Friday, May 25, 2012
Making A Mess of It
Being the mom of three kids, I'm no stranger to messiness. Not just the clothes-on-the-floor or food-on-the-face variety, but in everything. My kids love art projects, and I struggle not to roll my eyes when they dive into the art cabinet and begin pulling out markers and play-dough and construction paper and glue. For me, the mess is the price I pay to let them explore their creativity. For them, the mess is part of their creativity.
A few weeks ago, I was reading an article in The Writer's Chronicle (a publication of AWP - The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) entitled "Where do you get your ideas?" by Alice Mattison. The article was not so much about coming up with ideas as it was how we as fiction writers invent stories - from the first idea all the way through the end of the story. How we create.
I'd love to print the entire article here for you, but here is part that spoke to me, especially where I am right now in this writing journey (which is a journey for everyone who writes, no matter how little or how much you are published):
How do we invent? The answer I want won't be simple; it's not a set of instructions.... There is some process we have in common – not a dignified one that could be given the pretentious name "craft," which suggests a number of things that rarely lead to good writing... but a sloppy, embarrassing process involving fooling around, moving haphazardly from whatever we began with, in the general direction of something else.
Craft is something you can do in public and explain in public, while good writing is more like taking your clothes off when that's not appropriate – something that may even do harm or make our friends and family ashamed of us. And "craft" suggests control, while a good book requires surrendering control, at least at times.
There is so much more to this article, things I may come back to on this blog, but right now I'm sitting on this. I am in the sloppy, embarrassing process of creating.
I'm discovering there is craft – which I am learning in school – that is helping my writing get cleaner and more focused, and there is the process of creating, which is messy and embarrassing and often confusing. I disagree with Mattison's idea that craft rarely leads to good writing. I think it's critical to good writing; it just isn't enough on its own.
I think, maybe more accurately, we should say there are two aspects to writing well: one is craft and the other is the creative process. If craft is defined as the tools and skills that can be learned, the creative process is the artsy, personal side. It's what we as writers have to muddle through on our own, in our own way, which may actually even differ from story to story. The process is something we have to discover and rediscover.
I don't like messiness. I like things to be clean and neat and orderly. I like there to be answers to problems, a clear path from bad to good with a set of instructions to go along with it. But most of good writing isn't like that. It's a big fat muddy mess sometimes.
Maybe this is no revelation for you, but this has been a big revelation for me in some sense, in that I couldn't understand how I was getting so much better at the craft part, and still feeling like my writing as a whole was floundering. I am currently mired in my own creative process muck.
I'm still trying to find ways to make that process less messy. Jolene Perry recommended the book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to me, and even though it's about screenwriting, I am finding in it terrific tools. But on the whole, I think I'm just going to have to accept that not all of writing is clean-cut. Not everything can be learned from a book or a class or even a brilliant mentor. And that even though some parts of my process are messy right now, doesn't mean other parts aren't making great strides.
Where do you thrive? In the disorderly, creative part of writing, or in the things more systematically and concretely learned?