"taking the coward's way out leads to bad art": words from Philipp Meyer

Friday, June 6, 2014

First: The writing of every book feels, to me, like the writing of a very first book. Plain and simple.

Second: Here on my desktop sit the galley pages of One Thing Stolen, a book that took enormous risks and with which I struggled until I finally stopped struggling, finally found what I think is the novel's core. Still, I am afraid to read what I have wrought. I am required to do that. Soon. Especially since Tamra recently shared news about this novel's cover. My goodness. This novel has to live up to the artist commissioned for its cover. (You'll see, in time.)

Third: I am halfway through the writing of a new novel for Tamra. I've had one hell of a good time with these first 130 pages. But now I'm veering into the truly hard stuff. Once again, I'm taking risks. I'm scared.

It is the combined impact of first/second/third that has prompted me to share, this week, a few small notes on my writerly process—(Note 1. Note 2.)—as well as this conversation with Tamra. Nothing huge in any of this. Just, I hope, helpful.

I was all set to write another post in this vein when I came upon these words by Philipp Meyer, Pulitzer Prize nominated author of American Rust and The Son. He's a featured author in this BarnesandNobleReview.com interview (with the equally interesting Smith Henderson). And he has something to say about writing to the edge.

I share his risk-taking sentiments wholeheartedly (risk-taking was to be my theme of the day). He speaks them better than I could. A brief excerpt below. The entire conversation runs here.

In terms of society's ignorance, there is a very common sentiment which is basically along the lines of: "don't put everything you know into your first book." This could not be more wrong. You have to put EVERYTHING you know into EVERY book. Of course this will slow down the process. Of course this will make the time between finishing books much longer. But we're never quite as smart as we think we are, and usually the one thing you leave out will be the thing that lifts the book from average to good, or from good to great.

On top of that, all artists have some inclination, to greater or lesser degrees, to play it safe. I occasionally fight this feeling in myself, and I will be the first to admit that it's cowardice, pure and simple. You think, well, if I don't entirely commit, I can't entirely fail. If I hold something back, I am protecting myself (if/when other people don't like it). This is literally the opposite of the truth. When you hold things back, when you don't commit completely to your ideas and trust completely in your own instincts, you are guaranteeing your own failure—even if you end up having commercial success. You have got to trust yourself and only yourself, and while of course you have to trust your intellect, you have got to trust your instincts even more, which are always more artistically pure than your conscious thoughts. Of course, the vast majority of artists do not do this at all. They say the same shit everyone else does, they write what's fashionable, they write what they know will be approved of (even if it looks "experimental" on the surface). In short, they let themselves be lead by their critics and by their contemporaries.... Succeeding at this, or at any art, is about the hardest thing a human can do. But taking the coward's way out not only leads to bad art; it's habit forming. It becomes the way you approach life.


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Thank you for that. :-)

Serena said...

What great ideas about taking risks. I cannot wait to read these new books of yours

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