time mental gestation, or procrastination, a question of sitting down and doing the work? An artist has to be self-aware, and honest, and willing to own the solution as well as the problem.

It took me a long time to realize I could work continuously - and effectively - balanced between two brackets of writing: practice writing (journaling, idea sketches, bits of essays, drafts of book reviews) and purposeful writing (putting a theme into structure on the page.) Personally, I would shrivel faced with a wall without a window, a bit of nature to gaze on, mementos and iconographic art surrounding me. I've learned I need utter quiet; unless I am editing, in which case, jazz is best. And on days I just don't want to sit down and do any of it, I don't. That's the day for a hike, for reading, for laying on Capote's couch. The big lesson in my writing life has been to TRUST THE FALLOW time. The days of zero output are in fact days of work on the couch. Ideas are gelling, the corner you've back yourself into in chapter 20 is untangling in the back of your brain even as you prune the apple tree. The muse hangs out in your dreams, appears on mile 5 of your morning run.

"Getting to work" balances Creativity + Effort. It truly doesn't matter which side of the equation you solve for first.

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