Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 6th, 2013

In search of quick fixes

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Marcel Proust

If there’s one piece of advice that young writers receive more than any other, it’s that it can be dangerous to look for easy answers. Everyone dreams of an overnight success, and there are times when the need to get published and establish a name for yourself feels like a matter of life and death. Not surprisingly, many writers, especially younger ones, want to get the whole mess over with as soon as they possibly can. When I read posts by aspiring writers online, I’m often struck by the sense of urgency: they want to get published right now, and they’re hoping to discover a magic solution that will allow them to crack the problem of selling a book. The wise response, usually given by other writers who have been tackling the same challenge for years, is that it’s dangerous to seek a quick fix for something so amorphous as the writing life. If it takes ten thousand hours of practice or a million words to attain any degree of mastery, it isn’t a process you want to rush, and you need to be willing to settle in for an extended apprenticeship and long periods of doubt and frustration.

This is absolutely the right answer to give, and I’ve given it a few times myself. When I look back at my own life, however, I find that I’ve spent much of it in search of easy answers or overnight fame. I wrote my first novel at age thirteen, and when I was cranking it out on WordStar, I wasn’t thinking of it as an early stage in a long apprenticeship: I really wanted to write the best science-fiction novel of all time. Later, in high school, I got four hundred pages into an even more ambitious project, both because I wanted to get published as soon as possible and because I thought it might give me an edge in my college applications, which in retrospect seems like a rather misguided choice of extracurricular activities. And of all the projects I’ve attempted since then, finished or unfinished, published or unpublished, most of them were undertaken amid dreams of sudden glory, with what seemed like an urgent artistic deadline, usually in the form of an upcoming birthday. I knew intellectually that the writing life would be an extended process with as many defeats as triumphs. But each time I started a novel, I told myself that this one was going to be different.

Paul Graham

And I don’t necessarily think that this is the wrong approach to take. I’ve mentioned before that there’s a place for irrational optimism in the writing life: it’s such an uncertain, risky proposition that few writers would stick with it for long if they weren’t all convinced that they were the exception to the rule. As the venture capitalist Paul Graham has said: “One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are.” And it’s important for young writers to overrate their own talents—or the odds of success for any particular project—because otherwise few debut novels would get written at all. Writing a novel is such a long, sometimes thankless process that you need to be convinced from the start that this is the project that will change your life. It rarely is, of course, and when that change finally happens, it never comes in quite the form you’ve been expecting. But as much as you may know this in your mind, you feel something else entirely in your gut. And that’s fine.

In the meantime, it’s that search for a quick fix that keeps you going, and when you look back, you often discover that you’ve learned a huge amount about craft almost by accident. Artistic maturity comes into being in the same way that Proust notes we get wisdom in other ways—as a result of countless small mistakes, and by surviving all the “fatuous and unwholesome incarnations” that we pass through along the line:

We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.

In short, as much as I tell young writers to avoid the search for quick fixes, I know they aren’t going to listen—and they shouldn’t. Because artistic maturity is really just the result of a lifetime looking in vain for ways to avoid it.

Written by nevalalee

May 6, 2013 at 8:03 am

Posted in Publishing, Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Martha Gellhorn

[I]t would depress me a great deal to earn my living just to eat: I earn it very well and as fast as possible so as to have time to do the kind of writing I want to do.

Martha Gellhorn

Written by nevalalee

May 6, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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