“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. .
As you know if you’ve read my Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, the most interesting people come to Northwest Montana, whether to Jewel Bay or its model, Bigfork, the village where we live. One is Becky Blades, who summers here. She’s a delight, a writer, artist, and former marketer and entrepreneur whose most recent book is Start More Than You Can Finish: A Creative Permission Slip to Unleash Your Best Ideas (2022, Chronicle Books).
Last week, I mentioned a well-known watercolorist, Iain Stewart, saying you had “to be willing to ruin a painting,” and author and teacher Jane Friedman writing about the fear of failure. Becky’s premise is that starting projects is valuable in and of itself — regardless of whether we finish or see them as successful — for a variety of reasons; I’ll touch on a few over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, contemplate this:
“We are not the sum of our failures and missed opportunities, or our unfinished work. Nor are we made only of our big wins, the handful of things that turned out just like we wanted.
We are the sum of the imaginings we ignite and our ideas acted upon. We are the curiosities we chase and the potential that they illuminate in us.
We are the sum of our starts.”
— Becky Blades, Start More Than You Can Finish (emphasis original)
Mr. Right and I often go to gallery openings, both for friends’ exhibits and for group shows at galleries and museums we like. An exhibit we particularly enjoy is the annual Watermedia exhibit sponsored by the Montana Watercolor Society, frequently held at the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center. This year, the juror for the exhibit, Iain Stewart, who also taught a workshop, said that if you seriously wanted to improve your work, you had “to be willing to ruin a painting.”
“There are some writers I meet who simply fear messing up and try to gather as much advice as possible before they even begin. Unfortunately, the writing process is more or less defined by messing up and starting over. Writing is revising. Good writing advice can help you avoid the serious pitfalls, or bring clarity to a confusing process, but creative work of any kind is going to involve countless bad ideas. It’s important to work through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. (And hopefully you’ve gained enough self-awareness to know when you’ve moved past the bad into the good.)”
I subscribe to the Poetry Foundation’s free Poem-A-Day email, something I recommend to all writers, whether you think you like poetry or not. It’s a way to stretch how you think about language, and play a bit. This poem by Marge Piercy (b. 1936) was a recent featured poem. It’s a bit harsh and a bit funny, and more than a bit insightful about how art and artists are perceived in our society.
For the young who want to BY MARGE PIERCY (1980)
Talent is what they say you have after the novel is published and favorably reviewed. Beforehand what you have is a tedious delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done after the play is produced and the audience claps. Before that friends keep asking when you are planning to go out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you had after the third volume of remarkable poems. Earlier they accuse you of withdrawing, ask why you don’t have a baby, call you a bum.
The reason people want M.F.A.’s, take workshops with fancy names when all you can really learn is a few techniques, typing instructions and some- body else’s mannerisms
is that every artist lacks a license to hang on the wall like your optician, your vet proving you may be a clumsy sadist whose fillings fall into the stew but you’re certified a dentist.
The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.
A few weeks ago, the novelist and musician James McBride was interviewed on the PBS Newshour, talking about his work and the release of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, an alternative history of the grandmother he never knew. It’s a terrific interview, not long, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
“I don’t mind failing. Writers, most of what we do fails. And that’s the lesson writing teaches you. I tell young writing students all the time, fail and fail better.”
On giving his grandmother a better life than the one she had, on the page: “Fiction is magical that way. Fiction allows your dreams to come true.”