Daily Rituals: How Artists Work — Mason Currey

Daily Rituals is charming, and almost every entry feels like the right length; if anything, I would have liked each to be slightly longer, perhaps because the quirks and weirdnesses of the famous artists described provide justification for the quirks and weirdnesses of non-famous artists.

daily_ritualsThe answer to the title is “divergently,” but with some patterns. Many like walks, routines, and stimulants. Exasperation with TV is common, and even the non-writer artists tend to read. Many artists also exasperated lovers and spouses through their compulsions and tics. Given the low remunerative value of art and the low probability of success through recognition, being an artist is a compulsion for many of those described within—Currey even uses the word in his description of Patricia Highsmith: “Writing was less a source of pleasure for her than a compulsion, without which she was miserable.” Daily Rituals may be best read by anyone romantically entangled with or biologically related to artists, as well as any artists who want to justify their own weird predilections. I love it when people explain myself to me.

Currey wants to answer questions like, “are comfort and creativity incompatible, or is the opposite true: Is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?” But they don’t have answers, because artists work in all sorts of places in all sorts of ways. It’s like asking about alcoholics: people who really want to drink will drink in elegant bars like Pouring Ribbons or chug Natty Lites in a dark Chinatown alley. Most might prefer the former to the latter but will settle for the latter when necessary. Currey also writes:

“The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices.

Most of the artists in here establish routines whenever they can, much like the writers in Writers on Writing. The number of people who need routine, who need defaults, speaks to its utility, among artists or anyone trying to accomplish a task with an artist’s dedication (like entrepreneurs, who might be the artists of the modern age). Distraction might also be handier than ever, giving rise to essays like “Disconnection Distraction:

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

If you get into that habit, you’ll be well-informed on unimportant news and less likely to make the thing that becomes the news. One question you might ask is: “Are you reading or making the news?” Aim for the latter. The former isn’t wrong, exactly, and it’s worth reading a lot, but as a secondary, not a primary, activity. Reading the news on the Internet or checking e-mail are especially dangerous in this regard because they can feel like working though they’re not.

I mentioned the compulsive aspect of art. That reappears again and again. Currey writes of Simone de Beauvoir that “when she took her annual two- or three-month vacations, she found herself growing bored and uncomfortable after a few weeks away from her work.” Long, pointless idleness is is boring, like binging on TV, but that’s because most artists seem to like what they do, or like it like an addict likes. Voltaire’s secretary “estimated that, all told, they worked eighteen to twenty hours a day. for Voltaire, it was a perfect arrangement. ‘I love the cell,’ he wrote.”

Such stories may be why, in Currey’s words, “Looking at the achievements of past greats is alternately inspiring and utterly discouraging.” The line made me laugh because of the juxtaposition of opposites, but also because he’s expressing a fundamental truth: if you look at the work as work, it can be “discouraging,” since so many artists do so much of it, but if you look at it as an extended form of play, it should be “encouraging.” It should also be “encouraging” because you can do it too—if you want to. Which means the limiting factor between you and art is you—which oscillates back to discouragement.

Still, Daily Rituals is at its heart a manual for dealing with and/or understanding someone with an artistic disposition, which might be described as imagination and execution. A surprisingly large number of people seem to imagine that being an artist is all about the “imagination” part and not much at all about the execution part; wandering around coffeeshops, bars, and parties, doffing a funny hat, and making enigmatic pronouncements is not the majority of what being an artist, broadly defined, is about. It’s about results, and Daily Rituals is about getting them and enabling the conditions necessary to get them. “Necessary” is the key word: a condition may be necessary but not sufficient, and it’s possible to treat a daily ritual as an empty ritual with no real output.

There are also a fairly wide range of ways to succeed. Some artists do spend a lot of time drunk or at parties. At least one prefers to work hungover, which would make me crazy. The artists appear approximately split between those who like noise and those who prefer quiet. I’m among the latter and can barely believe that anyone really gets anything done in noisy coffeeshops, tapping on laptops, but enough successful writers have testified to the contrary that I’m forced to believe them. The fundamental idea remains, however, that artists are artists because of their output. That’s it.

