WARNING: There will be minor spoilers for Disney’s Moana in this post.
Last week I talked about the importance of the false goal, and I wanted to expand on that topic this week. And sometimes, the easiest way to explain what something should look like is to give you an example of what it shouldn’t. Enter Moana.
I worried and sweated over my dissertation the most while I was avoiding it. At dinner, at the movies, singing karaoke-- it loomed. I hefted this 200-page boulder around (literally and metaphorically) for years as it poisoned my life. I remember sitting down to a pleasant lunch with some old friends about six months into drafting. One friend bravely inquired about my writing. My (very mature) response was:
“I hate it. I just HATE IT!”
Andrew Price’s video listing the seven habits of highly effective artists has great insights you should start using immediately. He’s talking about practice, not craft, so any artist will find his tips useful.
Since it’s also thirty minutes, I’ll summarize.
To supplement your veracious appetite for fiction, there are a lot of great books about the creative process itself. I'd like to introduce you to one of my favorites: Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic.
This is the first Elizabeth Gilbert book I’ve read, and her work hadn't tempted me before. But I heard Big Magic’s praise on (Pub)lishing Crawl’s podcast one morning and saw it in the library’s return pile that afternoon, it seemed meant to be. I’m sure Gilbert would think so.
Big Magic turned out to be exactly what I needed to push me through the final weeks for writing an academic article with a strict deadline. Gilbert’s book is both idealistic and practical at the same time (which is quite the accomplishment). It’s not a book about writing mechanics, though. She won’t help you establish style, build a narrative, or develop characters. This book is about how you treat your creativity in whatever form it takes. Gilbert seeks to orient you toward her north stars Gratitude and Perseverance and away from the black holes Bitterness and Martyrdom that tend to beleaguer the creative process. Big Magic is a navigational tool, not a step-by-step guide.
She offers gems like:
“My fear became boring to me, I believe, for the same reason that fame became boring to Jack Gilbert: because it was the same thing every day.
Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture… My fear was a song with only one note-- only one word, actually-- and that word was “STOP!”” (pg 19)
“He was lazy, and he was a perfectionist. Indeed, those are the essential ingredients for torpor and misery, right there. If you want to live a contented creative life… you must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-a**.” (pg 166)
Creative journeys require constant reorientation and adjustment to keep on track. This book is the perfect tool to get you out of a creative slump and (importantly) keep you out of it. Read it devotionally: one chapter a day, every day, until the "slump-threat" is gone. Then slide it under your bed, close at hand and ready to battle the inevitable next slump.
One virtue of Big Magic is its breadth. Gilbert uses her own passion for writing to divulge lessons about creativity in general, so it works just as well for actors, chefs, designers, and master paper-folders. And yes, some of Gilbert’s lessons are as naive and sentimental as you expect (“the universe loves you” and the like). However, when you’re in a slump, and find yourself eating salt and vinegar chips and bemoaning your latest rejection, that’s the message you need. Even if you don’t believe the universe loves you all the time, believe it long enough to get out of the crater you’re making in the cushions and get back to work.
Why is it your creative relationships get no attention? My guess is you are too busy finding time to create, so cultivating artistic relationships and honing your partnership skills gets pushed aside. To get us started, then, let's address some common avoidance excuses to get you back on track to creating effectively with others :
"My partner gives vague critiques for my work."
This is a simple preparation issue. Creatives sometimes think efficiency is a counter to their process, but I'll bet your favorite books are precise, your favorite paintings are meticulous, and your favorite songs are thunderously clear. So don't treat critique sessions casually, like some watercooler recap of Game of Thrones. Show the process some respect. Come to a critique session with the same attitude you would to a Japanese tea ceremony: anticipating great pleasure, but with an posture of great respect. Start with the positives (these can be vague, like "you write great dialogue") then address the negatives (these are never vague). If you can't demonstrate a change you would like to see with a specific example, don't bother saying it. Your criticism may be valid, but it will also be useless.
"If an author needs a reader, it just means they haven't done enough rewrites."
This isn't true for literally thousands of reasons, but I'll give you one specific example where a reader's insight is irreplaceable. An author cannot read their own work in real time. Art is lived by the audience in a particular order the author can never experience (first word to last, usually). So a reading experienced in real time is valuable information an author can only get through someone else. Therefore getting trusted outside readers is a top priority. Critique partners should document their emotions in the moment. Write down "I laughed here," "I gasped here," or "I thought this guy died on the previous page but now he's back."
"My partner and I have no time to compare notes or read WIPs (works in progress)."
You have the time, you're just not "making" it. Stop thinking of your partnership as a casual favor exchange. You're not asking someone to help move your couch in exchange for pizza, here. You're writing is important. Treat it as such. Make short deadlines for yourselves (long deadlines only add stress) and one another accountable for them. On the other side of the coin, don't send your partner a lumpy, unpolished work. S/he isn't your personal spellcheck.
"My partner doesn't "get" my work."
Then, my friend, you need a new partner. Disentangling yourself from a creative relationship can be painful. But an influential voice who doesn't understand your vision will tear apart your work until its DOA. If you don't severe ties, you will eventually be putting your beloved WIP on the funeral pyre. But if you are just having trouble getting your partner to understand a particular work when there hasn't been a problem before, that's a different problem. Offer your reader a list of five works that align with your vision. For example, if Cody (my partner) tells me Die Hard inspired his WIP, I have a reference point through which I can orient my feedback.
Solving these problems gets me though 95% of my issues, but I'd love to hear about other partner issues and how you worked through them. Remember, your partners are an extension of your creative practice. Treat them generously and carefully, as you treat any true and beautiful thing.