When it comes to early drafts, this is often the only editorial guidance I need.
When it comes to early drafts, this is often the only editorial guidance I need.
I laughed out loud in self-identification when I read this description of Regis Philbin in his NYTimes obituary:
“Aggravation is an art form in his hands,” wrote Bill Zehme, the co-author of two Philbin memoirs. “Annoyance stokes him, sends him forth, gives him purpose. Ruffled, he becomes electric, full of play and possibility. There is magnificence in his every irritation.”
“It me,” as they say. I have to be agitated to really get down to work. Stirred up. A little angry.
I’ve decided it’s better to work with it than to wish it away, so, when I am beginning a new project, I often ask myself, “What’s something you despise in the culture that you wish were otherwise?” and I go from there.
Today we honor Jan Steward, who passed away on July 1. Jan was a friend and student of Corita, as well as the co-author of "Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit."
Photograph by @pixtakerirfan for the @latimes. pic.twitter.com/GAfBVODTLD
— Corita Art Center (@coritaartcenter) July 22, 2020
Just a few weeks after I shot this video about how Corita Kent has impacted my work, I found out that her former student Jan Steward died. Steward was an artist and photographer in LA, but she’s also responsible for Learning By Heart, the book of Corita Kent’s teachings that sort of fizzled when it came out in 1992, but has now become a kind of cult classic for folks like me.
It was in 1979 on a trip to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles when Corita asked me to write this book. We would work together. It would be quick and easy. It was neither. She lived in Boston and I in Los Angeles. We worked by letter and phone and progress was painfully slow. We worked for hours on content and every few meetings the concept would change—sometimes radically.
They went back and forth about titles. Corita insisted it be in black and white so it was affordable. She didn’t want any of her own work in the book. (Imagine!) Corita died in 1986, with the book unfinished.
In a great 2009 interview with the LA Times, Steward went into more detail about how she wrote the book. She said she wanted the book to feel like being in one of Corita’s classes. (True to her name, she was a steward of Corita’s teachings.)
“Corita was loath to formalize things,” noted another one of Corita’s students. “She thought something would become calcified the moment it was written down.”
So Steward had to come up with the right approach:
She scribbled her teacher’s thoughts on pieces of paper, found copies of her lessons and collected stories from other former students. Then, she threw each into a cardboard box that most closely matched a particular part of Corita’s curriculum. The contents of each box turned into chapters such as “Looking,” “Sources,” “Structure” and “Connect and Create.”
(I’m reminded of Twyla Tharp’s banker boxes.)
Steward wrote of the book,
The process I want to describe is living and squirming and very difficult to pin down. The process is one of teaching, learning, growing, and doing things to make the world a better place. Whether that world is within you or as great as infinity.
“After I finish a book, I forget how to write,” says Patricia Lockwood. She followed up: “And then I always forget I’m going to forget how to write and plunge into the depths of despair … so beautiful.”
Here is how my friend Maureen McHugh put it:
Every time I think I’ve figured out how to write, I discover that actually, I’ve just figured out how to write the thing I just wrote, and I have no clue how to write the next scene, the next story, or the next book.
I think all the time about this paragraph I clipped from comedy writer Tom Koch’s obituary:
Can I do it again? Probably. I mean, I have before?
I like what Meaghan O’Connell wrote this week about revision:
Imagine taking the very sharpest thought you had each day for two years and then adding it to a pile. If someone walked by and looked at your pile of best thoughts, they’d think you were a genius.
“All good things must begin.”
—Octavia Butler, journal entry
That encouragement was probably essential: Butler faced a lot of challenges. She grew up black and poor in Pasadena, Calif., when legal segregation was dead, but de facto segregation was very much alive… In several interviews Butler said she wrote because she had two choices: write, or die. “If I hadn’t written, I probably would have done something stupid that would have led to my death,” she said cheerfully.
