Hi, everyone—I’m back from my four-week newsletter break with a reluctant realization: Sending this newsletter every Monday and making serious progress on my new book may be more than I can realistically manage going forward. So, starting today, at least for the next few months, I’ll be putting out the newsletter every other Monday. And instead of doing the advice column on the last Monday of every month, I’ll be doing it occasionally, whenever I receive a really meaty creative dilemma that I feel moved to answer at length.
To clear the decks for this new publishing schedule, I’ve decided to use today’s newsletter to answer all of the advice-column queries that have piled up in my inbox over the summer. So please enjoy this end-of-summer mega advice column—and please feel free to let me know what you think of my experiment in publishing less frequently (I’m guessing some of you may actually prefer receiving fewer emails?) by replying to this email or leaving a comment below.
Thanks, and see you in two weeks!
Does the World Need Another Writer?
I love the activity of writing itself, and the outcomes, to me at least, are quite satisfying. But as much as I enjoy writing for myself, I still want to give to the world what so many other authors have given to me. Since I don’t have the audience for this myself, I have to submit my writing somewhere—writing competitions, calls for papers, publishers, you name it. And submitting my work entails it being compared with the other submissions.
I understand that comparing artwork is often like comparing apples and eggs—it is not necessarily about quality. The apple tree has no business competing with the chicken. But compete they do, and not everybody can win—this is not a question of quality, but of quantity. Now I wonder—what if there are simply too many good writers out there?
I remember reading somewhere that the world does not need another writer, and I think it might be true. My question now is: When is it worth the fight? —Paula in Helsinki
I suppose it’s true that the world does not “need” another writer. Lord knows there are already enough of us vying for readers’ limited attention. And yet—how grateful I am that my favorite writers have decided to stick with it anyway! The world may not need their work, but this individual reader has found it tremendously entertaining, inspiring, and comforting.
As you submit your work, and experience the inevitable rejection that comes with that, and start to wonder if it’s worth keeping it up when there are so many other writers out there, I’d recommend that you try to remember the connection that an individual reader may experience with your work. Of course, you may never know when it happens. But I do think there’s a certain feeling you get as a writer, when you’ve finally captured something on the page and it just feels . . . right. When that happens, I think you can trust that someone out there will feel a spark of recognition, that feeling of: yes, life is just like this. James Baldwin once talked about this feeling:
This has happened to every one of us, I’m sure. You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks he is alone. That’s why art is important.
So, yeah, I think it’s worth the fight. I mean, what else are you going to do? If you’re thinking it may be more useful to be a pediatrician or a social worker or a climate scientist or something more straightforwardly oriented toward more straightforward societal ills—well, yes, sure. But the world needs artists too.
I’m writing to ask what you have learned in your research about “multipotentialites” or “multi-hyphenates,” folks who have many interests/abilities and the desire to pursue all of them. I am a dancer, visual artist and writer who makes a living as a dance/creative arts therapist. I have always scoffed at the “jack of all trades, master of none” expression, but as I get into my thirties, I am beginning to understand the limits of time, attention, and energy. Do you think one must pour everything into one craft in order to truly excel in a craft? Have you come across examples of people who have been masters of several crafts? What about multipotentialites who also lead fairly balanced lives? (i.e. not drug-addled, dysfunctional/negligent parents, partners, etc…) —Rachel in Walla Walla, Washington
First of all: I’m impressed that you’ve managed to carve out a niche for yourself as a dance/creative-arts therapist, how cool. Honestly, it sounds to me like you’ve already found a way to make your own “multipotentialities” cohere in a single practice. And I think maybe that’s the way to think of your situation in general—not as a bunch of disparate crafts but as a single craft that incorporates various disciplines.
The contemporary art world is full of people like this. Joan Jonas, for instance, is often called a video artist—but her work incorporates live performance, music, drawing, and writing. Or there’s someone like Roni Horn, who seems to move effortlessly between photography, drawing, sculpture, and writing. Or I was just reading about the Philadelphia artist Alex da Corte, whose work lies at the intersection of video, performance, sculpture, and installation art… Really, there are a million examples.
So the idea of being a dancer and a visual artist and a writer is not outrageous. I guess, again, it just has to do with how you approach your overall creative practice. If you think of these as separate disciplines that you’re pursuing concurrently—well, yes, that does seem like you’re spreading yourself a bit thin. But if you told me that you’re an artist whose work incorporates dance and writing, I’d think: interesting.
