Suspend Your Disbelief

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hey, you've got to hide your work away

astaireKathryn just sent me this article by Joseph Epstein (for In Character). From the first few paragraphs of “Blood, Sweat, and Words,” I thought the piece might explore how much of the effort behind an author’s work shows in the work itself (and what impact this has on said work’s overall effect); instead, it focuses more on how writers choose to talk, outside of actually making art, about the work that goes into doing so.

As a writer yourself, how do you feel about authors who, when they talk about the craft of writing or their personal process, make it all sound positively harrowing? Or downright easy?

I often enjoy discussions of what’s challenging, confusing, or surprising about, say, the problem of point of view; so long as writers stay specific and do not devolve into a whine, I must admit that I positively relish hearing the whys and hows of what makes writing hard. And I tend to cringe when someone happily claims that writing comes easily to him or her, that it emerges without any notable effort. (The whole “I wrote my novel like I was taking dictation!” affirmation causes me to scream silently and hope — deep, deep breaths — I’m not actually narrowing my eyes.)

And yet I’d absolutely agree with Epstein that an artist’s creation rarely triumphs by emerging bloated or sweat-stained from the work that created it. Fred Astaire, whom Epstein has recently written a book about, is a wonderful example of an artist who made the (incredibly difficult) work he did seem as natural as breathing, even as it resonated (and continues to resonate) with surprising, unnatural grace.

But I disagree with the claim that “[t]he only true grit connected with it ought to arrive when, thinking to complain about how hard it is to write, one is smart enough to shut up and silently grit one’s teeth.” Rather, I think it’s important for artists to feel that, away from our canvas or stage or novel pages, we can admit to each other — over a beer, in a letter, or even in a published essay — that, for most of us, making art is work. Valuable work. Work that, no matter how lucky we may be to do it, is nonetheless difficult, perplexing, time-consuming, and somehow a bit different each day. I’ve met many writers who feel that talking too much (or at all) about what makes writing hard only makes doing it harder, and I don’t wish to force Examination and Explication upon all writers all the time; I even agree that indulging in too many of such conversations can be tiresome or counterproductive, particularly if we have them instead of writing or use them as an excuse for not making something new. But I’d argue that discussing the mysteries of creation can often be quite inspiring, comforting, even disturbing in a productive sort of way.

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