Some passages in Daily Rituals are funny; you wouldn’t expect this book to be a comedy and yet I laughed frequently. Two examples:

[John Cheever] had what appears to have been an unusually robust sex drive (the actress Hope Lange, who had a brief affair with Cheever, said that he was ‘the horniest man [she] ever met’) combined with frequent bouts of impotence, probably brought on by his alcoholism but no doubt made worse by his sexual guilt and a frequently rocky marriage. All of this was distracting from his work, especially since Cheever placed a high value on the salutary effects of erotic release. He thought that his constitution required at least ‘two or three orgasms a week’ and he believed that sexual stimulation improved his concentration and even his eyesight: ‘With a stiff prick I can read the small print in prayer books but with a limp prick I can barely read newspaper headlines.’

or:

The German poet, historian, philosopher, and playwright [Friedrich Schiller] kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom; he said that he needed their decaying smell in order to feel the urge to write.

How to be a faster writer: Don't

There’s a Slate article making the rounds on “How to be a faster writer,” which has lots of good advice, including some that a lot of people don’t seem to appreciate (like: you don’t become a good writer over night; you grow into it, like any other cognitively challenging skill.) It’s also got some not-so-good advice:

The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don’t look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

If research, outline, and so forth are actually part of the writing process, I think they can be smoothly integrated with the art of writing itself (as I write this, the Slate article I’m responding to is on the right and the Textmate window on the left, letting me look back and forth).

When I was writing completely unpublishable novels, I didn’t use outlines, and I ended up with piles of words that utterly lacked narrative tension and the many good qualities that stem from narrative tension. Such piles of words didn’t have much point, which more astute readers observed. One told me to think about writing a novel in which something happens.

So I went through a three-novel phase during which I’d heavily outline, and I’d usually have the outline on one screen (or one side of the screen) and a main document on the other. This prevented me from getting “stuck” or from writing off into nowhereville without the structure of a scene. A lot of amateur writers have trouble with plot: they think their novels should resemble famous ones they’ve read in school, in which characters spend a lot of time talking about their feelings in a very deep way, or the sense of being lost, or the ennui imparted by the modern world. There’s nothing precisely wrong with this sort of writing, if done well, but most people seem to like reading (and writing) novels where something happens in a series scenes that build to a climax better. Sure, a lot of novels you’ve read in school don’t really do that for various reasons, some very good, but if you imitate them, you’ll often be doing yourself and your reader a disservice. If you’re unconsciously imitating the boring novels you’ve read in school, that’s even worse, because you don’t have enough command over your craft to know what you’re doing.

These days, I still make a bit of an outline, but I can do a lot of the outlining in my head—the last novel I finished, One Step Into the Labyrinth, really needed an outline because the plot was complex; about half a dozen literary agents have the full manuscript or a piece of it, so you may yet see it in bookstores near you. The novel I’m working on now isn’t as complex, and although I’m not using an outline, I’m still writing in scenes that build up to something. In essence, I’ve learned how to write in scenes without necessarily needing an external structure to guide those scenes and make sure they work towards a whole. I suspect this to be a sign of growth, and, I hope, not a malignant sign, like cancer.

My Dad doesn’t write proposals using outlines. He’s internalized virtually everything he needs to know about delivering human services. When I gave technical writing students a proposal writing assignment for the Department of Education’s Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) Program, however, I knew I couldn’t expect them to write like my Dad did, because what’s appropriate for experts isn’t appropriate for amateurs. I couldn’t just give them an RFP and let ’em rip—I had to get them to think about how services should actually be delivered and real-world constraints; many had a charmingly strong vision of the power and competence of volunteers. Others wanted to hire 30 staff people on an RFP that offered a $230,000 / year grant. Virtually all had to be taught to read between the lines. My Dad—and these days, I—will do that automatically.

