Monday, June 9, 2008

Write Your Last Novel


My painting teacher was asked once how he planned the stages in a multi-session painting. His reply, "I try to get to a point where, if I died before I came back to it, you'd kind of wish I'd finished."

My skin chilled. I knew I had just found an important life lesson.

In theater circles they say Dance your last dance or Act your last scene.

Walk the Line dramatised this nicely. Maybe the most powerful scene in the movie is where a young Johnny Cash stands in front of Sam Phillips. Sam doesn't want to hear the same old derivative Gospel music, he wants to hear something that Johnny, and only Johnny, has to offer.

Sam puts it beautifully: Imagine you've just been in a car wreck, your body lying broken on the ground. You got just two minutes to sing one last song, something to make the world give a damn that you ever lived.

Or words to that effect. Johnny sings Folsom Prison Blues (In real life it was either the bouncy Hey Porter or the even bouncier Get Rhythm, but that's not good drama), and a legend is born.

Joaqim Phoenix does a fine job of showing the fear and hesitation in Johnny's face at the start. He's utterly convincing as he gradually finds his voice, his assurance, his pure and burning purpose, in that moment of song.

I'm willing to bet that Mr. Phoenix acted that scene like it was the last thing he might ever do.

Because that's the key to success in your art: total committment. Blind, unreasoning, insane committment to let the work be what it must. No holding back.

Money. Fame. Attention. These are not success. These are possible side effects. Success is a piece of work that you wouldn't mind leaving behind when you die.

The only way to do that is to let your work be itself. Let go of all the crap and all the worry and do your best to let the work come through. Quit caring about what people might say, or how silly you'll look. People *will* talk. And you *will* look silly, at least to some. For your art, that's the price you pay.

Some days, the work is crap. It just sucks. Just make sure it's the best you can do, and that it's honest. And come back tomorrow (should you be so lucky) and try again.

Make every novel, every story, every day's session worthy of being your last.

25 comments:

Lana Gramlich said...

Although you have a point, in my experience (as a painter,) it's clear that if I want to make some money with my art, that I must bow my head to market forces. One woman put it quite succinctly in complimenting me on a painting of a dragon I'd done, "I really love that, but where would I put it?" Down here in the Bible belt, my dragons are easily considered "Satanic," & as such, I'm denied access to local markets. Even though I've turned more toward landscapes & such, I still get a lot of comments about the "mystical" quality of my work (in Bible-belt-ese, "mystical" = still questionable content.) Being true to one's art is a nice sentiment, but it's not always entirely practical.

Lisa said...

You are my hero! There is a reason why I don't quit my day job and throw myself at the complete mercy of the publishing industry. When the day comes that I've paid my lifestyle down far enough that I can do what feels true to me, no matter what the outcome, I'll do it and believe me, the wheels are in motion to eventually get there. There's integrity and a beauty to your sentiment. If I were wearing a hat, I'd take it off to you right now.

Charles Gramlich said...

You make a very good point. I always "try" to make every story one that I would enjoy reading myself. Do "I" get anything out of it? Anything new, any image that burns bright, and line that makes me say, "yes." These are the things that are important when the day is done.

Steve Malley said...

LANA, exchanging one's art for cash, goods, services and other valuable prizes is a different post. The gist is, make your stuff like money doesn't matter, then get creative about finding a buyer...

LISA, It just so happens I do have a hat on, so I'll tip it in your direction and say, "Why thank'y, ma'am." :)

CHARLES, when this thing of ours works, it rings the sweetest bell in the universe!

Bernita said...

True words. Passion.

Lana, I once had to go to bat for a children's book - Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher - because of the same nitwit argument. Fortunately the school board had more sense than to listen to the "Satanic" argument made by a local minister.

cs harris said...

I love this post. Wonderful advice. Sometimes I wish I could chase after popular tastes the way I see other writers doing. It's nice to be reminded why I don't, and to have those sentiments reinforced.

This is slightly off on a tangent, but it made me think of my dad, who died with a (history) book half written. I found it sad, but then I thought, well, he died in the midst of doing what he loved.

Shauna Roberts said...

Another great post. It's so easy to slip into just going through the motions when one does the same thing over and over. I needed the reminder that sitting down to write each day should not feel like a rote, routine activity, but a special event each time, an opportunity to create something better than I have before.

