Three tales of creative incompetence
“I mean, honestly, it was terrible and I had no idea what I was doing.”
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Wayne Thiebaud on finding “charm and freedom” in your work.
The other week, on Twitter, the writer Austin Kleon shared an excerpt of a Joy Williams interview in which Williams describes writing a guidebook about the Florida Keys in the 1980s. If you’re not familiar with Williams, she is one of our most celebrated contemporary fiction writers, and here she was telling the Paris Review that she had once written a guidebook for money, and that it had been kind of a disaster:
Random House was doing this series—Virginia, the Hamptons, the Keys. The Keys were still kind of strange and unspoiled in the eighties. I went around the state and wrote things down, but nobody talked to me. Nobody! I’d limp into these bed-and-breakfasts and people would snarl at me and not want to talk. I mean, honestly, it was terrible and I had no idea what I was doing. And it wasn’t edited, nobody edited it. Have you seen the afterword, the final edition, when I didn’t want to update it anymore? Here I am, worn out and saying how shitty everything in the Keys has become, and Random House just went ahead and put the afterword in there. Isn’t that amazing? That’s the only book I’ve ever made money from.
I love everything about this passage: Williams’s exuberant (and at the same time exhausted) voice, her admission that the guidebook is the only book she’s ever made money from (!), and especially the sentence right in the middle: I mean, honestly, it was terrible and I had no idea what I was doing. Isn’t this, in fact, the starting point of so many ultimately terrific projects?
That Williams line reminded me of a similar admission from Joan Didion, in the preface to her first book of essays, 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem:
I am not sure what more I could tell you about these pieces. I could tell you that I liked doing some of them more than others, but that all of them were hard for me to do, and took more time than perhaps they were worth; that there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.
The paragraph continues in this vein for another several sentences, building up to Didion’s famous closing line writers are always selling somebody out, which is indeed a great line, but the part that has stayed with me is her description of how she always arrived at a point of total hopelessness, to the extent that she “cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke.” Having felt this way, on and off, for much of the last two years, I am cheered to be reminded that this is a legitimate part of the process!
I have one more cherished example, from Roger Angell’s foreword to the fourth edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. This is the opening paragraph:
The first writer I watched at work was my stepfather, E. B. White. Each Tuesday morning, he would close his study door and sit down to write the “Notes and Comment” page for The New Yorker. The task was familiar to him—he was required to file a few hundred words of editorial or personal commentary on some topic in or out of the news that week—but the sounds of his typewriter from his room came out in hesitant bursts, with long silences in between. Hours went by. Summoned at last for lunch, he was silent and preoccupied, and soon excused himself to get back to the job. When the copy went off at last, in the afternoon RFD pouch—we were in Maine, a day’s mail away from New York—he rarely seemed satisfied. “It isn’t good enough,” he said sometimes. “I wish it were better.”
I titled this issue “Three tales of creative incompetence” not because I think that Joy Williams or Joan Didion or E. B. White could ever remotely qualify as incompetent but because I think that feeling incompetent while making something (and this doesn’t just apply to writers) is a good thing, maybe even the goal. It means that you’re pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, that you’re not wedded to a predetermined outcome, that you’re alive to all the difficulties and contradictions of the project at hand, and if you stick with it and don’t give up and have patience (so many ifs!) it could ultimately lead to something that is a surprise even to yourself.
Advice on Sharing Your Work
I’ve been writing really long—perhaps too long—answers in the advice column lately, so here’s a brief one for a change:
Here’s my current creative dilemma: I began a project late last year shooting cemeteries on expired film and shared about it quite frequently online in the first few weeks of January. I felt a lot of momentum and was excited to share the process … until I wasn’t. As I lost momentum with sharing online, I also lost momentum with the project and haven’t shot a single roll of film for the project for a few weeks now. I’m trying to balance it all on the concept of rest and its importance to an artist, but I can’t help but feel lazy. And because I began the project sharing so willy-nilly, I feel a responsibility to my audience to continue sharing at some point. But here’s my question—how do we know how much we should share? I’ve seen people recommend not sharing anything until it’s all finished, but I’ve seen plenty of other people rave on about sharing as you go. I suppose as in all things, it depends. But I was curious if you might have some helpful words on the subject!
It definitely depends! I think different phases of a project benefit from different levels of sharing, and the only way to know what’s right is to feel it out as you go. It sounds like, at first, you were getting a lot of energy from sharing this project—that’s great. I know that, for me, feeling accountable to someone—whether it’s an editor or readers of this newsletter or the writing group I recently joined—is an excellent way to stay with a project when I feel stuck. But, at the same time, there are phases of writing that I just do not want to share, and I think that’s OK too. Sometimes the work is too fragile to withstand scrutiny, or even the thought of scrutiny. Similarly, sometimes it’s not ready to be packaged in the way that social media forces everything to be. When I feel bad about not tweeting more often (I’m a writer, I should have a million clever little stray thoughts to share, right? er, not really) I think of something the writer Maggie Nelson told me when I did a brief phone interview with her for my second Daily Rituals book:
I don’t mean to sound like a boxer or something, but I do feel like there’s a little bit of, like, “shooting your wad” about your thoughts before you’ve collected them. . . . To me, a slow dribble of my thoughts before they’ve been allowed to balloon up in my unconscious and reach that point where I start writing sentences—like, if I were to slowly dribble my little teeny thoughts on Twitter or something, I just feel like I would kill the project, the way it feels inside me. So I can’t partake in that too much.
I can relate: For me, posting in-progress things on social media has a way of making them feel fixed when perhaps they shouldn’t be fixed yet. Maybe you’ve arrived at a similar stage with this photo project?
As for feeling a responsibility to your audience, I think there are ways to include them in the process other than actually sharing the work-in-progress. For example, you could post something like what you wrote to me above—admit to your audience that you really enjoyed sharing the first part of this project but now you’ve lost momentum and you’re not sure what’s next. Or you could share things that you’re reading or looking at as you work on this project behind the scenes. Your audience might enjoy that even more. I think anyone trying to make stuff can relate to the dilemma of how much to share—not to mention the feeling of losing momentum on a project, or trying to find that line between rest and avoidance—and so they’ll naturally be interested in and respond to someone navigating that publicly.
Good luck! And if anyone reading this has more thoughts about this dilemma, by all means please share them in the comments section below.
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