On St. Patrick's Day this year, I told my brother that I wanted to take a bus trip around Ireland and make a documentary about old men playing folk songs in bars. He told me I should do something else because that had "been done." Of course, I know this. But if I told you what my novel was about, you would tell me that had "been done" to death as well. The truth is, there really is nothing new under the sun--it's the perspective that we bring to our subject that can make it breathe with new life. That's like saying there is no point in living because it's been done before. Our experiences on this earth are all so varied that even if we are rather alike at our core, we have been shaped by our choices and our opportunities and experiences and have taken an infinite number of alternative paths to get to what we consider our "self" today. I have chosen for my art to be informed by the authors and filmmakers I respect, and I'm sure that I do steal from them in some ways, just as I take advice from and aspire to be like people in my real life who I admire.
Why this validated me: I already knew that there was no such thing as a truly original idea, so that didn't affect me very much. But then, Austin said:
"Your job is to collect ideas. The best way to collect ideas is to read. Read, read, read, read, read. Read the newspaper. Read the weather. Read the signs on the road. Read the faces of strangers. The more you read, the more you can choose to be influenced by."
So the $20 I spent on used books at Goodwill this weekend was an investment in my future. I really do love to read. I love it almost more than anything, which is sometimes unfortunate because it's so damn antisocial, but in general it is an inspiring activity. Last weekend I was sitting on the couch with a notebook while reading "Walden," and K asked me if I was "writing Thoreau." I wasn't, of course, but while I was reading it kept inspiring me to express similar sentiments in my own work (hence the frenzied notetaking and his suspicion). It was like running up a hill over and over again (reading passages), jumping off a rock when I reached the top (sparking an idea) and swimming around in a lake below (my own project) before running up the hill again.
Sometimes I do feel like I'm "not ready" to write my masterpiece. I know I have a hell of a lot more living to do before I can really give anything truly meaningful back to the world. But the fact of the matter is we probably will never be able to completely comprehend ourselves, especially as we continue living and changing and adapting to our environment and learning new things and having new experiences and meeting new characters. "Who I am" is always in flux, and it always will be. Sure, we will hopefully be able to explain ourselves and why we believe certain things or why we behave a certain way, but, as he said, "it’s in the act of making things that we figure out who we are." This is absolutely true. I have been journaling since I was in third grade, both about what was going on in my shallowest day-to-day life and my deepest innermost thoughts (of course, when I was eight this was mostly a laundry list of the candy I was able to eat that day, but you have to start somewhere). However, even if my consumption of gummy worms was what I deemed most worthy of record, I was also creating paper dolls by cutting photos of models out of my mother's catalogues and dreaming up exciting lives for them, or staging plays in the backyard with the neighborhood kids. I was constantly creating. I had no idea what I wanted out of life or why I was doing those things, I didn't even think about it. All I wanted to do was create, and that has been such an enormous part of my life ever since. I can't even imagine who I would be right now if I were only just starting to explore the numerous artistic avenues--I imagine I would get lost pretty quickly. The trouble is, a lot of the time I do feel like I don't know anything, that everybody is more talented and more articulate and more interesting than I am and I will never produce anything worthwhile.
Why this validated me: Austin basically says that you should just keep making until you make "it." It, to me, is the ultimate body of work. I am trying to externalize my internal experience and create something that can be understood and appreciated from an outsider's perspective. I want to create something that others can identify with, so I'm going to tell myself that's what I'm doing. Deep down, I do think that is what I'm doing--I hope that's what I'm doing--but if this particular book doesn't do it, I'll keep trying. I'll fake it until I make it:
"The point is: all the world’s a stage. You need a stage and you need a costume and you need a script. The stage is your workspace. It can be a studio, a desk, or a sketchbook. The costume is your outfit, your painting pants, or your writing slippers, or your funny hat that gives you ideas. The script is just plain old time. An hour here, or an hour there. A script for a play is just time measured out for things to happen. Fake it ’til you make it."
This is so obvious, but I feel like artists often get sidetracked by what other people seem to want to read or watch and abandon their own tastes in favor of pleasing others. As I've mentioned, I read a lot and I read favorite authors religiously and almost indiscriminately. I would go so far as to say that I have an unconditional love for those writers who made me sit up and take notice in the beginning, and even if they slip up now and then I continue to believe in them. As I mentioned before, I'm sure I steal some ideas from those authors, not because I am purposefully plaigiarizing but because their philosophies have become so ingrained in my own that I'm not sure I would be able to avoid expanding on those same ideas, but I definitely know that I don't want to. Those are the books that got me fired up, that changed the way I thought, that affected my life--those are the books that I want to read, so those are the books I should try to write.