Slate says that, during writing

the writer’s brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.

That’s basically what I’m describing above. Is something that took me a long time to grow but now that ability to be a writer, editor, and audience simultaneously exists. Even before it did, however, I used notes, outlines, a miscellaneous file, doodled; sometimes I had, and have, a chunk of text that I know will fit in a particular spot, as long as I find it, usually by digging through a miscellaneous file. In the novel I’m working on now, I’m still using two screens, as shown in the screenshots to the right (click to make them larger). Note: because this is work-in-progress, try not to read the text, because it’s not particularly important what it says and the conversation I was working on last night doesn’t make sense or have the same resonance out of context.

Anyway, as you can see, one screenshot shows my main window: I’m trying to use a program named Scrivener for the first time, which has a somewhat steep learning curve but is probably very useful for a novel with multiple speakers. The other is a second, 23″ Dell monitor which has a list of characters and a miscellaneous file where I drop notes, phrases, ideas, and so forth. I’m using Word at the moment, but I’ve used Mellel and all manner of other writing programs for this purpose. Nothing even remotely sophisticated is happening on those screens, so the word processor doesn’t matter much.

I can go for long stretches without referencing the second monitor, depending on the situation. But the second monitor, if anything, helps me stay in active writing mode. If I get an idea tangential to the main thread that’s developing, I don’t need to do a conditional jump and then try to find my way back to the main narrative. I hit the miscellaneous file, dump a couple sentences on the idea, and return to the main workspace. Sometimes I will read a lot of sentences on the second screen, comparing them with ones on the first. I don’t think this makes me move into strict “reviewing/evaluating mode,” because that’s part of the way I imagine “how [my] imagined readership will interpret what’s being written.” This might be something that comes from skill.

I’ve gone on long enough about a minor point of contention. I’d like to tremendously agree with some of the other points made in Slate, like this:

Second, read everything, all the time. That’s the only way to build the general knowledge that you can tuck away in long-term memory, only to one day have it magically surface when you’re searching for just the right turn of phrase. And, lastly, the trickiest part of writing—from a cognitive perspective—is getting outside of yourself, of seeing your writing through the eyes of others.

When people ask me what they should do to be good writers, I tell them to read a lot and write a lot. And, ideally, find a good editor. It’s nice to see that “science” agrees. If you pay enough attention to writers and would-be writers, I think it becomes apparent that a lot of them don’t quite have enough knowledge to pull off what they’re trying to do—yet. In her interview with James Franco, Terry Gross says that “I think that every young writer or painter actually goes through that […] putting out everything inside them, but there isn’t much inside them yet because they’re young and unformed.” And Franco agrees that he experienced the problems or possibilities Gross describes.

I should also explain why the last word of my post title is “Don’t.” I put it there because you don’t learn to become a faster writer through some kind of trick that will make you magically produce text faster. You become a better writer through experience and through reading. Those aren’t things you can do in a day or a week or a month. They’re things you do over years. The only way to start if you haven’t already is to start now, especially since the greatest value in writing isn’t always in writing for other people. I’ve been rereading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which was even better the second time around than the first (probably because now I have the background knowledge to really grok it). He says:

[I]t is never a waste to write for intrinsic reasons. First of all, writing gives the mind a disciplined means of expression. It allows one to record events and experiences so that they can be easily recalled, and relived in the future. It is a way to analyze and understand experiences, a self-communication that brings order to them.

“A disciplined means of expression” is available to anyone, even someone with no readers. Csikszentmihalyi gets that writing isn’t just about writing: “If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. [. . .] It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place.” It’s about generating ideas that emerge through an attempt to express those ideas (Paul Graham says something similar in The Age of the Essay). Given that writing is about itself, we shouldn’t be as worried about how fast we’re writing; as demonstrated in Flow, when we’re really writing well we often won’t have a sense of time, because we’ll be in a moment-to-moment existence in which our task demands complete concentration and little else matters. Doesn’t that sound better than merely getting words on the page? It sure does to me.

