Conversations on the F-train with a Writer Friend
Manhattan, NY to Brooklyn, NY
I hadn’t seen a friend of mine in a while so we decided to take the train home from work together. My friend had just finished her first professional short story and had it picked up for publication. She was so inspired that she decided to turn the story into a novel. She had outlined the novel and had been working on the first few chapters the last time we talked. This time, however, when I asked her how the novel was going, she said she hadn’t been working on it. She felt stuck, like she was in a slump or something. “What’s the problem?” I asked her. She said:
I don’t know if my idea is good.
[A sound bite from outside my window: A groups of kids passing by my window. A female voice says: I can’t take this anymore, y’all always talking about me. A male voice says: I tried to get on your side, but you don’t want to… He is cut off by someone making a comment. Then he says loudly, strongly: We love you Tyra. We love you Tyra. And the other girls join in, they say it over and over again, like a mantra: We love you Tyra. We love you Tyra. And the male voice asks: We don’t love you? ]
I had a passionate response to her comment. I talked about process and not judging yourself and many other things. At the end of our conversation, she said: there ought to be a class on process. My eyes glazed over thinking about it. Because process is such an integral part of all of life, not just art making. It was then that I decided to bring this conversation to you.
One of the biggest mistakes of new writers—and one of the biggest mistakes of the entire human race—is the expectation that genius/beauty/mastery should be instant. That if they are a “good writer” everything they write should be good from the moment they start writing. This obliterates the natural rhythm of life. Everything, everything in life has its own process. As important as it is for a writer to find their voice, it is equally important for them to find their process.
Our work can only be as good as the level of our craftsmanship. So many people take the attitude that if their writing isn’t the level of a Pulitzer Prize winner they don’t want to write. But if you never set out to write and be where you are, how do you expect to become a Pulitzer Prize winner? The question is not “Is it good enough?”, but “How do I get from here to there? What process do I have to engage in to become the writer/person I want to be? Am I committed to completing that process and continuing to accept the challenges of developing myself and my craft?”
“I don’t know if my idea is good enough.”
In science, the way you test if an idea is good enough is by experimentation. In writing, you test it by writing it. Writing is far more than content alone: writing is execution. A nonsensical idea could form the center of a masterpiece of literature. And what decides if it is a masterpiece is not the “goodness” of the idea, but rather the power of how that idea is communicated. ANY IDEA CAN BE THE KERNAL OF AN AMAZING PIECE OF WORK.
Besides, judging an idea is like judging a child. How do you know what that idea will grow up to become? I’m sure you’ve heard the secret to art is showing up. Show up to the blank page, show up to the blank canvas and see what comes out. Well, I’ve also read that the secret to mastery is making the same choice over and over again. If you want to become a master violinist, you practice everyday. If you want to become a master writer, you write everyday. I can hear someone out there saying “what about talent? What about the capacity to communicate emotion through the violin strings? What about an original voice?” But who decides what is talented? Who decides what is true emotion? Who decides what is originality? The beauty of our universe is in its multiplicity. As they say in my father’s NOMMO workshop: “A multiplicity of validities.” Cool technicality, emotional quivering, short sentences, sparse prose, heavy decorated long sentences, chilly reserve; all of these things belong to artists we consider masters. Is one form of expression really any better than the other? Is one approach really any stronger than the other?
Judging is not a part of the artistic process. There is a famous Martha Graham quote (which I don’t know word for word) which says: “It is not the job of the artist to judge and label the work. It is the job of the artist to create. Let the critic name and judge. The artist must work.” Judging takes the artist off the path of creation and disturbs the creative process. “Forget whether or not the idea is good,” I told my friend. “Execute it, then we’ll look at that execution and see what can be done to improve it.”
We really can’t know what is going to be validated as “good” art before we create it. And even after we create it, it may be immediately celebrated and published. It may go to twelve publishers before one finally picks it up. It may hit the bestsellers list. It may not. No one may read it until we die, and then once we’re dead, it becomes the holy word of literature. It is dangerous, dangerous, dangerous to try to create “good” art. Audiences are fickle, reader response is subjective, ability to get your work read and reviewed is not democratic. There must be a part of you that knows when your art has been expressed. It is dishonest to create art so that you may be celebrated as a genius. If your ear is attenuated to what is going to prove how intelligent/amazing/talented you are, how deep inside the work are you? How profoundly are you dancing with the ideas and questions you are presenting yourself with as an artist? As there is no objective scale, no impartial judge of truth, beauty, talent, and art, all we can do as artists is manifest what is inside of us. No more, no less.
