Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet's job. The rest is literature.
~ Jean Cocteau, author and painter (1889-1963)
Turning a calendar page to the New Year is often a relief. Crossing this artificial boundary allows us the psychological space to put the past behind us, to let go of old, tired, unpleasant jellyfish stuff and embrace the happy, forward-looking, inspiring sundog stuff.
On that note, my personal emergence into 2012 feels much different than in 2011. Humanity seems less mired down in the phantasmagoria of the rabbit hole, having grappled greatly over the past year with the complexities and paradoxes of life in a Wonderland filled with political snarls and crises. People everywhere seem to agree that the Red Queen, the churlish and capricious authority who keeps us under her political and economic thumb, is just someone impressive but inept that we’ve given our power away to. Now we’re taking our power back, discovering or negotiating our role as creators, as grassroots decision makers in our individual and collective lives.
This psychological fresh start at the New Year also allows us breathing room to make things new again, to polish and illuminate our writing with originality and spontaneity, as Cocteau suggests.
I don’t mean to imply that I have anything in common with the brilliant chameleon Cocteau . . . I’m just pointing out that he’s inspiring and seems pretty right on, in my limited experience. It doesn’t hurt that he was a major nonconformist, born a rich kid who got expelled from school and ran away to live in a red-light district in Marseilles, and who eventually rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s greatest writers, musicians, actors, filmmakers and artists of his time. He intuited at a young age that the stuffy status quo wasn’t going to get him anywhere he wanted to be.
I think we have to grab at our chance to run away from conformity and any old, tired patterns in our writing every time we sit down to paper or keyboard. We have to take chances with our work or be condemned to producing possibly competent but conventional work that may be publishable, entertaining, or informative, but is ultimately forgettable. And perhaps soul draining, in the long run.
There is certainly a market for competent and not particularly illuminating work –
E-bookstores and brick and mortar stores everywhere are full of such books. If you make your living through this endeavor, I’m not maligning you – my hat’s off to you because you’ve mastered the key elements of writing and revision, plus have the great pleasure of making your living engaged in a craft you enjoy. That’s heads above toiling at non-creative jobs that we often come to loathe.
I’m intuiting and suggesting that if you have already mastered these basics of character, plot, dialogue, story arc, and all the toolish details of grammar and syntax, then it’s high time to take a step forward – or a plunge – into the creative fire of story that emanates from the artistic heart and soul.
Whether you write fiction or non, poetry or prose, feature stories, catalog copy, or press releases, there is a level of competence, and then there is stellar work. Depending upon the level of that creative fire burning within, writing at the break-out level may flow from you like magic, if you’re lucky, or take even more blood, sweat, and tears than usual, or more likely, some combination of the two if my experience means anything in a typical evolution of a creative writer.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Experimentation leads to failure at times, of course, but it also produces brilliant work that changes the hearts and minds of readers, that leaves an imprint on the world. This is the stuff of the Newberry Awards, of the Nobel Prize, or of an Oscar for screenwriting. That implausible plot that an editor wants you to change for the sake of her vision of the story, to also meld perhaps the mission statement of a particular publishing house, just may be the plot that fires up the next award-winner under an editor or publisher willing to take more risks.
The universe sometimes tests us, tempts us with a “sure thing” versus the risk of a masterpiece. Sometimes creativity equals risk.
I’m not saying that you should rebel unnecessarily and never listen to agents or publishing house editors. They have important guidance to share with writers about what works and what doesn’t, what sells and what doesn’t. But at the bottom line, opinions are opinions. Art is subjective, and writers and artists of all types have the ability to plumb the depths of their hearts and know when their guides are no longer guiding them where they want to go.
It’s a matter of faith – trusting your own abilities, trusting the muse that led you to write what you did in the first place. Sometimes it just makes sense to turn away from an “expert” and go with your own heart.
I’ve backed out of some publishing deals because the editors’ vision for my work conflicted with my own. I’ve ignored critique partners’ opinions when those opinions didn’t feel right. This is sometimes painful and made me feel temporarily foolish. But in all cases, I listened to my heart, which spoke true about my original vision. I may not have satisfied a particular audience, but I did satisfy MY audience by remaining true to the path I’d forged into uncharted creative territory. I’d had a creative journey that no one really understood until I’d traveled the length of it.
Finding a niche for your work is sort of like applying for a job. Most of us are in no position to turn a job offer down, and we really, really want that publication contract (with conditions) dangling in front of us. We feel foolish if we turn down either, even when we can see that the shoe clearly doesn’t fit. I’m sure anyone with a couple of decades of career experience can attest to a nightmare position they took of necessity that didn’t work out. Or one that they stuck with that made them miserable for years until they either retired or found a way to extricate themselves.
Many writers can speak to the regret of having published something perhaps tweaked too much by a well-meaning editor who didn’t really understand or see into the heart of their work. Sometimes this is just a given and part of the job, as in news journalism; sometimes outside that field it’s more of a liability and yet a temporary pain, because if we hold the rights to the work, we may go on and publish it in yet another, more satisfying form. There are times to acquiesce to the editor’s blue pencil for many different reasons – the practicality of gaining an important publication credit, getting work of a time-sensitive nature out, being included in a special anthology, lucking onto a first book publication, and so forth.
I think we writers just have to weigh all these considerations, and use our wisdom and discernment, as they say in Buddhist philosophy, to shape and publish our work. Yes, we all have this innate wisdom! It’s acting upon it that is sometimes as difficult as the initial creation . . .
I suppose, in another vein, you could say that the approach of accepting the status quo of some sure market is somewhat more ego-driven and practical; the other path of heart and risk, a more authentic expression. While writers can certainly engage in a lot of attention-getting, egomaniacal blather to satisfy a desire for attention (Cocteau was sometimes guilty of this), there is a deep authenticity implicit in forging work within the fire of true creative passion. There is something that rings true, that captivates readers, and that changes lives when work is allowed to flow from the heart and is not forced into a particular mold to satisfy a particular market.
We’ve all heard the stories about the fifty rejections of some best-selling, award-winning novels or nonfiction narratives that catapulted an unknown author to fame and sometimes even riches. It’s not that we should aim at the material benefits as our final goal – the fame and riches are dubious, transitory, and a side effect of the creative work.
Creative expression in itself is truly magnificent. We feel satisfaction deep down in the heart and soul when we craft a manuscript, or a poem or essay that has the potential for greatness because it is fresh with power, truth, wisdom, a unique character or viewpoint, and a truly compelling narrative.
I think the ability to write from one’s heart is aided by being a bit of a renegade or a rugged individualist like Cocteau. It’s also enhanced by casting aside the fear of the unknown, taking our own skills and potential seriously, and revealing our true selves, however flawed.
What comes from the heart, satisfies the heart.
So turn over your new leaf – take a deep breath, kick up your heels, and go write where no other writer has gone before . . . you’ll be glad you did!
Kate Robinson ©2010