By the way, you shouldn’t valorize writers and writing too much, because writing can have strange effects on the mind. In Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Grady Tripp describes “the midnight disease” that writers suffer from,

[…] which started out as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to ‘fit in’ by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your hostile gaze.

And I don’t think this unique to writer: programmers, hackers, engineers, scientists, and others probably feel too: all the people who, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still desire to walk free under the sun even as they are compelled to return to darkness and solitude. The solitude is what it takes to do the work: but for writers, they’re writing about people, which is odd that one needs to get away from people to describe people, but it’s nonetheless true for many of us.

By the way, most of those delicious quotes come from DevonThink Pro, but they’re still evidence that I’ve done a certain amount of reading and thinking about writing that enabled me to write this post over an hour or so (back to Slate: “It’s obviously a huge help to write about a subject you know well”). If I was 19 and writing this post, I simply wouldn’t have been able to write it. Not like this, anyway. If you look at the blog archives—I discourage you, but if you must, you must—and compare early posts to the posts I write these days, there simply is no comparison. That’s because I’ve learned how to write blog posts effectively, or somewhat effectively, anyway. I’m capable of doing things now that I simply couldn’t do then. Want to really write faster? You can teach yourself how in ten years.

How to be a faster writer: Don’t

There’s a Slate article making the rounds on “How to be a faster writer,” which has lots of good advice, including some that a lot of people don’t seem to appreciate (like: you don’t become a good writer over night; you grow into it, like any other cognitively challenging skill.) It’s also got some not-so-good advice:

The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don’t look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

If research, outline, and so forth are actually part of the writing process, I think they can be smoothly integrated with the art of writing itself (as I write this, the Slate article I’m responding to is on the right and the Textmate window on the left, letting me look back and forth).

When I was writing completely unpublishable novels, I didn’t use outlines, and I ended up with piles of words that utterly lacked narrative tension and the many good qualities that stem from narrative tension. Such piles of words didn’t have much point, which more astute readers observed. One told me to think about writing a novel in which something happens.

So I went through a three-novel phase during which I’d heavily outline, and I’d usually have the outline on one screen (or one side of the screen) and a main document on the other. This prevented me from getting “stuck” or from writing off into nowhereville without the structure of a scene. A lot of amateur writers have trouble with plot: they think their novels should resemble famous ones they’ve read in school, in which characters spend a lot of time talking about their feelings in a very deep way, or the sense of being lost, or the ennui imparted by the modern world. There’s nothing precisely wrong with this sort of writing, if done well, but most people seem to like reading (and writing) novels where something happens in a series scenes that build to a climax better. Sure, a lot of novels you’ve read in school don’t really do that for various reasons, some very good, but if you imitate them, you’ll often be doing yourself and your reader a disservice. If you’re unconsciously imitating the boring novels you’ve read in school, that’s even worse, because you don’t have enough command over your craft to know what you’re doing.

These days, I still make a bit of an outline, but I can do a lot of the outlining in my head—the last novel I finished, One Step Into the Labyrinth, really needed an outline because the plot was complex; about half a dozen literary agents have the full manuscript or a piece of it, so you may yet see it in bookstores near you. The novel I’m working on now isn’t as complex, and although I’m not using an outline, I’m still writing in scenes that build up to something. In essence, I’ve learned how to write in scenes without necessarily needing an external structure to guide those scenes and make sure they work towards a whole. I suspect this to be a sign of growth, and, I hope, not a malignant sign, like cancer.

My Dad doesn’t write proposals using outlines. He’s internalized virtually everything he needs to know about delivering human services. When I gave technical writing students a proposal writing assignment for the Department of Education’s Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) Program, however, I knew I couldn’t expect them to write like my Dad did, because what’s appropriate for experts isn’t appropriate for amateurs. I couldn’t just give them an RFP and let ’em rip—I had to get them to think about how services should actually be delivered and real-world constraints; many had a charmingly strong vision of the power and competence of volunteers. Others wanted to hire 30 staff people on an RFP that offered a $230,000 / year grant. Virtually all had to be taught to read between the lines. My Dad—and these days, I—will do that automatically.

