“My view is that everybody can write about everything. If that’s not true, then the art of the novel ceases to exist…. If we’re in a world where only women can write about women and only people from India can write about people from India and only straight people can write about straight people, etc., then that’s the death of the art. The whole point about the novel is that you invent the world that is not, and that includes inventing people who are not like yourself. If all you can do is invent people like yourself, that’s nothing.”
– Salman Rushdie at the Frankfurt Book Fair, quoted in Shelf Awareness, 10/20/23
You know the old saw “jack of all trades and master of none.” Did you know the rest of the line? Me, neither. According to my friend Becky Blades, writing in Start More Than You Can Finish: A Creative Permission Slip to Unleash Your Best Ideas (Chronicle Books, 2022), the proverb goes like this:
“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”
She goes on to say this: “A case for stARTistry [Blades’ term for people who dive into creative work] is a case for generalists. It’s a case for learning something about a lot of things—to allow us to bring more ideas to life. David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalist Triumph in a Specialized World, says ‘Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.’”
That is the heart of creativity: to bring together divergent ideas and images to create something new, something that reflects you and your view of the world.
I’ve been sharing snippets from my friend Becky Blades’ book, Start More Than You Can Finish: A Creative Permission Slip to Unleash Your Best Ideas (Chronicle Books, 2022). She emphasizes that a project involves constantly restarting ourselves, not because we’re lazy or bad or can’t finish what we start, but because we often have to stop and reconsider what we’re doing. When we write a novel, the idea we had at the beginning may change as we go along, and we realize ‘no, it’s not that; it’s this.” In my experience, that shift can happen almost too quickly to notice, or it can require a break. Sometimes a longgg break, while we learn craft and skills we didn’t have before. Then we reignite the spark and “restart.”
“You see, not finishing is not always a focus problem; often, it’s a reignition problem. ‘Finished’ is made, quite simply, from day after day of going back to the work. Masterpieces are made by stopping deliberately and starting again. Of reactivating passion and imagination. Imagine, rinse, repeat.”
— Becky Blades, Start More Than You Can Finish: A Creative Permission Slip to Unleash Your Best Ideas (Chronicle Books, 2022)
I’ve been talking the last few weeks about getting started and the fear of failure, quoting one of my recent reads, Start More Than You Can Finish: A Creative Permission Slip to Unleash Your Best Ideas by Becky Blades. Blades describes the creative process as an amalgam of imagine-think-decide-act, not necessarily in that order. (My words; forgive me, Becky, if I’ve mangled your premise.) I had just committed — to myself — to writing a short story, knowing only the theme of the target anthology, the word limit, and where I wanted to set it when I read this:
“Deciding to create a thing we’ve imagined is more complicated than choosing between two things. It’s placing a bet on our future selves to make future choices[;] to balance facts and feelings with yet-to-be-known risks and rewards.”
Yes, yes, yes. Experience can give us a sense what ideas will pan out, even if we don’t know how they will play out. As we take bigger risks — what if my commitment had been to a novel, not a short story? — we’re making a bigger bet and may not have that sense. .