Wednesday, 28 November, 2012
I'm on holidays at the moment so actually have some time to blog! (I should rephrase: I've made time to blog.) During the weekend I was at Supanova Brisbane, I had an interesting discussion with Caitlene about writing and creativity, which set off a whole lot of different thoughts in my head that I thought I should capture and publish sometime. Some of them are to do with the practice of writing, some are to do with creativity more generally, and some are to do with that nebulous idea of “career”. Here they are in no particular order:
- When I was young (as in primary school young), I wanted to be a writer. I didn't have dreams about growing up and getting married; the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life was to write books. When I said this to other adults, they told me, “Authors don't make much money.” (They weren't lying to me; that's the reality of the business. It's even worse if you're in comics.) However, the thing those adults forgot about was that some people do make money—and sometimes a lot of money. (Not that [of course] money is the object of writing; it's just that people have this idea that you cannot support yourself through writing alone—that it's some kind of impossible feat. It's not impossible; it's just difficult, and only the few manage it.)
- When I was in high school, the administration made us all take a subject called “Careers”. It basically consisted of looking up the University Admissions Guide, figuring out which degrees looked interesting at which universities and then looking at what you needed to do to get into them. It had very little to do with the concept of a “career”. (That could be because the teacher had no idea about careers himself; his personal life seemed to be something of a train wreck—or at least the bits he shared with us.) It did not give us any idea of the trajectory of someone's working life and how it can change. At 17, I somehow had this naïve notion that people chose their careers following high school and stuck to them for the rest of their lives. In reality, people do all sorts of things and end up in the unlikeliest of places—often by pure chance. Take, for example, the author of the Monster Editing Project: when he finished high school, World War II had just finished and all the university places were going to ex-servicemen to help them reintegrate into normal life. His only ambition was to see the world, but he thought he could only do that by joining the marines or the airforce (both of which rejected him). Because he had good grades in science, he was given an apprenticeship at a factory that made ship engines. From there, he got a job as an engineer on an oil tanker (which allowed him to see much of the world in his early 20s). Then he worked as an engineer on a cruise ship liner (hence more travelling). When he and his wife married, they moved from England to Canada, and his engineering experience landed him a job with a telecommunications company (which involved more travelling but all over Canada instead of all over the world). Later, he decided he wanted to go work in Australia, so he got a job with the Australian government on a missile launch site. He and his wife didn't like living in Australia, so they moved back to Canada, where he started working for a company that helped factories automate their processes with computers, and he pretty much stayed in that industry for the rest of his professional life. I wonder now whether you are the anomaly if you've managed to stay in the same sort of job for the whole of your career.
- If I was teaching Careers now, I would set my students the following assignment:
(“Job” is probably the wrong word to use, but “career” doesn't seem quite right either. Anyway, I hope you understand what I mean. Also, I would have totally done the assignment on Neil Gaiman had I known about him when I was 17.)
Think of someone whose job you'd love to have and tell me about that person: how did this person get this job? What does his or her job entail? What appeals to you about this job?
- Neil Gaiman gives the best advice to would-be writers. (See, for example, his commencement speech at the University of the Arts [19:55 min], which I wish I had heard when I graduated from university. If you don't have time to watch that, read this comic illustrating what he said.) Here's some of his advice (via David Mack at Supanova Sydney):
I think Gaiman also says that when he says this to people, they think he's nuts—as if, “That's all?!!” But it's harder than it sounds. Starting is hard—being confronted with that blank page with all its possibilities—even when you have an idea and/or something to say. Finishing is hard because life gets in the way, your enthusiasm and/or motivation wanes, the work gets frustrating, and so on. And showing you work to others requires allowing yourself to be vulnerable—to open yourself up to the possibility of rejection and/or criticism (although learning to take criticism well is a good skill to acquire—particularly criticism that will help you grow as a creator).
In order to produce art, you have to do three things:
- Start (for many people will talk about starting and never do)
- Finish (for many people will start and talk about their current project when the reality is they haven't touched it in several weeks, and many people will never finish what they've started)
- Once you've finished, show it to someone.