Slate says that, during writing

the writer’s brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.

That’s basically what I’m describing above. Is something that took me a long time to grow but now that ability to be a writer, editor, and audience simultaneously exists. Even before it did, however, I used notes, outlines, a miscellaneous file, doodled; sometimes I had, and have, a chunk of text that I know will fit in a particular spot, as long as I find it, usually by digging through a miscellaneous file. In the novel I’m working on now, I’m still using two screens, as shown in the screenshots to the right (click to make them larger). Note: because this is work-in-progress, try not to read the text, because it’s not particularly important what it says and the conversation I was working on last night doesn’t make sense or have the same resonance out of context.

Anyway, as you can see, one screenshot shows my main window: I’m trying to use a program named Scrivener for the first time, which has a somewhat steep learning curve but is probably very useful for a novel with multiple speakers. The other is a second, 23″ Dell monitor which has a list of characters and a miscellaneous file where I drop notes, phrases, ideas, and so forth. I’m using Word at the moment, but I’ve used Mellel and all manner of other writing programs for this purpose. Nothing even remotely sophisticated is happening on those screens, so the word processor doesn’t matter much.

I can go for long stretches without referencing the second monitor, depending on the situation. But the second monitor, if anything, helps me stay in active writing mode. If I get an idea tangential to the main thread that’s developing, I don’t need to do a conditional jump and then try to find my way back to the main narrative. I hit the miscellaneous file, dump a couple sentences on the idea, and return to the main workspace. Sometimes I will read a lot of sentences on the second screen, comparing them with ones on the first. I don’t think this makes me move into strict “reviewing/evaluating mode,” because that’s part of the way I imagine “how [my] imagined readership will interpret what’s being written.” This might be something that comes from skill.

I’ve gone on long enough about a minor point of contention. I’d like to tremendously agree with some of the other points made in Slate, like this:

Second, read everything, all the time. That’s the only way to build the general knowledge that you can tuck away in long-term memory, only to one day have it magically surface when you’re searching for just the right turn of phrase. And, lastly, the trickiest part of writing—from a cognitive perspective—is getting outside of yourself, of seeing your writing through the eyes of others.

When people ask me what they should do to be good writers, I tell them to read a lot and write a lot. And, ideally, find a good editor. It’s nice to see that “science” agrees. If you pay enough attention to writers and would-be writers, I think it becomes apparent that a lot of them don’t quite have enough knowledge to pull off what they’re trying to do—yet. In her interview with James Franco, Terry Gross says that “I think that every young writer or painter actually goes through that […] putting out everything inside them, but there isn’t much inside them yet because they’re young and unformed.” And Franco agrees that he experienced the problems or possibilities Gross describes.

I should also explain why the last word of my post title is “Don’t.” I put it there because you don’t learn to become a faster writer through some kind of trick that will make you magically produce text faster. You become a better writer through experience and through reading. Those aren’t things you can do in a day or a week or a month. They’re things you do over years. The only way to start if you haven’t already is to start now, especially since the greatest value in writing isn’t always in writing for other people. I’ve been rereading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which was even better the second time around than the first (probably because now I have the background knowledge to really grok it). He says:

[I]t is never a waste to write for intrinsic reasons. First of all, writing gives the mind a disciplined means of expression. It allows one to record events and experiences so that they can be easily recalled, and relived in the future. It is a way to analyze and understand experiences, a self-communication that brings order to them.

“A disciplined means of expression” is available to anyone, even someone with no readers. Csikszentmihalyi gets that writing isn’t just about writing: “If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. [. . .] It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place.” It’s about generating ideas that emerge through an attempt to express those ideas (Paul Graham says something similar in The Age of the Essay). Given that writing is about itself, we shouldn’t be as worried about how fast we’re writing; as demonstrated in Flow, when we’re really writing well we often won’t have a sense of time, because we’ll be in a moment-to-moment existence in which our task demands complete concentration and little else matters. Doesn’t that sound better than merely getting words on the page? It sure does to me.

