I’m addressing the kids today, and if you’re not one, but know someone who is, won’t you please pass this along? (If you find it worthy, I mean.) I’m hoping to help your young peers understand what to expect as they walk the writer’s road.
I was a pack rat of words long before computers came along. I filled journal after journal with tiny, tense, Bic-penned attempts to master the mere act of putting words on the page. What I wrote was so stupid! So self-absorbed and questiony. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What do I have to do to get laid? I hated almost everything I wrote almost as soon as I wrote it. I didn’t know the first thing about story, and that’s what galled me most of all. My writing went nowhere, and I knew it. But I didn’t stop for the same reason you don’t stop; for the same reason junkies don’t stop. We’ve chosen our art, or it’s chosen us, and now we have to deal.
So I kept filling the pages of the horrible journals (filling, primarily, unlined black hardbound books that, because I am a pack rat of words, rest in the eaves of my very garage even as we speak). I discovered my first rule of writing: Write what you can write, or, more broadly, make the art you can make. And don’t lament the art that lies presently beyond your grasp. Presently that will change.
I had to write the horrible journals to write myself out of the horrible journals.
I had to start somewhere.
Kids, you have to start somewhere. What can you do right now that will make you feel artistically fulfilled? Do that. If it is within your capacity to make a creative choice, and within your desire to do so, then do so. Make whatever choice you can make; you will feel so good when you do, simply for having made the attempt. And don’t worry about the results. The thing you want to think about is serving your apprenticeship. No one expects an apprentice to be that skilled; it’s an apprentice’s job to acquire skill. As an apprentice, you can fail all over the place and nobody cares. As an apprentice, failure is part of your brief.
Write what you can write. Make the music you make; everything else flows from that. [pullquote]Write what you can write. Make the music you make; everything else flows from that.[/pullquote]
The whole story of my career is a story of writing what I could write. I wrote ads when I wrote ads because copywriting was the best of my ability. I graduated to songs, and for a long time that’s all I could manage: a song’s worth of words. I tackled sitcom next, then hour dramas, screenplays, non-fiction, and novels, in an escalating set of challenges. At each stage I did my best to work at, and extend, the limit of my skill. At a certain point I was a novice no more. I became a journeyman, a professional writer. I could walk into a place and say, “Yeah, I can do that job.” It’s amazing what builds up, just over time, and that’s both your skill set and your body of work.
So let’s imagine that there’s something in your art that’s larger than a throwaway exercise yet smaller than a magnum opus. What I’m thinking of is something you’d feel comfortable devoting a morning or afternoon to, and expect to achieve some tangible result (about a morning or afternoon’s worth). It will help if you don’t heap all sorts of life-changing expectations on yourself. I don’t paint, but I’d feel good about myself as a painter of landscapes, say, if I knew I could set up my easel at some vista and capture on canvas a reasonable facsimile of what I saw. It wouldn’t have to be great art to satisfy me, just the application of tools to craft. I would feel good about that.
What can you do in an afternoon? Write a song or a sonnet or a killer haiku?
How about a skin or two?
In my vocabulary, a skin is a document of no more than two or three pages that tells a story as fully and completely as can be told in only two or three pages. The beauty of the skin is how it lets you cheat the specifics. When you know you only have two pages to work with, you don’t get bogged down in detail. You write what you can write: an idea for a story developed to a certain constrained length. A skin builds strong writers two ways: It’s a platform for further story development, and it grows your ability to tell stories. As a creative exercise it’s a good afternoon’s work, and after you’ve done it, you’ll feel a little more like you know what you’re doing out here.
If you’re not into skins, do something else, anything else. It really doesn’t matter what. Your every creative act builds both your skill set and your body of work. The one thing to avoid is not writing badly, but rather not writing at all. That’s the difference between artists and flakes, folks; artists bother to do it. They don’t worry about outcomes, they just produce, and in producing, they serve their apprenticeship well.
If you find this idea of apprenticeship wearying, I can make it sound more worrying still: In a sense your apprenticeship never ends. You’ll probably go to your grave trying to write something that lies just beyond your skill set. I know I will. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Evidently you wouldn’t either, or you wouldn’t be reading these words.
Hey, you more experienced writers: What do you tell your protégés to advance their understanding of what it means to live the writer’s life?