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.”

doom eager

More from Martha Graham:

There is a wonderful Icelandic term: “doom eager.” You are doom eager for destiny no matter what it costs you. The ordeal of isolation, the ordeal of loneliness, the ordeal of doubt, the ordeal of vulnerability which it takes to compose in any medium, is hard to face…[the] artist is doom eager, but never chooses his fate. He is chosen, and anointed, and caught.

Maybe we still have democracy in a few weeks, maybe we don’t. Maybe we still have coral reefs in a few years, maybe we don’t. What’d you expect? Nothing lasts forever. Billions of minuscule barnacles clinging to a ball of rock hurtling through space at 67,000 miles an hour…it’s amazing we’ve made it this far. Even more extraordinary, a relative handful of barnacles make beautiful things for all the other barnacles to enjoy along the ride. Even with a trillion stars and a trillion trillion planets, I still wouldn’t be surprised if we had the only artists in the universe. 

Just as a work of art is defined by its frame, we, individually and collectively, are framed in time with a beginning and an end. The Icelanders have always understood that. In sharp contrast to the Olympian deities reigning over the sun-drenched Mycenaean Greeks far to the south, the Norse gods knew their immortality had its limit: Ragnarok. The frozen, volcanic landscape of Midgard was beautiful not in spite but because of this awareness of an end.

To be doom eager is to recognize you’ve been inescapably called to your work, accept its heavy toll, and commit to paying that toll in full. To pay wholeheartedly, leaving nothing in reserve. Reserve for what—playing Tetris? Achieving Inbox Zero? If you’re going to walk barefoot on hot coals, you don’t rush. You take each step deliberately.

When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. —Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure

To be doom eager is to resign yourself to making your work in the limited time you have available because you know that in doing so you are spending that rare currency precisely as it was intended.

Is “doom eager” truly an Icelandic term as Graham states? I doubt it. She probably got it from Ibsen, who most likely coined the term himself. But boy, it’s right, isn’t it?

the sweaty details

In her memoir, Blood Memory, the choreographer Martha Graham writes about Louis Horst, one of her key collaborators. She first encountered Horst in Ruth St. Denis’s dance company. At Denishawn, Graham was a promising young dancer and Horst, the musical accompanist:

[Horst] would give an edge to a dancer—the best criticism but the worst thing to hear. If what I did did not please him, because he thought I could do better, he’d say, “It’s not good enough. Stop it. Begin again.” “But, Louis, you’re breaking me. You’re killing my soul!” I’d say. “Begin again,” he’d say. “But you’re killing my soul,” I’d cry again and finally Louis would dismiss me with “Then let it die now,” and he’d turn from me with disdain.

Clearly, Horst told it like it is. Judging from the fact that Graham later brought Horst into her own company, she was the rare artist who treasured a gimlet eye, however piercing. In contrast to Horst (who expressed his frustration with dancers using nicknames like “Mirthless Martha”), I temper my feedback, having learned to do so the hard way: by pissing people off. That is to say, I didn’t learn for the longest time. It wasn’t until I began my editorial career, at a publishing imprint where every other author was a celebrity, that I finally—and only selfishly—recognized the danger in being insufferable, er, “honest.” 

If you work your way up the editorial ladder, you will eventually reach the point where you simply can’t afford to risk alienating the author, even in the name of getting it right. Out of sheer self-preservation, I deliberately softened my stance. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but I slowly built the habit of sanding the rough edges off my comments before sending a manuscript back to its author. 

Look, stuff slips through. I ain’t perfect. But I think people who knew me the younger me would agree there’s been considerable improvement, both in my editorial feedback and my general demeanor. Through years of steady effort, I’ve worked my way up to “sufferable.” Measuring my words will never come naturally, but I’m grateful fate led me away from my worst tendencies. At most publishing houses, the power differential between author and editor is stark. When the authors have no recourse to a power agent, when they aren’t household names, when no single book is the tentpole holding up the publisher’s entire year, I imagine it’s easy for editors to keep bad habits, to casually deal out harsh feedback without a second thought.

It’s easy to understand why. It’s difficult and time-consuming enough to criticize writing constructively, to not only identify what isn’t working but also offer clear and useful guidance toward fixing it. Leavening this constructive criticism with warmth and positivity takes even more hard work, more precious time, assuming you even have the necessary emotional intelligence (or, like me, you learn to fake it). Why painstakingly measure every word when you don’t absolutely have to? When you can just say, “Not good enough, begin again“? You’re The Editor. You’re doing the author a favor by publishing them. Or so it would be easy to let yourself believe—at some publishers, anyway.

I’m glad I learned the lesson relatively early and I can only shake my head at my younger self, his impossible ego and self-absorption. Reading Graham, though, I wonder whether I’ve gone too far in the other direction, whether I’ve done a disservice to my authors over the years by withholding the strongest remarks or mellowing the messages that should have been delivered in all their acidic accuracy. Doesn’t every creator deserve “the best criticism but the worst thing to hear”? Blunt feedback may feel like it’s breaking you, like it’s killing your soul, but if a creator walks away from a project based on criticism, it’s clear who’s holding the murder weapon. No editor will ever be as cruel as the reading public.

The real question is, would Martha Graham have become Martha Graham without Horst’s uncompromising standards to meet?

My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful. —Lester Bangs in Almost Famous

Nowadays, economic necessity has changed the editorial process, undeniably for the worse. Most acquiring editors are expected to field so many books that providing even a handful of thoughtlessly harsh comments on a manuscript represents too great an investment of time and energy. Nearly every author I meet reports receiving little to no feedback on their books. (Yes, there are exceptions, but you know what they say about those.)

