get your hands dirty

If you’re stuck, you probably just need something to work with. Start somewhere. Get anything down. The mind can work with anything: “That isn’t right. But you know what might be…”

Nothing, on the other hand, is paralyzing. You can’t get anything done with nothing.

The blank page is my kryptonite. For the Maven Game, I keep a single note brimming with material related to creativity and the writing process. When it’s time to draft another essay, I scoop some clay onto the pottery wheel and bust out my inner Demi Moore. (Overalls optional, but highly encouraged.)

Unlike yarn, lumber, or any other raw material you might choose, the clay metaphor works in a second way: it’s slimy and brown. Anne Lamott wasn’t kidding about “shitty first drafts.” Don’t get picky. When you’re starting a project, any clump of clay will do. Most of us are pretty good at cleaning up a mess. Typically, we struggle with making one in the first place.

Also, don’t organize your clay. I can skim raw material quickly, but I find that I won’t click through into subfolders of possibilities. Too much friction. Too overwhelming. So I just squash new clay on top of old clay: ideas, phrases, interesting words, facts. Works better that way.

You may not know how to make a mug, but you know what a mug looks like. Likewise, you may not know how to write an essay, book proposal, or short story, but if you get a bunch of words down, you’ll quickly triangulate the distance between What You’ve Got and Where You Want To Go. Or at least you’ll have a direction: “The handle goes…there.” Start smooshing.

With regard to last week’s essay, reader Tracie Dawson writes:

I love the idea of doom-ready, but I wasn’t able to track down the Icelandic word (which would be an absolute treasure). However, I once spent one glorious semester doing nothing but translating Beowulf from Old English. There are similar constructions like wintercearig for winter-sad or winter-worn (aren’t we all?), and it just seems like a term that would show up in a culture that celebrated warriors and battle-bravery. And sure enough, I found dōmgeorne. This literally means doom-yearning but is typically translated as “eager for glory,” that is, the glory of an honorable death by striving in battle. There’s also lofgeorn, which is actually the last word in Beowulf (“lofgeornost“), and by contrast this means “eager for praise” and can carry some negative connotations. Which somehow describes writers and the writing life just as aptly as warriors and battle.

Thanks, Tracie! Dōmgeorne and lofgeorn, for good and ill, seem crucial to creative power and longevity. It isn’t enough to have skill or talent. You need a sense of destiny. (More on that next week.)

(I love wintercearig. Is there an Icelandic word for pandemic-worn?)

With regard to the essay before that: several readers pushed back on the idea of harsh criticism. Clearly, I missed the mark. My point was that we need to set a higher bar for ourselves and our collaborators. It isn’t about gatekeeping, about “you’re not good enough.” It’s about: “It’s not good enough yet. Keep smooshing.”

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