At the beginning of a new year, it's a useful time to reflect on the process of starting new creative work -- for no matter what stage we're in at the moment (beginning, middle, or end), when the work is done, it's back to square one and we're facing the blank page once more. Experience only goes so far. Unless we're writing the same book over and over, or painting the same image time after time, we must re-learn our craft and acquire the skills to bring each new piece to life.
Dani Shapiro, in her excellent book Still Writing, reflects on the crucial moment of beginning, and where we find our entry point:
"For some writers, it's character. For others, it's place. What's our way into the story? When do we have enough to begin? If we're climbing a mountain, we need something to grab on to. We wedge our foot into a crevice in the rock and pull ourselves up. We are feeling our way in the dark.
"We have nothing to go by, but still, we must begin. It requires chutzpah -- the Yiddish word for that ineffable combination of courage and hubris -- to put one word down, then another, perhaps even accumulate a couple of flimsy pages, so few that they don't even start the smallest of piles, and call it the beginning of a novel. Or memoir. Or story. Or anything, really, other than a couple flimsy pages.
"When I'm between books," Shapiro says, "I feel as if I will never have another story to tell. The last book has wiped me out, has taken everything from me, everything I understand and feel and know and remember, and...that's it. There's nothing left. A low-level depression sets in. The world hides its gifts from me. It has taken me years to realize this feeling, the one of the well being empty, is as it should be. It means I've spent everything. And so I must begin again.
"I wait. I try to be patient. I remember Colette, who wrote that her most essential art was 'not that of writing, but the domestic task of knowing how to wait, to conceal, to save up crumbs, to reglue, regild, change the worst into the not-so-bad, how to lose and recover in the same moment that frivolous thing, a taste for life.' Colette's words, along with those of a few others, have migrated from one of my notebooks to another for over twenty years now. It's a wisdom I need to remember -- wisdom that is so easy to forget."
Of course, waiting for a new idea to take shape is not an excuse for avoiding the studio altogether.
"The advice I like to give young artists," says painter Chuck Close, "or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case."
Ann Patchett reminds us that in order to write we need to cross the line between thinking about creating and getting down to work:
"The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies," she warns. "It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write -- and many of the people who do write -- get lost.”
"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."
Dani Shapiro concurs:
"Remember, as you begin, that you are in a remote and exotic place -- the literary equivalent of far eastern Bhutan. It is a place where no one can find you. Where anything is possible. Where, for a time, you are free, liberated from the ideas and expectations of others. You are trekking, and vistas are infinite. This freedom is necessary whether you are working on your first book or your tenth. In order to create a world on the page, you need to push away from the world around you. You must forget its expectations and constraints."
A new year is beginning. At this moment, it is all potential. The vista is infinite.
Words: The passage by Dani Shapiro is from Still Writing: The Pleasures & Perils of the Creative Life (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013); the quote by Ann Patchett is from The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing & Life (Byliner, 2011); and I recommend both. The Close and Kingsolver quotes have been reprinted so often that I'm afraid I don't know the orignal context of either one. The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The first drawing is by John D. Batten (1860-1932), for The Black Bull of Norroway (a Scottish variant of East of the Sun, West of the Moon). The second and third drawings are by W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944), picturing Gerda's quest in The Snow Queen. Further reading: For more on the subject of creative anxiety, go here and here. On procrastination, go here.