Steve Malley said...

BERNITA, glad to hear you put up the good fight against nitwittery!

CS, if you try to what you think someone else might like, it always rings false. Like in the Wedding Singer, when Adam Sandler pretends to be all about money. Like that!

SHAUNA, there are sure days when it feels like I'm slogging along in the trenches, but keeping one eye on the reasons why helps me through....

SQT said...

This is a life lesson that is so hard to put to use. You always hear "live each day like it's your last" and so on. But life's practicalities get in the way.

Artistically though, you have an excellent point. This isn't just about being true to your art, it's about putting all of yourself into it all of the time. Hard to maintain that intensity though.

Shauna Roberts said...

To add to what SQT said, it's hard to maintain not only the intensity but also the focus. One has to deal with the minutiae of mundane life, and writing hours are not exempt from interruptions and obligations.

Steve Malley said...

SQT, you're right. I'm a terribly impractical person, but there's a reason this blog *isn't* called Half-Speed and Sensibly! ;-)

SHAUNA, I have one good friend who rented an office so he could sit on the couch and sketch. I pointed out that many people had couches at home, but he said he couldn't get any peace, even in a seperate studio built in the backyard.

Me, I settle for being a real asshole when it comes to my work-time...

Glamourpuss said...

Funny, I was having this very conversation with a psychic last week. Still haven't committed to my novel yet though. Sigh.

Puss

Middle Ditch said...

Amen to that

Avery DeBow said...

I think that's what takes me so long to write a story; it has to be the absolute best I can make it. And that usually requires many, many drafts. My unwillingness to conform to the conventional format of urban fantasy is probably what's costing me so many rejections right now, but I can't settle for a storyline that can easily be swapped out for ten others just like it, one whose plot will probably be forgotten in two days.

Miladysa said...

I hope I can learn from this post.

I always hold back with my writing... I am very aware of that fact.

With the last post on my RoYds blog I tried to write as I feel and I felt better for it.

I wish I didn't feel so self conscious about writing and will try to bear this post in mind next time I have a go :-D

Thank you.

Steve Malley said...

GLAMOURPUSS, we're all trying to tell you something....

MIDDLE DITCH, why, thanks. No hat to tip today, so I raise my coffe instead.

AVERY, you just gotta get your work in front of the right set of eyeballs, that's all.

MILADYSA, It is indeed scary as hell. Also, infinitely rewarding.

Ello said...

I love what you say here! I hope that this is how I approach my writing. I definitely know I have the passion for it, it's the technique I'm worried about.

So my sister-in-law is a Kiwi, that makes my niece and nephew half-Kiwi. I've always wanted to visit, but I get sick after 4 hours of air travel. I'm waiting for the day they invent instant travel. Yes, I know - I may be waiting a long time!

Sidney said...

Well put, and a great goal to work toward.

Kate S said...

Thanks for that post, Steve. I needed it. :)

Steve Malley said...

ELLO, it's a long trip, and no doubt about it. Could be worse, though. I know some older folk who made the trip from England ona 30-day boat trip!!

SIDNEY, thanks!

KATE S, fantastic to hear from you! I'm so glad you're still out there!! :-D

Christina said...

That's a good quote. It gave me chills too.

I think when you are in a creative field, inspirational quotes are like life-lines.

Barbara Martin said...

True words, those.

By writing on the things I know about, gives me creative license to go forward on my manuscripts.
I expect the concept and some of the material in my manuscripts will raise eyebrows along with derisive comments. But that's life, and life goes on; and I will continue to write what I like.

Thanks, Steve, for setting out your point.

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent post. I love Walk the Line and certainly loved the real Johnny and June, too.

It's a give and a take, I suppose, depending on what you want in life.

SzélsőFa said...

You are wording the old Carpe Diem, in a good sense - do not be hedonistic, but make your moment count.
If only I could lay off procrastination....

Steve Malley said...

Christina, I certainly use inspirational quotes to get through my day!

Barbara, I think you're on to something there...

Erik, It is indeed a give and take. Or a question of priorities. Only thing makes me sad is seeing people sell out the things that are important to them for the distractions of the moment. That's, as they say, another post.

Szelsofa, I've got a great book on conquering procrastination. At least, I think it's great. I haven't got around to reading it... ;-)