Art is hard. No, but like, really hard. Every writer knows the struggle of facing off with the blank page. Sometimes the words come as easy as anything and, before you know it, you’ve written a masterpiece of fiction (OK, so maybe more like a draft of a draft of a masterpiece of fiction, but still…). On other days, it’s the hardest thing you can think of to just write a single sentence. Those are the days when you could use a little help from your friends, and by friends I mean the hordes of insanely talented paid-their-dues, know-the-struggle-because-they-practically-invented-the-struggle fellow artists who came before you.
Most of these artists own their fair share of bumps and bruises earned along the way to their artistic successes. They’ve had to to work through the writer’s block, the crippling self-doubt, the temptation of procrastination — all the things that get in the way when all you want to do is tell a good story. But they made it through. So they might just have exactly the words you need to get out of that rut, get your butt to the chair and your pen to the page, and get some words on paper. And, of course, they make it sound good too.
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
So true. Most of the time, you're just getting in your own way.
“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”
—James Joyce, A Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man
This one says it all, doesn't it?
“What if I write circuses? No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.”
―Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down
So, go forth! Write circuses if you damn well please!
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”
―Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
No sane human can produce good art with the whole world looking over your shoulder. Not unlike that famous adage about dancing, you've got to write like nobody's watching.
“You are a designer. You must eat the world with your eyes. You must look at everything as if you’re going to die in the next five minutes, because in the relative scheme of things, you are.”
—Chip Kidd, The Cheese Monkeys
So, maybe you're not a designer like Chip Kidd, but the idea's the same — take everything in and put it to words. In other words, get out in the world! Go see things. Get out there and eat up!
“Art, then is an increase of life, a sort of competition of surprises that stimulates our consciousness and keeps it from becoming somnolent.”
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
In case you've lost sight of why you do what you do. This whole art thing... it's kind of amazing, remember?
“Go on. Quickly, hurry, keep thinking and keep looking beyond the purely necessary, even when you have the feeling that there is no more, no more to think, that it’s all been thought, that there’s no more to see, that it’s all been seen.”
—Javier Marias, Your Face Tomorrow
You might think you're all out of good ideas. Just think harder!
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
―Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
So set it free!
“Why do so many poets settle for so little? I don’t understand why they’re not greedy for what’s inside them. The heart has the ability to experience so much — and we don’t have much time.”
—Jack Gilbert, interview with The Paris Review, "The Art of Poetry No. 91"
“I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
—Albert Einstein, interview with The Saturday Evening Post, 1929
Can't argue with Einstein!
“And you keep writing — all it takes is — it, grit and motherwit — and a good strong tendency towards lying...”
—Ralph Ellison, Letter to Albert Murray, January 24th, 1950
“Imagination draws on memory. Memory and imagination combined can stage a Servants’ Ball or even write a book if that’s what they want to do.”
—Thornton Wilder, Theophilus North
“Get thee to the novel! — the novel, that word-woven submarine, piloted by intimation and intuition, that will dive you to the deeps of the heart’s maelstrom.”
—Cynthia Ozick, The Din in the Head
And, of course, you could always try just reading for a little inspiration. Those book things are really good I hear.
“You write out of — well, I wouldn’t call it indignation, but a kind of irritability that these people on top should be so contented, so absolutely unaware of these other people, and so sure that their values are the right ones. I mean, there’s a certain satisfaction in recording the people underneath, whose values are as sound as theirs, and a lot funnier, and a lot truer in a way… There’s a certain overall satisfaction in kind of scooping up a shovelful of these people and dumping them in somebody’s parlor.”
—Nelson Algren, The Paris Review interview, "The Art of Fiction No. 11"
Nelson Algren made his career by writing for and about the underprivileged in the U.S., those whose lives tended to be neglected not just by the government and society, but by literature as well. For him, a little irritability at this situation went a long way on the page.
“The point is that if you don’t love it, then it doesn’t matter. No matter how naturally gifted you are, it’s your passion that’s going to make you better and maybe touch some people. There is no genius — there is only love.”
—Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), Interview Magazine
So, none of that "I'm just not good at it" nonsense. If you love it, then do it!
“For it would seem — her case proved it — that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver.”
―Virginia Woolf, Orlando
You can't just move your pen around on the paper and think it'll make something. You've got to throw your whole self into the thing, and you just might get something pretty out of it.
And if all else fails, sometimes simplicity is the best answer:
“Make good art.”
—Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art