As for balanced lives—eek, that’s a tricky one. Pursuing ambitious creative work requires periods of intense focus, and that can make balance tricky, though it’s not impossible. I compiled my Daily Rituals books to see if/how people struck that balance, and there really is no one answer. Some worked virtually all the time; others worked surprisingly little! I do think, in general, that one’s daily routine can be a powerful tool for finding balance. If you take a hard look at what time you have available each day, and then set aside some section of it for your creative practice, that at least gives you a template for balance which can hopefully withstand life’s inevitable interruptions and crises. (Meaning: Yes, your routine will get blown up from time to time but you can always come back to it.)
There another possibility too: that you can strive for balance on a larger scale—i.e., there may be times when you’re obsessed with your work and put that at the center of your life, and there may be other times when you put your creative practice on the back burner while you attend to relationships, rest, making money, whatever. For many of us, I think that may be the more realistic path.
Too Many Hobbies?
My question concerns my struggle with focusing on one creative endeavour. I draw and garden at the moment, but I also really enjoy photography, painting, and playing the guitar. They are all hobbies that I want to expand, but I lack the time and frankly often the energy to dedicate myself to all of them at the same time. How have others felt about this? —Dana in Maastricht, the Netherlands
Your question is sort of similar to the previous one . . . except that, since you’re specifically asking about hobbies, I think the answer is actually quite straightforward. The great thing about hobbies is that there’s really no wrong way to do them. If you have several hobbies that you enjoy, and you don’t always have the time and energy to pursue all of them—I think that’s fine! Hobbies are about enjoyment, not achievement. As Austin Kleon wrote in his book Steal Like an Artist,
A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.
Now, if you aspire to make money or get famous off one of these creative pursuits—that’s a whole other challenge. But your question is about finding more time and energy for your multiple hobbies. I’d suggest that you focus on the energy part of the equation, because when something feels energizing, often we seem to find the time for it. I’m reminded of a quote from the actress Sarah Bernhardt. “Life engenders life,” she said, “energy creates energy. It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.”
I think that’s true, especially the “energy creates energy” part. So I’d recommend that you focus on whatever hobby gives you energy, and not worry if the others get neglected. And if you’re truly enervated by the whole lot, taking a class is a great way to inject some fresh energy into a pursuit. I know I said earlier that hobbies aren’t about achievement, but there’s no doubt that improving at a skill can be really rewarding and also kind of addictive (in a good way!).
The Magazine Pile
[Note: This question arrived after I mentioned sorting through a giant pile of magazines in preparation for a recent move.]
I am facing a creative magazine pile dilemma of my own. I am a designer, so naturally I love to save design publications just “in case” I might use them for inspiration in the future. A few years ago I moved to New York. I had successfully paired down a lot of my possessions, however I found it hard to pitch my magazines, so I took them halfway across the country. And here they sit, a few years later, mostly collecting dust on the shelf. It sounds silly to admit, but I’m creatively stuck. I don’t want to hold onto them forever. (Neither does my partner!) I DO want to make something with them. But I don’t know what I want to say. What can I realistically expect to create using these pages? Do you have a favorite magazine re-purposing exercise? —Christopher in New York City
Oh my gosh, this is a tough one! When my wife and I moved from NYC to LA eight years ago, we had a sizable magazine collection that we ruthlessly pared back, recycling pretty much everything—and now we regret it! So if you’ve already moved your magazines halfway across the country, I’m hesitant to encourage you to get rid of them (or even re-purpose them) now. Maybe you just need a better storage solution? I’m partial to these Muji polypropylene file boxes, which can make even a fairly ratty pile of magazines look like a Dieter Rams exhibition.
Sorry, I’m not answering your question at all. Honestly, my favorite way to “use” old magazines is to wait long enough that you don’t remember what’s in them, and then spend a lazy Sunday in bed with coffee and a big pile to flip through. Bliss!
If you must make something out of them, I feel like collage is a natural solution. Austin Kleon has a wealth of collage ideas on his blog. Or do you know the work of the husband-and-wife artists Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola? Holy moly. Stern’s midcentury photomontages (contributed to a popular women’s magazine in Argentina) make me want to go spend a few hundred hours cutting out and assembling images in various droll and surreal arrangements—maybe they’ll inspire the same feeling in you?
I’d also love to hear suggestions from readers on this one. Help Christopher with magazine-repurposing ideas below?
