The Mule

I had occasion to dig up Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk recently on your elusive creative genius. And I don’t remember where I found this in the first place, I don’t generally subscribe to TED talks as a thing although like any thing they can be useful. I found her talk to be extremely useful to go back and remind myself of from time to time. And so I dug it out again and sent the link to a few friends in case they wanted to watch it, and put it on again myself.

Periodically, usually around Nanowrimo, I see a number of usually forum posts about how writing is hard, how do I (the general and more personal to the poster I, not I, Kitty, in specific) write, how does this work, writing is hard. And my answer in my head whenever I read these is oh my sweet summer child. And then if it’s a general question I try to come up with an answer on paper or screen that at least is concise and hopefully applicable and helpful to their point of view, or at least some alternatives to encourage.

A funny thing about her TED talk: she describes her process in terms of discipline, but also in terms of connection to something other or divine. She calls it a genius. Stephen King calls it, I think, the Basement Muse, which is a term I like and appropriated for mine when I’m not calling him “that asshole.” I’m not terribly polite to my muses, no. My muse is a little more complicated than a single entity. I’ve discussed it elsewhere, I think? My muse is a workshop with looms and clay and things, and each type of project whether it’s worldbuilding or writing the actual text or discovering and shaping a character is a different skill. And in my workshop I have workers, like the Basement Muse, or the Tiny Goddess, or the Anteater of Death, or various other characters who wander in and out of things. And there are times when I’m juggling many projects, and I have too many ideas and I have to close my eyes and start hanging them all up on hooks. I have to look inward and gesture at all of these hooks with all of these projects and “Okay, can you come give me a hand with this? Make sure this stays here, build on this somewhere back there, make sure it doesn’t go away? This, I have no idea what this is, see what you can do with it, though, it looks promising. I’m going to be over here, working on this, I’ll check back with you soon.”

I like this idea that she describes, that many many people have had over years and centuries. Separating the worker from the work is something that happens more often in non-creative enterprises like car assembly or grocery cashiering. Not that grocery cashiering involves as much individuality and interpretation as ballet, or better yet choreography or writing, but still the accountant gets the benefit of being separated from her work in a way that the artist doesn’t, necessarily. She can put away her books and go home, and no one will ask her how the accounting was with the expectation that it was hard, grueling, she had to struggle to do three columns of sums, In the arts, however, people have the strange dichotomy of insisting that artists must be tortured and insisting that writing or drawing or what have you must be easy, and in order to put out good work you must be talented rather than skilled.

She describes herself as a mule. I like that; I’m a mule too, I’m obstinate and I persevere in the strong and sincere belief that writing involves ass in chair, fingers on keyboard. (Or pen on paper, whichever floats your taco.) I try, I’m not always successful but I try to write a certain number of words per day, to only juggle a certain number of projects so I don’t start twenty things and never finish them, to keep track of everything in a spreadsheet so that I know what I’ve been working on and what could use some more focus. It’s less work than it sounds, honestly, and it’s worth it to keep me from starting twenty things and never finishing them.

But there’s also the work. There’s the work, and there’s the work. There’s the labor, and there’s the inexplicable source of the sequence that goes from idea to planning (if you’re a planner) to drafting and the choosing of words, to realizing that doesn’t at all line up with the plan and finding out where it diverges. Taking a brief detour through the boggy middle of this was a stupid idea why did I ever think it would work. To the realization that this could work, to more choosing of words and editing and taking this out and finding time to write this other piece and cram it in sideways, to finished product. It’s a bit like watching a tree grow. You started out with an acorn and an idea, and somehow over time little barely tangible things like water and sunlight and the fertility of the earth combined, and one day you blink and realize you’ve got a fucking sapling in your backyard. Hey, where’d this novel come from? Days and weeks and months and sometimes years of work.

So, okay, fine, I’m a mule. I plod along. I do my thousand, two thousand words a day, I put one word in front of the other if I have to, reminding myself every five minutes that that is how things get written. And if I don’t call the more nebulous part of what I’m doing in any way divine, I will call it ‘other,’ because I have no idea how my brain is able to seize upon a collection of news articles or words or ideas and smash them together and call them a novel idea. I doubt the most knowledgeable neurosurgeon does. It is an Other. Sometimes I’m on good terms with it. Sometimes less so. But it does help to give me a degree of separation to the process to where I can put it down, walk away, and play Diablo for an hour if I have to.

(P.S. The obvious caveat here is, for all that the inspiration or idea process may be other, I am the one choosing to put the words down and put them into the public view. These words and works are ultimately my responsibility, the Basement Muse is not holding a gun to my head. If he were, I would have infinitely more problems. Starting with the fact that a fictional character would be holding a gun to my head.)