Sometimes the easiest way to say something is to say it in as many ways as you can think of.
Thanks to NPR- that great disseminator of culture and all things pithy- I recently discovered Connie Sun’s blog in which she draws and posts a cartoon a day regarding anything from her adventures as a single person, to, well, cuddling with animals (it’s better than it sounds). Her work is insightful, funny, poignant and incredibly well rendered. The woman has got style.
Her profile biography reads as follows: Asian-American cartoonist from CA, currently living in NYC. Single Girl, Asian Daughter™. I work in higher education by day & I sleep at night. In my free time, I write & draw. Self-taught; can’t stop. Cartooning daily, Mon-Fri.
One of her more recent works shows a cartoon version of herself, completely focused on a line she is painting on a sheet of paper with a paintbrush. Though her cartoon eyes are two simple dots, their gaze is complete and maniacal attention and focus. This focus is broken in the next frame when Cartoon Connie suddenly looks up, throws her fist in the air and exclaims, “WOOHOO! Livin’ the dream!” and she returns to her painting. In the next frame, the scene expands and we see that her desk is actually stacks of cardboard boxes labeled “Books” and “Misc. Crap”. In the final frame, her exclamation is tempered and she looks at us somewhat meekly and says, “Not perfectly, but I keep at it.”
If I can help it, I will not miss Colin Cowherd’s daily radio talk show on ESPNRadio. Ostensibly sure, it’s about sports. He talks about the NFL and football a lot. He occasionally disparages baseball for being unable to modernize and keep up with the times. He also makes fun of “hockey guy”, which makes me laugh really, really hard (because who really likes hockey?). He’s even been known to refer to Canada as “America’s Hat”. I’ll admit that he’s a prototypical alpha male with a tremendously strong personality and not a mild case of megalomania and that those traits can really rub a certain percentage of any population the wrong way. I’ll also say that he’s one of the more important, erudite and compelling broadcasters out there for his willingness to be contrarian in the face of overwhelming homogeny.
Though I don’t agree with everything that he says, I always walk away from his show looking at the world a bit differently than I had before.
During his show last week, he talked about Seattle Seahawks coach, Pete Carroll, going back to work two days after winning the Super Bowl. Though other broadcasters were, Cowherd was not surprised by this at all. “Carroll loves the process,” he effused*. “People that love process reap benefits. Jerry Seinfeld loves writing the joke as much as he loves getting up on stage and telling the joke. In fact, I think he might like it more. He doesn’t just get up on stage and start improvising those jokes. Seinfeld loves the craft. He loves sitting in a room with a pencil and paper and working and honing and constructing it. People assume that he’s just up there talking away. He’s not! He loves the process. If you do something for the process, you’ll reap benefits. Seinfeld isn’t famous because he’s famous, he’s famous because he loves the process- it’s a side effect, a consequence. Louis CK- same thing. He loves the work. Great athletes love the work. They don’t do it to get famous, they do it because they love it, because it doesn’t seem like work. Work for the process and you’ll become well reputed and famous as a consequence. Work for fame and you’ll never get it- or if you do, it’ll be fleeting and ephemeral.”
The great writer, Annie Dillard, wrote a book called “The Writing Life” in which she said: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.”
My friends Jake and Annie are a married couple who work together as well-regarded and increasingly popular wedding photographers. They’re booked across the country regularly, spend seven months of the year away from their home and have travelled as far as Australia for jobs, shoots and the like. They’re currently spending three months in Ireland working and just returned from a few day jaunt to Italy for a photo shoot.
Jake called me the other day, thanks to the wonder that is Skype, from half the world away and he raved about the shoot. The model was beautiful and personable and easy to work with. They had a proper assistant and stylist and makeup artist for the first time ever and they were doing it all in Italy where visual wonders abound. I, of course, was very pleased for him. There are few things better than hearing the successes of your best friends.
Jake exists for me as iron and I flatter myself to think that we urge one another on in our various artistic endeavors. Nevertheless, we are constantly discussing art and its theories. Inspiration, execution, craft, process. We tend to regale one another in large social circles, almost to the point of excluding those around us, with new things to read, look at and listen to.
I asked him what he was looking at for inspiration. If he had found any new photographers that he thought I should check out. His answer surprised me.
“Not really,” he said, without a hint of affect. “I mean, I haven’t really been looking for anything new, to be honest. I haven’t had the time to look at anything but through my lens. My finger never really leaves the shutter.”