- While taking Careers in high school, I noted the places where I could study writing at a tertiary level (because I didn't know what else to do. [FYI my alternative options were a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Architecture. Yeah, I know: architecture. I thought it would be interesting because I like looking at houses.]). Studying the University Admissions Guide brought it down to two choices: a Bachelor of Creative Arts majoring in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong (UOW) or a Bachelor of Arts in Communication majoring in Writing at University of Technology Sydney (UTS). If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I ended at UOW. (They liked my portfolio and they offered me a scholarship.) I don't regret the choice or the experience I gained from UOW. But I do think that it was deficient in many ways. This post on Neil Gaiman's blog captures much of what it was like to do a university-level writing course (you'll have to scroll down halfway)—particularly this bit:
Looking back on my degree, I think it taught me the following:
You can expect to learn a lot about craft in a creative writing program—how to develop characters, work on elements of narration, and, possibly, get some good feedback from other writers about your work. The dominant model for a writing program is the workshop where you distribute your story to everyone in your class, they read it, and come back the next week to critique it. Depending on the professor, this can be a valuable experience or it can be devastating. If you get class members who want to destroy any writer they see as competition for the title of “best in class,” the workshop can be quite destructive to a young writer who is just beginning to develop a sense of him or herself. Regardless of whether it's a good workshop or not, you will be in a class with a lot of other writers who want to create ART and will scoff at anything that doesn't have literary aspirations.
Creative writing programs will not teach you how to be a published writer. Talking about the business aspects of writing seems to be taboo in most programs. You will not learn how to assess writers' guidelines, find publications that are looking for what you write, find an agent or, in anyway, make money from your writing. Though most writers do not make a living by writing, creative writing programs don't see themselves as needing to teach job skills. I think it's because of this taboo most creative writing programs have a very strong bias against genre writing. Science fiction, fantasy, historical, romance, young adult (although there are starting to be programs specifically geared toward YA now) any writing you would not find in the “literature” section of the bookstore will be actively discouraged and, in some cases, forbidden in your classes.
That's it from four years of study.
- How to look at creative work critically
- (Following on from the above) how to edit and also give feedback to others (even though the classroom model could have been better; personally, I like following the Rules of Good Banking: 1. Deposit before you withdraw [i.e. say something nice before you say something critical] and 2. Make more deposits than withdrawals)
- How not to run a writing workshop
- As mentioned above, my degree didn't teach me anything about the publishing industry and the business aspects of writing. I feel like I'm learning that now through Kinds of Blue and the whole self-publishing process, plus occasionally I learn things through the internet about things like agents, publishing contracts, e-books, rights and so on. However, it is a massive field, and one thing that people seem to mention over and over again is that people only know about their corner of the industry, which means that it doesn't necessarily apply to the rest of the industry.
- Before you can publish, however, you need to write something worth publishing. Here's the other key thing that my writing degree didn't teach me: discipline. They kind of assumed that their students would develop it on their own. They did tell us to write every day—to keep a journal and carry it around everywhere (which I did obediently for years until I realised my bookshelves were filling up with very nice hardcover journals filled with my scribbles that I would not necessarily look at again). But there was no acknowledgement of the difficulties involved in writing everyday—in keeping focused on your project despite the turmoils of everyday life—in pushing on even when you don't want to—in making successes out of the ashes of repeated failures. (Writing is often compared to exercise for good reason.) So many writers talk about how the important thing is just turning up and doing it (see, for example, the words of these 13 writers on writers block. Note how many of them refuse to acknowledge that writers block exists.) Their words make me think of another activity that requires discipline: Bible reading. I like to think that before I had Astrid, I was “good” at Bible reading: the habit was tied with an activity I usually did daily (i.e. eating my breakfast). So if I ate breakfast, I usually read my Bible and prayed too. But then I had a baby and that routine went completely out the window, and I had to find other ways of fitting it in. (At the moment, I listen to the Bible on MP3 through my iPhone while preparing lunch or doing housework, and I pray in little grabs throughout the day, though I do neither activity as thoroughly as I used to.) For me, writing is a different thing altogether in that it is important to me, but it is not as important as the other activities I must fit into my day as a Christian, a wife and a mother. Which leads me to my next point …
