Dispatches | May 19, 2011

Picking up on this week’s theme of “strategy” as started by new contributor Sara Strong (okay, I’m not sure how the fantastic video of the PERIL launch fits the theme, but, meh, you know …), my sense of planning and organization has been thrown for a bit of a loop. A recent basketball injury has, quite literally, hobbled me, but a major frustration for me has been a sense of my writing schedule being fractured and unfocused.

This is not the same as writer’s block. As I alluded to in previous posts, I do not believe in writer’s block. To me, saying “I’m blocked” is already a failure, a vertiginous spiral of self-loathing and excuses. I have never sat down and thought “I can’t write.” Sure I can. Novel isn’t working? Write a novella. Novella isn’t working? Write a short story. Or a poem. Or a good sentence. Write drivel about what I ate for breakfast that morning. Yesterday I received an email from the good folks at One Story, introducing me to Karl Taro Greenfeld (well, not really “introduced”: TMR has already published two stories by Karl), whose new story “Partisans” is One Story #149. In the email, Karl writes about the best writing advice he ever received, which came from his father:

He told me: all writing makes you a better writer, even writing you don’t want to do or don’t think you should do. He’s a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, journalist who spent much of his life writing movie scripts for money and magazine articles for the checks, and realized that he learned a lot about writing even when he didn’t much like the work he was doing. Sometimes that unwanted work is what makes you better. I’ve found that to be true as well.

I couldn’t agree more. Write something down. The rest follows.

But …

I’m somewhere else right now. I’ve finished my novel, which is in the hands of my agent. After that, I wrote a novella, which is in the disinterested hands of small press editors. After that, I revised some stories. After that, well, that’s where I am now. And I’m working: a new novel, new stories, an essay about basketball that seems to literally have no ending, and the occasional bad limerick. Writing isn’t the problem. The problem for me is that, right now, I feel like I’m not writing anything particular good, even after several weeks of working on, and sticking with, the same piece. The writing just seems to be mediocre at best, as if I’m simply churning out work for the sake of doing so. If I’m not interested in what I’m writing, why would anyone else be interested in it?

This worry has plagued our blog contributors all year long. It’s really quite easy to post a blog; the difficulty is its content and making your words worthy of an audience. In large part, the purpose of a blog is the immediacy of delivery (“publication”?) and efficiency and speed are not qualities to be lightly dismissed. Quality of content, however, is important too, and stressing the need for balance has been a challenge for us all year long. Like all the other contributors to TMR’s blog, I have always leaned pretty heavily on quality over speed, which is only natural for those who call themselves “literary writers” (whatever that means) and rarely, if ever, have a rabid audience waiting with baited breath for our nest post.

(Though, to be fair, if you want to designate yourself our rabid audience, we’re good with that …)

What I’m trying to appreciate is what Karl stressed: all your writing is significant, all of it matters. In last week’s New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the power of borrowed ideas in his essay “Creation Myth.” About two thirds through the essay, he nicely blends psychologist Dean Simonton and the Rolling Stones (really) into ideas about how creativity actually works. “Quality,” Simonton said, “is a probabilistic function of quantity.” Or, as Keith Richards said, the band had so much creativity that they had to slosh their way through so much mediocre work in order to get to the great music that became “Exile on Main Street.”

I love this idea, difficult as it is for me to fully embrace it. Hard work will get our poems, stories, and essays there. More writing will lead to better writing. This is going to be quite a task for me, letting go the question of whether or not my sentences – as I’m writing them down – are good or not, and simply focusing on getting it all down. Not even, really, a question of first or second or third drafts, but believing in the process of writing for the sake of doing the work. Writer’s block? Forget it. Building blocks? Yeah, something like that …

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.

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