I do not pretend that the result of the work is not important, but process can not be forgotten as a major contributor to the act of making art. Process teaches you that there is always something there in the creation of art. No matter what you start with, if you are open and engaged, more than what you anticipated WILL flower forth. Process teaches you that you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Process teaches you that if you judge the outcome before the execution you are killing creativity. Process teaches you to have faith. To create first, assess later. To wait and see. Process is about an artist trusting herself. Process is about the artist trusting the creative process.
Who talks about faith and trust in the creative process? In the outside world, all they talk about is the outcome: it was stunning. It is mind-blowing. It is life-altering. And the new artist wants those accolades and wants to create work that will change the world. But the joke is you can’t create genius while fixating on genius. You can only create genius by surrendering to the process.
What is process? Process is the method of doing things. Process is going to the grocery store. [Does the food taste good yet? No, the meal hasn’t been executed. The idea is just being cooked up.] Process is selecting the items you decide to cook. [Does the food taste good yet? No, the meal hasn’t been executed. The idea is just being solidified into a plan of action.] Process is picking up an unplanned item because it looks good and you ran across it. [Does the food taste good yet? No, the meal hadn’t been executed. A fresh twist has just introduced itself to the plan. Something new has arisen. Hmm, could it be the key to something genius? Maybe. We don’t know yet.]
[At this point, my friend had already stopped. Who freezes up before putting the food to the fire frightened that the food isn’t going to be any good? At this point in the process my friend was trying to telegraph ahead, is it any good yet?, is it any good yet?, is it any good yet? But all art demands of you is that you stay in the game. (Don’t judge.) That you surrender to the process. (Don’t decide how it should be before it’s done.) That you take EVERY STEP ON THE ROAD. (Don’t stop short before meeting with the twist that’s going to take you higher.) That you don’t leap ahead. (Don’t short circuit your own creativity) That you have faith that when you open the pot, the food will be cooked.]
Process is getting home and chopping the ingredients. [Does the food taste good yet? Yuck, raw onions, garlic, meat. The elements of the art are just being prepared for wholeness. This is the act of creating the first draft.] Throw the food in the pot, let it heat up. [Does the food taste good yet? Ouch, you might hurt yourself trying to taste at this stage. This is the first draft unedited, unreviewed for holistic integrity.] Stir, stir, stir. [Edit, edit, edit. Consider. Share. Think. Flow.] Open the pot, ahh, this stew looks well integrated, of a nice consistent texture, all the elements look cooked. [Voila. Does the food taste good now?]
So much of writing happens in the writing. There are so many ideas we don’t have access to while we’re sitting there trying to come up with good ideas. Just in the process of developing an outline for my novel, I flowed through a process. I wrote down the idea as it was in my head, and as I wrote it, I nipped and tucked and made changes. Then weeks later I went back and looked at it, and I cut and rearranged and oh yeah, the main character’s profession popped into my head, and her motivation for taking the trip she takes popped into my head. But these things come as you are in the process, messing around with the ideas. And there comes a moment when you are not doing it, it is doing you. When the soup is telling you what seasoning needs to come next, and the character is telling you what to do next. And to me, genius is when you listen.
Ideas are only as good as their execution. The execution relies on a process. As artists [and also as humans living life: there’s a process to getting out of bed, to taking a shower, to getting a job] we must come up with our own personal processes (I write for three hours a day in the morning, I like to listen to jazz while I write, I write in the middle of the night in five hour spurts, but only once or twice a week) and be gentle with ourselves as we’re discovering what works for us. As we sit down to create art, we stand at the center of numerous whirling spheres of process. There is the general process of creating art, there is our own specific process of creating our own specific art, there is the larger process of our development as an artist. We can’t consciously juggle all of these things. All we can do is be there and express that which is bubbling to the surface. No walking before crawling, no tasting before stirring, no genius without surrender.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
A friend suggested that I reorder the rejection/acceptance o’meter to make it more positive. So it’s now the “acceptance/rejection o’meter,” acceptance comes first. She also suggested that I try other words besides: acceptance or rejection, to give the whole process a more positive spin. I would do that, but I know some of you out there—those of you I’m trying to inspire with my own rejections—are not so kind with yourselves as to rename your rejections something positive. So while I thought of: “go girl” and “not quite there yet,” I decided to stick with acceptance & rejection b/c I believe there is some power to looking something in the face and calmly accepting it exactly as it is. I am clear that I—as an individual, I—as a writer, was not rejected. The particular piece I submitted was rejected from that particular publication at that particular point in time, which doesn’t mean I can’t improve it, which doesn’t mean another publication doesn’t want it, which doesn’t mean it’s not good.
My latest rejection points to that fact. The editor called the story “wonderful” and, though it’s not right for her publication, she suggested a specific publication for me to try. As of this week, the rejections are 1 up on the acceptances.