By the way, you shouldn’t valorize writers and writing too much, because writing can have strange effects on the mind. In Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Grady Tripp describes “the midnight disease” that writers suffer from,

[…] which started out as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to ‘fit in’ by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your hostile gaze.

And I don’t think this unique to writer: programmers, hackers, engineers, scientists, and others probably feel too: all the people who, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still desire to walk free under the sun even as they are compelled to return to darkness and solitude. The solitude is what it takes to do the work: but for writers, they’re writing about people, which is odd that one needs to get away from people to describe people, but it’s nonetheless true for many of us.

By the way, most of those delicious quotes come from DevonThink Pro, but they’re still evidence that I’ve done a certain amount of reading and thinking about writing that enabled me to write this post over an hour or so (back to Slate: “It’s obviously a huge help to write about a subject you know well”). If I was 19 and writing this post, I simply wouldn’t have been able to write it. Not like this, anyway. If you look at the blog archives—I discourage you, but if you must, you must—and compare early posts to the posts I write these days, there simply is no comparison. That’s because I’ve learned how to write blog posts effectively, or somewhat effectively, anyway. I’m capable of doing things now that I simply couldn’t do then. Want to really write faster? You can teach yourself how in ten years.

So you wanna be a writer: What Anthony Bourdain can tell you even when he's not talking about writing

There’s a great essay called “So You Wanna Be a Chef” by Anthony Bourdain, who wrote Kitchen Confidential. Based on “So You Wanna Be a Chef,” culinary schools sound rather like MFA programs. Money drives both decisions, even when artistry is supposed to:

But the minute you graduate from school—unless you have a deep-pocketed Mommy and Daddy or substantial savings—you’re already up against the wall. Two nearly unpaid years wandering Europe or New York, learning from the masters, is rarely an option. You need to make money NOW.

You could replace “cooking” with “writing” and “being a chef” with “being a writer” in Bourdain’s essay and have more or less the same outcome. Going into the “hotels and country clubs” side of the business is like getting tenure as a professor. There are a few differences between the fields—you’re never too old to be a writer—but similarities proliferate. Like this:

Male, female, gay, straight, legal, illegal, country of origin—who cares? You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours—like you said you could, and like the job requires—or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen.

You can either sit (or stand) at a computer for years, producing words, or you can’t. There’s no lying at the keyboard. If you want to be a writer, the keyboard is where you’re going to spend a lot of your time (Michael Chabon on book tour in Seattle for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: “If you want to write a novel you have to sit on your ass.” I can testify that the same is true of writing a blog). All the chatter in the world about how how you prefer early Ian McEwan to late Ian McEwan isn’t going to help you produce words.

As with many disciplines, what’s important is not just being good or adequate—it’s being amazing. “There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits (which I have) and the kind of discipline required of a cook at Robuchon.” There is a big difference between good work habits and being an artist: a surprisingly large number of people can crap out a novel if given sufficient time and motivation. Milan Kundera in The Curtain:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

This overstates the case: an indifferent or “mediocre” novel by a “mediocre novelist” does not tangibly hurt anyone, and its most likely fate is to be ignored—which is the most likely fate of any novelist. But the writer needs to aspire “to a lasting aesthetic value,” which means that merely existing and producing something isn’t enough. Hence my derogatory phrase: “crap out a novel.”

Instead of traveling to “Find out how other people live and eat and cook,” as Bourdain tells the chef to do, the writer must read widely and voraciously and omnivorously. If you’re writing in a genre, read the classics. If you’re a literary novelist, read some of the better genre fiction (it’s out there). Read books about writing. Read books not about writing to learn how the world works. Get out of your literary comfort zone with some frequency. You’ll need it.