Too many books. Too many articles. Too many songs. Too many movies. Out of necessity, we lower the bar. Creative compromise: as I get older, the more profoundly it disturbs me. Today, these compromises are most obvious on television, where even our greatest writers, directors, and actors are cutting corners in response to the extraordinary glut of funding for new projects.

Those poor, desperate TV execs! I can just picture them at work, shoveling one expensive, star-studded project after another into the streaming firebox like so much coal: Must…generate…sufficient…content! A year or more to create something like The Queen’s Gambit and then the world hoovers it down in a few days and forgets it by the following week. Who can blame artists for seizing an unprecedented moment, for caving in and making five decent movies instead of one great one? Streaming has turned cinema into a sand mandala.

And yet: a rare handful of creators across mediums work brutally hard to maintain high standards no matter what the timetable or the offer on the table. When I see that extra effort, my eyes well up. Even if I don’t enjoy what I’m reading, watching, or hearing in pure entertainment terms, I want to get on my knees and thank them for keeping the bar where it belongs: just out of reach. For their scrupulous diligence in service of Art. All hail the conscientious creators. 

HBO’s Watchmen didn’t have to be so thoughtful, so meticulous, so respectful to both its fanbase and its source material, all while forging new ground and making an undeniable case for its own existence. And to end things properly instead of reaching for an unnecessary second-season cash grab—c’est magnifique! Damon Lindelof has clearly learned something valuable from his many compromises on films like Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, just as David Lynch learned from Dune. This is rare. Most never learn.

The heart of this is a complete commitment to being with the work when you’re working on it. People always say the same thing about meeting a great leader: “I felt like I was the only person in the room.” When you sit down to work, are you that committed and in-the-moment with your own project-in-progress? Is it the only thing in the room for you? Or do you have somewhere else you really ought to be? If you can think of a single better way to spend your time than what you’re doing, take your hands off the keyboard and back away slowly. Go do that other thing. For everyone’s sake.

If not, if the work in front of you is the most important thing, if not the most urgent: commit yourself completely to it for the time you have available. Sacrifice your full presence and attention. Take pains placing each and every grain of sand before it gets swept away. And if you can do it better next time, by all means, begin again. Your soul is stronger than you think.

into the unknown

This passage, from Martha Graham’s memoir, Blood Memory, seems like an appropriate start for the final essay of a very tough year. Graham laments the loss of the suppleness of her youth even as she continues to choreograph other dancers:

I don’t demand, at the beginning, any vestige of perfection. What I long for is the eagerness to meet life, the curiosity, the wonder…I miss the animal strength, the beauty of the heel as it is used to carry one forward into life. This, I think more than anything, is the secret of my loneliness.

Graham is talking about the decay of her instrument—the human body—but the nature of the instrument isn’t important. What’s important is the animal strength, the heel driving you forward. As writers, we get stuck not because we’re “blocked” but because we’re afraid of getting hurt, of learning that what we have inside isn’t all we hope it might be. From John Patrick Shanley’s Moonstruck:

Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice—it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit! Now would you come upstairs with me and get in my bed?

The only way through is to accept that whatever you write won’t be perfect, won’t even be very good. That’s OK. Write a little something, casually and imperfectly. Don’t make it a big thing. Make it a very, very small thing. Free your work from its profound meaning, its inarguable importance to the ages. Here’s Wallace Shawn in My Dinner with André

If I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And, I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said. I just don’t think I feel the need for anything more than all this. Whereas, you know, you seem to be saying that it’s inconceivable that anybody could be having a meaningful life today.

In the film, André Gregory’s complaints with the world, the fears and anxieties that have taken him away from his theater directing, are specific to 1981 but even more relevant today, something Gregory acknowledges in his recent memoir. But Gregory went back to directing after his time in the wilderness, and he’s still making work forty years later. After years of spiritual searching, he realized that life and all its problems will still be here whether he makes his work or not. If the fires are going to burn anyway, why not make the work? Maybe Wally convinced Gregory to stop letting the outside world determine his inside world:

Isn’t it pleasant just to get up in the morning, and there’s Chiquita, there are the children, and the Times is delivered, you can read it! I mean, maybe you’ll direct a play, maybe you won’t direct a play, but forget about the play that you may or may not direct. Why is it necessary to, why not lean back and just enjoy these details? I mean, and there’d be a delicious cup of coffee and a piece of coffee cake. I mean, why is it necessary to have more than this, or to even think about having more than this?

As your thoughts turn to the new year, stop yearning back toward some idealized, pre-COVID reality. And stop chasing some historical definition of success and fulfillment—as an expert, a writer, an artist, an entrepreneur—based on your flawed perception of someone else’s path. You’re never going to get “there.” These are all forms of escape from an unknown future into a mythological past. The storybooks are, indeed, bullshit. 

Instead, gather yourself for what lies ahead, unknown because it is truly, fundamentally unknowable. That’s life’s central mystery and what makes it worth living. Plant your heel and take a step forward. Build something new, flawed but real. You are not here to make things perfect and you couldn’t if you tried all your life. Protecting your ego only stifles what you have to give, no matter how tiny and ephemeral that might be. You are not safe. Why not make the work?

Freedom as a creator lies in accepting the risk you already face. You and I are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts. In 2021, I urge you to go upstairs and get in that bed.