Looking at Butler’s notes I was reminded of the notebooks of another fiction writer, James Salter, who wrote all his novels by hand, but would start his notebooks with advice to himself on the inside flap:
This flap, from his notebook for his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime, has advice from André Gide:
Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don’t be afraid of being left with nothing.
His notebook from Light Years has the same advice: “SAVE NOTHING.”
“As always, you try to put everything you have in a book,” he said. “That is, don’t save anything for the next one. (The book of his uncollected writings is titled, Don’t Save Anything.)
I always take comfort in the fact that even the great writers needed to pump themselves up to get to work.
Even if you don’t believe it or feel it 100%, it can be of great help to write down the things you want to be true about your life and work. (If you believe otherwise, why write?)
“Creative work is very hard,” wrote Sidney Lumet, in Making Movies, “and some sort of self-deception is necessary simply in order to start.”
I started Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind this morning, but I had to stop and copy out this passage from her introduction, explaining why she likes to use collage and juxtaposition to build up her text:
But as a reader myself, I have always most enjoyed books that I can be interactive with. I like to fiercely agree with one idea—and fiercely disagree with the next. That kind of dynamic relationship requires a lot of ideas coming at once, from which the reader can pick and choose. Nothing bores me more than the one-long-slow-idea book, and I promise to never write one.
Yes! That’s it! The “One-Long-Slow-Idea Book.” What a snooze.
I, too, promise never to write one, not on purpose. (Though, I don’t begrudge anyone who does — it can be quite lucrative.)
I would like to write a One-hundred-Short-Fast-Ideas book.
Better get back to it…
[I am] recycling my way toward a feeling of productivity. I copy and paste email responses that work across multiple inquiries. If I don’t feel up for making a morale-boosting lunch, I pile some leftovers into a bowl and hope for the best. I’ve found myself doing this with poems, as well. Piling leftovers onto the page and seeing what makes sense. I don’t throw away drafts of my poems. I keep them all in a folder on my computer. If I cared for something enough to write it, I care for it enough to imagine that it might be useful later.
About once a week, I’ve been digging through my folder of misfit poems and constructing new ones out of them. It’s like a joyful puzzle. The work of writing is already done. The work of arrangement is where the excitement is.
This is a fine method for artists of all kinds. A little hoarding goes a long way. You never know when a discarded scrap from something can be turned into something new. (Keep Going contains a whole section that didn’t fit into Show Your Work!)
Stacy Schiff tells us this story about the first time the manuscript for Lolita was saved from incineration in her biography of Véra Nabokov:
She stepped outside to find her husband had set a fire in the galvanized can next to the back steps and was beginning to feed his papers to it. Appalled, she fished the few sheets she could from the flames. Her husband began to protest. ‘Get away from there!’ Véra commanded, an order Vladimir obeyed as she stomped on the pages she had retrieved. “We are keeping this,” she announced.
Her husband tried to burn his manuscript several other times and was thwarted only by her interventions. Schiff continues:
Plenty of manuscripts have burned, among them early drafts of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dead Souls. A three-person brigade intervened to save A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from the flames; in Pale Fire, Kinbote looks on as John Shade indulges in a little backyard auto-da-fé. That Lolita did not meet with the same fate, in the context and climate in which Nabokov was composing in the early 1950s, is testimony to Véra’s ability to—as her husband had it—keep grim common sense from the door, shoot it dead when it approached. She feared that the memory of the unfinished work would haunt him forever.
“Without my wife,” her husband said, “I wouldn’t have written a single novel.”
I’m an imperfectionist when I’m working, so I’m usually puzzled by perfectionists and their problems.
“I figure I’m going to be living with this song for a long time,” says Weird Al Yankovic, in regards to his painstaking process of crafting parody lyrics. “We’ll probably be doing it onstage for the rest of my life. It’s got to be right.”
I like this argument for craft, especially for books. Make it good enough that you can live with it for the rest of your life! Or, if that’s too much (and it is, really) make it good enough that you can live with it for at least the next couple years while you hawk it…
Sometimes this is the only editorial input I need.
(See also: “So what?”)
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