Fear of Commitment
I’ve come to the realization that my biggest problem as a writer is commitment. I’m afraid to commit to a single project because doing so (temporarily) closes the door to all of my other projects. I also worry that the project I pick might not be “good enough” by some arbitrary emotional measure. It might be arbitrary, but it still hurts! How do I sort through my pile of ideas and desires to choose what to focus on? —S, Buried Under the Idea Avalanche
Welcome to being a writer! I’ve felt this exact same way, and there a couple things that I like to remind myself. One is that finally just picking a project feels good! It’s a relief to focus on one idea instead of worrying about which idea is the “best” and what will happen to all your other ideas. And that feeling of relief is a great way to kick off a new project and build momentum on it.
The other thing I tell myself is that maybe it doesn’t matter what you choose, or at least not as much as you think it does. Regardless of the ostensible subject, a writing project often tends to draw out whatever you’re really thinking and feeling at that moment. Also, interesting writers can make virtually any subject interesting, and I at least strive to be that kind of writer.
Finally, I’ll just say that you may think you’re afraid of commitment but really you might just be afraid in general—afraid of failing, of not being as good a writer as you thought you were, of not having enough time to pursue all of your ideas, etc. Again, welcome to being a writer—those are all incredibly common fears and you can only overcome them by inching forward a step at a time. In this case, that means making your best guess about what project is right for you at this time, and then just hacking away at it day by day until it’s done. Good luck!
A Tangle of Tangents
Being a person with a tangential thought process, I find that when I am writing, the details of the surroundings (tangible) flow or of the history/backstory of the characters simply abound and I’m suddenly off topic—lost in the vivid details of the surroundings of my main story topic.
How can I hush the descriptors that mentally abound and get to the core of the story?
Details are important, but when there are hundreds and hundreds of those colorful descriptors that are distracting me from the actual story, I eventually get overwhelmed and simply give up and stop writing the story.
I find that I am much more detailed when upset, distressed, worried or concerned. I feel the need to get every detail down for fear of losing part of the reality of the storyline—that I might mislead or misrepresent things in the story or about the character.
How do you write effectively, efficiently, when your exterior world is in upset or chaos?
I slid in two questions, but both are stumping me and causing major stumbling blocks. —lmc in Detroit
These are tricky issues! Regarding the first part of your question, I’d say this: Every time you get lost in the details of your story and feel overwhelmed and give up, you’ve learned something important. Now you know what too much description feels like, and you can go back and try again with less description. And you can read other writers you admire and notice how they handle description.
Also remember that there’s writing and there’s editing. If you can’t help but over-describe the vivid details surrounding your story, fine—a lot of us over-write our first drafts. Later, you can come back to the page wearing your editor hat and ruthlessly cut all that beautiful description that you worked so hard on. It’s painful . . . but also kind of fun? This will also help you learn how to economize as you’re writing. You may start to feel like Lauren Berlant: “Over time, I became allergic to the long-winded and roundabout, cutting words down to size.”
Regarding the second part of your question—how to write effectively when your exterior world is in chaos—the best thing I can offer is that a lot of writers find that the process of writing helps them clarify what they’re thinking and feeling at any given time. So writing can be a way to make sense of exterior chaos, and a kind of refuge from it, too. On the other hand, if you’re feeling so upset or overwhelmed that you can’t write to begin with, then I think you may need to address your exterior circumstances and let the writing wait for a bit. Again, I feel like one’s daily routine can be a good place to start—you may be different, but I know that when things feel chaotic for me, establishing a predictable routine is a real comfort and helps me find some mental equilibrium, which then (eventually) lets me get on with the writing.
I want to understand what are your thoughts on MFAs? And writers that MFAs produce? —Shalini in India
I think MFAs are good! I’ll admit that I had a bad attitude about them as a younger writer. I thought good writing couldn’t be taught, and that MFA writing sounded too “MFA-y,” like it had been workshopped to death, blah blah blah. But really I think I was scared of them. I was scared to do the things that MFA programs require: share your writing with other writers and be open to suggestions and criticism—and be open to the possibility that you’re not the best writer in the room. I preferred to nurture—but not test!—the suspicion that I was a good writer and could get better on my own. That attitude no doubt set me back a number of years.
I certainly don’t think writers have to get an MFA, especially if doing so would mean going into a lot of debt (not worth it!). And I don’t know that anyone should expect an MFA to lead to steady employment—at least in the U.S., that whole situation seems, um, bad. But if you think of an MFA program as a way to buy yourself time to write seriously for a year or two, with a supportive community of fellow writers and brilliant mentors, plus opportunities to publish and network—I mean, that sounds amazing.
That concludes this extra-long installment of my advice column! To submit your own creative dilemma for a future column, shoot me a note at email@example.com or just reply to this email.