- To write, you need to make time to write. I said that writing wasn't as important to me as my responsibilities as a Christian, a wife and a mother, however, I still try and fit it in around those things. To me, being a Christian means that I prioritise the following activities: reading the Bible, prayer, going to church, and serving my church. (At the moment, I've become a little over-committed to church things because I'm helping out at play group, I play and sing in the band twice a month [and I usually pick the songs for the weeks I'm on], I occasionally lead Bible study [well, that's happened once this term], I'm on the women's ministry committee, and recently I agreed to organise the music for our church's carols service as well as handle the publicity for the Twilight Markets, which also meant doing the design work for the Christmas flyer.) Being a wife and mother means loving and caring for my husband and child, doing stuff to ensure our household keeps running (i.e. housework—boring!), and ensuring that I can continue to do these things (i.e. by making sure that I also make time to rest). Not everyone is in the same situation as me, and that could easily lead me to think that other people have more time. But that's not true: we all have as much time as each other; we just choose to spend it in different ways. However, the relationships we find ourselves in mean that for some of us, there are more non-negotiable demands on our time. Being a wife means not neglecting your husband; being a mother means not neglecting your child. That does not mean giving up everything for their sake, but nor does it mean refusing to fulfill those responsibilities. (If I did refuse, that would make me a bad wife and mother.) In my early 20s post-university, I wasn't single, but I did have more negotiable time. Yes, I was working in a full-time job and commuting roughly an hour each way (thanks to Sydney's wonderful public transport system!) I was involved with my church, but I still had evenings that were free and weekends that weren't filled with much. So now, looking back, I wish I had used it better. I wish I had used more of it for writing. I wish I had known what I know now about writing and publishing (specifically: 1. Start, 2. Finish, 3. Show someone, and 4. Be disciplined enough to make 1 and 2 happen). If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell her to start small—to set aside an hour each work to write something. I remember I did have projects I could have worked on (for example, I envisaged a novel around the story of Romeo and Juliet from the perspective of Balthasar. [Yes, this was around the time Baz Luhrmann's movie was released.]) An hour isn't much, but it's a start, and perhaps in time, that hour could have become three. Or more. I would have told my younger self that it's all about limits—that once your time becomes finite (and with children, it becomes ever so finite—which means, you can see its limits more clearly), you become more productive because you can only use what you've been given. When the possibilities are infinite, creativity gets stymied. So say to yourself, “I am going to write from 3 to 4:30 pm and I am going to work on Project X” and go do it. If you get something done, FANTASTIC! If not, kudos to you anyway for turning up and giving it a go. Don't give up; try it again. And again. And again—until it's done.
- To write, you have to make time to write. As a mother, it's harder, but as Susannah Morgan Freeman writes in The Busy Mom's Guide to Writing, there is always a way. For me, I decided to make writing my part-time “job” and have used childcare and other babysitting help to do it. It hasn't been that way for the entire year; almost three months have been devoted to the Monster Editing Project, plus I did a lot of volunteer work for church recently, and of course there was stuff I needed to do for Kinds of Blue and Supanova. But even so, I've managed to write 53 pages of the script of my graphic novel. (And the other day, I was inspired by Supanova to write a six-page script that may never become an actual comic.) I'd like to finish it before the end of the year (and I realise that the end of the year is fast approaching, so it may not happen). But that's okay; if I don't meet that goal, it's not the end of the world. I'll push on. Next year will be much the same, I hope; I've squirrelled away part of my tax return to pay for childcare so that I can continue. I realise I'm in a very fortunate position: not many have the opportunity to do what I'm doing. So I'm very grateful that I can. And it could be that the graphic novel will never eventuate. Nevertheless, nothing is wasted; I still would have learned and grown creatively from the experience. And I would have gotten it out of my system and (hopefully) I'll be able to move onto something else.
- Now, all this is very well if you have an idea for a project. If you don't, I probably can't help you because I've never struggled with that; I always have more ideas than I have time to work on. Which means I have very little understanding of people who don't have ideas. I guess if you're not an ideas person, you can do the following:
- Get commissioned to carry out someone else's idea. This is particularly good if they also have an avenue for publishing and are willing/able to pay you for your work.
- Collaborate with someone else who has ideas.
- Learn to look for ideas. They're everywhere; they just need to be caught. Pursue your passions and interests. Put two things together that have never been combined before. Put yourself in situations where you'll get bored and be forced to think of something interesting. Daydream.
/Karen/ had a thought at 5:10 PM
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