Also wise: “Treating despair with drugs and alcohol is a time-honored tradition—I’d just advise you to assess honestly if it’s really as bad and as intractable a situation as you think.” Steven King writes in On Writing about his own problems with drugs. He points out that drinking or taking drugs doesn’t make you a writer—if you’re a writer, you might drink or take drugs, but skipping straight to the drugs doesn’t do anything for you.

The bottom line: creative fields and top performers in many disciplines appear to have more in common than not. From what I’ve read, the same basic dynamic described by Bourdain applies not just to cooking and writing, but to software hacking, most kinds of research, athletes, architecture, music, and most forms of art. Don’t pursue these fields unless you want to master them. And you probably don’t. And if you do, you might be better off not realizing how difficult they are before you start, because you might never start.

So you wanna be a writer: What Anthony Bourdain can tell you even when he’s not talking about writing

There’s a great essay called “So You Wanna Be a Chef” by Anthony Bourdain, who wrote Kitchen Confidential. Based on “So You Wanna Be a Chef,” culinary schools sound rather like MFA programs. Money drives both decisions, even when artistry is supposed to:

But the minute you graduate from school—unless you have a deep-pocketed Mommy and Daddy or substantial savings—you’re already up against the wall. Two nearly unpaid years wandering Europe or New York, learning from the masters, is rarely an option. You need to make money NOW.

You could replace “cooking” with “writing” and “being a chef” with “being a writer” in Bourdain’s essay and have more or less the same outcome. Going into the “hotels and country clubs” side of the business is like getting tenure as a professor. There are a few differences between the fields—you’re never too old to be a writer—but similarities proliferate. Like this:

Male, female, gay, straight, legal, illegal, country of origin—who cares? You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours—like you said you could, and like the job requires—or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen.

You can either sit (or stand) at a computer for years, producing words, or you can’t. There’s no lying at the keyboard. If you want to be a writer, the keyboard is where you’re going to spend a lot of your time (Michael Chabon on book tour in Seattle for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: “If you want to write a novel you have to sit on your ass.” I can testify that the same is true of writing a blog). All the chatter in the world about how how you prefer early Ian McEwan to late Ian McEwan isn’t going to help you produce words.

As with many disciplines, what’s important is not just being good or adequate—it’s being amazing. “There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits (which I have) and the kind of discipline required of a cook at Robuchon.” There is a big difference between good work habits and being an artist: a surprisingly large number of people can crap out a novel if given sufficient time and motivation. Milan Kundera in The Curtain:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

This overstates the case: an indifferent or “mediocre” novel by a “mediocre novelist” does not tangibly hurt anyone, and its most likely fate is to be ignored—which is the most likely fate of any novelist. But the writer needs to aspire “to a lasting aesthetic value,” which means that merely existing and producing something isn’t enough. Hence my derogatory phrase: “crap out a novel.”

Instead of traveling to “Find out how other people live and eat and cook,” as Bourdain tells the chef to do, the writer must read widely and voraciously and omnivorously. If you’re writing in a genre, read the classics. If you’re a literary novelist, read some of the better genre fiction (it’s out there). Read books about writing. Read books not about writing to learn how the world works. Get out of your literary comfort zone with some frequency. You’ll need it.

Also wise: “Treating despair with drugs and alcohol is a time-honored tradition—I’d just advise you to assess honestly if it’s really as bad and as intractable a situation as you think.” Steven King writes in On Writing about his own problems with drugs. He points out that drinking or taking drugs doesn’t make you a writer—if you’re a writer, you might drink or take drugs, but skipping straight to the drugs doesn’t do anything for you.

The bottom line: creative fields and top performers in many disciplines appear to have more in common than not. From what I’ve read, the same basic dynamic described by Bourdain applies not just to cooking and writing, but to software hacking, most kinds of research, athletes, architecture, music, and most forms of art. Don’t pursue these fields unless you want to master them. And you probably don’t. And if you do, you might be better off not realizing how difficult they are before you start, because you might never start.

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