Because the universe loves me, I found myself in Paris recently with nothing to do but sight-see and visit great museums. I made my way to the Pompidou, which had a mind-boggling retrospective on the works of Jeff Koons, whose iconic Balloon Dog you see here. Upon investigating Koons’ life and work, I discovered that some of his earliest attempts at visual representation were nothing more than finding magazine ads that piqued his interest, framing them, and calling them art. Clearly he had artistic ambition, and also artistic vision, but his ability to exercise his vision? Not so much. So we can say that at that point in his career, the artist’s “eye” had developed further than his “hand.” But why are we talking of Jeff Koons? He’s an artist, right? And this is WriterUnboxed, not ArtistUnboxed, no? So let’s examine this notion of eye and hand from a writer’s point of view.
For the sake of this discussion, we’ll say that our writer’s eye is our understanding of what we want to express, and that our hand is our ability to capture and convey those ideas. The advancement of these attributes, the development of both the writer’s storytelling interests and the effective exploration of those interests, is the basic arc of a writer’s career. We go from not knowing anything and not knowing how to express it to knowing much and having many strategies and tools for expression. That’s the growth of a writer. That’s something we can chart.
So now what I’d like you to do is make two lists.The first will be a list of the many stages of evolution of your writer’s hand. Here’s my list of “hand,” the different types of writing challenges I could master, and the order in which I mastered them.
“Funny” editorials for student press
Dumb sitcom scripts
Smart sitcom scripts
Novels with purpose
This, to me, is a common path of development for a serious-minded writer. It’s not that we all start out writing ad copy or bad poetry (though many of us do). Rather, it’s that we’re always trying to better our game. No sooner have we conquered one form of writing than we aspire to conquer something harder, more challenging. The good news is that we’re ambitious in this way. The bad news is that we commonly encounter fear barriers as we advance from stage to stage. Stick a pin in that; we’ll be coming back to it in a moment. For now just please write your list. You don’t have to show it to anybody, but you should be prepared to show it to yourself. In terms of – let’s call it – your writing technology, it’s good to know where you’ve been and where you are.
Next, let’s list the stages of development we’ve gone through in the evolution of our writer’s eye. What topics, subjects, concerns, themes, philosophies or lessons have become key parts of your mental map as your writing life has unfolded? Here’s mine, roughly:
Slightly less dumb jokes
Snarky social commentary
Plot-driven action stories
Hot lust romance
Those of you who know me know that I never outgrew dumb jokes (nor do I expect to; like intentional tpographical errors, they’re evergreen). Those who follow my work have seen it advance to increasingly deep and philosophical places. Dumb jokes and deep philosophy can thus be described as the alpha and omega of my artist’s eye. What are yours? What lies between? Write that list now, please; I won’t be the only one doing all the work around here.
When we set out to convey something meaningful about, say, real emotion or self-exploration, it’s common to experience some self-doubt – the same sort of doubt that informs our advance through the stages of our writing technology. Every time we try to tackle something we haven’t tackled before, whether in the form or the substance of our writing ambition, it’s natural to feel fear. This fear is specific and articulate. It says, “I’ve reached my limit. I’m trying to write something I don’t know I can write, and I just know that the Fraud Police will soon track me down and haul me away to fake writers’ prison.” [pullquote] “I’m trying to write something I don’t know I can write, and I just know that the Fraud Police will soon track me down and haul me away to fake writers’ prison.”[/pullquote]For some writers, this fear is so overwhelming that they simply stop growing. They get good at what they’re good at, but they never advance beyond.
To me that’s an unworthy goal for a writer. I get that it’s great to have a successful series – repeatable iterations of the types of stories you’re good at and the types of points you want to make – but if you never move beyond that, how will you grow? And if you never grow, how will you reach the ultimate iteration of your eye and hand?
To avoid this trap of stagnation, simply recognize and acknowledge the role that fear plays in all of this. Don’t try to kill your fear or make it go away. That’s not realistic, for it naturally emerges every time we try to do something new. Rather, accept your fear as a natural part of your creative process, a part of your growth. And recognize that most of the time your fear is completely unfounded. When you try something new as a writer, either in terms of hand or of eye, you mostly succeed, as can be seen in the two lists you just wrote.
In fact, stop for a moment and marvel at those lists. They concretely demonstrate the growth you’ve already undergone. They reveal you for the writer you are: someone already accomplished in many evolutions of hand and eye; someone determined to accomplish much more. If this sounds like a pep talk, it is. I love giving pep talks, and I love getting them (and find that giving them is getting them, too). I want you to have a joyous and uplifting experience of living the writer’s life. My suspicion is that you already do. And now you have the evidence at hand.
What’s the toughest thing you ever wrote? What was it toughest? Would you find it challenging in the same way now? Discuss! :)
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!