I take courses and workshops in other artistic disciplines. Some might identify this as writer’s procrastination – the sort of thing that goes down as “Research” alongside Spending Three Straight Days Watching Dr Who.
Courses really do help, though. By forcing me to keep learning and creating, they keep the momentum going in my creative life. They also help me build self-confidence in my creative abilities, which keeps my fiction writing kicking along.
I’ve also noticed that the creative process is similar across the arts. Pottery, for instance, has taught me a few things I’ve been applying lately to my short stories.
Lesson 1. You don’t always need to stick to a plan.
Sometimes you start with a particular vision for a piece of work and end up creating something wildly different but still good. So you don’t always need to stick to a plan, or even have a plan at all.
The vase shown at the top of this post is a nice example of unplanning. It unintentionally ended up rotund, probably because I’d just seen the film Where The Wild Things Are. As with my stories, I only understood what influenced the shape of the vase after I finished building it.
Some writers are superbly organised and like to know exactly where their stories are going, to the extent that they have their plot – complete with subplots, scene details and incidental characters – mapped out before they begin. I’ve run into trouble doing this because it makes me write more predictably than usual, so the closest I now come to planning is a sketchy outline of the story.
Sometimes, all I know when I begin is how the story starts. Other times, I can see both beginning and end but nothing in between, or I can visualise one or two key moments on which the story hangs. The rest develops organically as I write. I tend only to notice in hindsight the small details that tie the elements of the finished story together.
The process reminds me of E.L. Doctorow’s famous lines:
Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
Lesson 2. With persistence, the click will come.
This I discovered on the wheel. Before you ask – as everyone does – throwing is an experience that is largely dissimilar to that of Demi Moore in Ghost, being more frustrating for a beginner than paranormally romantic.
Below is a quick bowl-making demonstration I shot during pottery class one day. It features my teacher at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery Arts Centre, Claudia Citton. I filmed it with a Digital Harinezumi 2 and edited using iMovie.
Well, it’s not as easy as Claudia makes it look! A useful rule of thumb is that the smaller the lump of clay, the easier it is to control. So, for my first several weeks of throwing, I made little bowl after little bowl.
They were cute, like the one above, but it seemed I would never progress beyond them: every time I tried to make anything bigger, it would collapse.
Then, one day, there was a click – a point where things just fell into place. By lowering my expectations and trying to let everything come naturally without thinking too hard about following the correct techniques, all that I’d been practising finally came together (with a little bit of guidance from Claudia!). Within a few minutes, there was a big, jolly bowl sitting in front of me.
I try to apply this understanding when I come upon a barrier to progress in my fiction writing. I might feel that a story is stagnating, a plot is unworkable, a key character is one-dimensional or that my technical skills are too limited to communicate the ideas I want to put on the page.
How to get to the mysterious click? For me, it’s perseverance – a matter of chipping away at what I can (like trying to practise my writing skills with smaller side projects, or writing the problematic story using a different style or structure) while trusting that my subconscious will one day produce an epiphany that unlocks the story. In my experience, and I’ve heard other writers say this too, pre-click writing is horrendous and slow. After the click, it becomes easier and even delightful. Maybe even the stuff of paranormal romance.
N.B. Claudia’s work is currently part of an exhibition at Hazelhurst called In Clay. It runs from 20 August to 9 October 2011. You can find out more about the exhibition here.