Why this validated me: Austin says, "All fiction, in fact, is fan fiction." I can only hope that my books might invite comparison to Simone de Beauvoir or Doris Lessing or Margaret Atwood or Erica Jong. To say that the likelihood of the NYT naming me the next Simone de Beauvoir on my book jacket is slim would be the understatement of the century, but I do aspire to inspire the way that I was, and I do feel like there aren't enough women in our generation writing about the philosophy of life in the same way. Most of my favorite female authors had their heyday in the sixties and seventies. So maybe I am a fan. I want to be that voice for our generation. Lofty, yes?
This is a big one for me. Last summer I mentioned that I was writing my novel by hand--in notebooks, with a pen. I have always preferred the thick expanse of college ruled paper to the computer's impatiently blinking cursor, and there is something so much more organic about the flow of phrases from mind, through matter, and onto paper. I feel so much more connected to what I am creating when I am using my hands, without the hindrance of a machine. I feel the same way about sewing. I hate my sewing machine. She is a fickle bitch, humming merrily along one minute, then inexplicably shuddering to a shredding, snapping halt the next. But I have always felt impaired by technology (which is funny because I was a film major--I think film was the closest I could come to actually capturing what was going on in front of me with a minimal amount of technological intervention). I remember very clearly the nervous breakdown I had in my introductory film production class when I tried to set up my own lighting equipment and really just wanted to smash it all on the floor in a fit of frustration. And my sewing machine. The godforsaken devil. Before my mom handed it over, I was altering everything by hand--mostly hemming, but still. It took a long time but it was quiet and meditative and my fingers rarely failed me. I scalloped a pair of shorts last week on the machine and knew I was in for a treat when I sat down to work and couldn't remember how to wind the bobbin. The very first step. It was all downhill from there, and though I somehow fumbled my way through to the end of the very last row of scallops, they are still structurally unsound and I was emotionally unsound by the time it was all over. This past month, I transferred all of my notebooks onto my laptop and started to organize and add to them, and I noticed that my writing started to change. I didn't like it as much... it felt more like blogwriting or screenwriting than writing-writing, which is fine but not the effect I was going for. It felt too casual. So I'm switching back. When I come up with an idea and want to write it down, I reach for my notebook, not my laptop. That's how I need to write my novel. Rage against the machine(s)!
Why this validated me: Because I knew it! People always find it odd that I am writing my novel by hand. But that's just the way it works for me. Austin says,
"I think the more that writing is made into a physical process, the better it is. You can feel the ink on paper. You can spread writing all over your desk and sort through it. You can lay it all out where you can look at it."
I've always known this but it's hard for me to accept. I'm constantly working on multiple projects, whether it be a screenplay and a TV pilot or a novel and a play. And there are always even more ideas germinating in my mind, waiting to be attended to at a later time. Still, I have a hard time setting one project aside to make room for another one. I guess kind of like this in all areas of my life--I'm not very good at multi-tasking and am secretly glad. I like to see things through completely before moving on the next. I wish that people gave all of their attention to one activity once and a while. K and I spent way too much time eating dinner in front of the television, occasionally while surfing the internet. I try to avoid this as much as possible, but it does still happen. Anyway, I do think that it is important to get outside of a project now and then, to step back when it isn't flowing anymore and come back to it when it calls. I've also suddenly rediscovered the importance of a social life. I was starting to feel like I was descending far too deep into my own psyche after reading and reading and writing so much and was beginning to feel a little self-righteous. So I am going to try to spend more time with my friends, outside of myself, having conversations. That will be my hobby. And sewing. Because if my scalloped shorts are any indication, I will never be able to make a living with my sewing machine.
Why this validated me: It made me feel okay about stepping away from projects and maybe working on something else for a while. It's not only allowed, it's necessary. And if I want to go out with friends on a Saturday night instead of holing up in a small room with a bottle of wine and a pen and paper, that's good too. Even if I have to spend the next day recovering and getting nothing accomplished.
"So the lesson is: take time to mess around. Have a hobby. It’s good for you, and you never know where it may lead you…"
For a creative person, life is research. The more adventures you have, however ordinary, the more in touch you will be with the human condition. You can only learn so much from books and films--you learn so much more from moving through the world.
I am very secretive about what I'm writing when I am writing it, and I am always reluctant when it finally comes time to share. I think this is fine because I want to make sure my work is the best it can be before I invite others to comment on and critique it. On the other hand, some people might prefer to have others along every step of the way, offering advice for improvement before getting so far along they can't turn back. We all work differently. This one didn't hit home quite as much because Austin's suggestion is that you put your work on the internet. Maybe that could work, but I honestly don't think that the internet is the proper forum for the writing I ultimately want to do. People tend to skim when reading online, but so much of reading is about what is between the lines, the little subtleties that you can miss if you're not paying close enough attention. I think that novels are meant to be read while curled up in a big chair with a glass of wine or a cup of tea. You're meant to be absorbed. The internet does not allow for absorption--there is always some other tab to explore or email to check or facebook status to change. Still, it's definitely a valid suggestion. And I would like to think that some of you guys might read my book one day :) I just have to 'do good work' first.