It used to be one of those stories that everyone told, but no one really believed. Then, a documentary came out called, “How to Grow A Band” about mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and his band, Punch Brothers. In it, Thile’s bandmates laugh as they recall a practice during which Thile excused himself to relieve… himself. It took a moment before they realized that Thile had taken his mandolin with him. They laugh as they remember getting really quiet and being able to hear the sound of the mandolin coming, muffled, from the bathroom.
When he returned, they gave him holy hell- as men are wont to do to one another.
“Thile, were you playing the mandolin while you were taking a shit?”
They laugh even harder as they tell the interviewer that Thile seemed confused as to why this would be a weird thing to do.
The question always comes and the student exists every year in one form or another. Whether the question comes at the beginning of the year and straightaway from the first class, or after a few of their papers have been returned to them with grades or comments that pique an interest, the question comes to me, their teacher.
“Talley?” the student says. “How do I get to be a better writer?”
Sometimes, the student grimaces and regrets their asking- even as the words are escaping their mouths. Other times, the student has been told so often that they are a good writer that they wait, an arrogant and self-satisfied smirk slouching on the corners of their lips, for me to shower them in the effusive praise that they’ve become accustomed to receiving.
I was asked this recently by a student who is concerned about the grades they’ve received thus far in my class. Though the grades are good- high B’s for which the student ought to be pleased- the student is not satisfied in any way, shape or form. The student wants A’s. They want A’s because A’s get them into good colleges and good colleges get them into good graduate programs and good graduate programs get them into good internships and high-paying jobs with large salaries with which they can purchase large houses and fast cars and billboard-sized televisions.
The question they ask is, “How do I become a better writer?”, but I have a nagging doubt that this is not actually the question they mean to ask. My cynicism tells me that the question they really have is, “How do I tell you what you want to hear so that you’ll give me an A?”
But, for the sake of my belief in humanity, let’s assume that they actually do want to become a better writer. Let’s assume that they do want to learn how to better construct sentences and string together cohesive paragraphs with witty, erudite and devastatingly effective transitions that are so cleverly constructed, the reader never notices them. Let’s assume that they want to write because they have something to say and that they want to write better than they do so as to more effectively articulate the things they have to say, regardless of the grade.
This, then, is where everything comes together.
Connie Sun says that she is “self taught; can’t stop”. That semi colon is no mistake, either. Separate, but equally important and equally accurate statements. She is both self taught and she also cannot stop cartooning. Moreover, in the cartoon, she is “living the dream”, imperfectly, but keeping at it. Cowherd tells us that Seinfeld loves writing the joke as much- or more than!- he loves telling the joke on stage and selling out large concert halls. Being a famous comedian was not necessarily his ultimate goal, writing the ultimate joke was- and it is the latter that achieved for him the former. Dillard tells us that a good life consists of a string of good days. That what we do cannot be separated from what we are and that when we look back on our days, we will see excellence not because of the things that we did, but because of the ways in which we did them. (Socrates would be so pleased, wouldn’t he?) My friend Jake is so busy taking photographs and pursuing his vision that he hasn’t taken the time to look at anyone else’s work. Indeed he cannot, because he is so driven by the photographs in his head that his finger hasn’t left the shutter button. Chris Thile loves playing the mandolin so much that he cannot stand the idea of any time wasted- even time in the bathroom- during which he might be able to practice.
There seems to be an awfully common thread here.
I was being polite and diplomatic when I told the student that good writing is the telling and defending of a good idea and now I wish that I hadn’t. Even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I regretted them. Not because they are not true- they are- but because they answer the question, “How do I tell you what you want to hear?” and not, “How do I become a better writer?”.
If we are assuming that the latter question is honest and sincere, this is what I wish that I had said:
“If you want to be a better writer, stop worrying about what I think and write. Write until your fingertips are sore and your eyes are bleary and your vocabulary is exhausted. Write because it’s fun and write because it’s hell. Write until you’ve run out of pages or energy or both. Write not because you want to, but because you must. Because you cannot help it. Because you need to. Because you wake up and the first thing on your mind is writing and that thought does not cease until you fall asleep, breathless and wordless and blissfully exhausted because you have done the work of getting better.
Do not write because people tell you that you should. Do not write because you think that it would be “cool” or “fun” or “interesting” to be a writer. Do not write because people tell you that you are a good writer or could one day become a good writer. If you are writing for someone else, you are writing for reasons that will fail to get you through the moments in which you feel as though you cannot get out another sentence.
Write because if you do not write, you will feel twitchy and weird and unable to sit still. Write because you are dissatisfied with what you wrote the day before and you know that you know that you know that you can do it better. Write because you love writing and not to become a better writer. Doing begets becoming. Always. You become what you do. It is a process, a routine, a day-in-day-out grind. You want to be a better writer? Get to work.”