Waiting for Cookies

By Shannon Rigney Keane on Thu, 10/04/2012 - 14:15

Shannon writes about her hunch that anyone who is good at anything has to be comfortable with being awful at it, and you can't wait for inspiration. You have to get to work, even if you're living in a cookie-less world!

Inspiration is like cookies. It comes in batches.

I don't know why it works this way, but it does. I'm going along, when – bam – a photo, a book, a friend, a stranger, something gets under my skin and makes me want to pick up my pen. The world starts popping with creative energy, and all I have to do is swing my net wide and scoop it up.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those times. I am living in a barren, uninspiring, cookie-less world.

When I sit down to write these days, I struggle to focus on my task. A million little questions and worries pull at my sleeves. I re-read the meager words I've put on the page, and I know in my heart that I'm not a writer. I tell myself that a real writer wouldn't have such terrible ideas, wouldn't write such clunky sentences, wouldn't have big gaping holes in the story and no idea how to fill them. My dismay and disappointment is such that days or even weeks pass and I don't do any writing at all.

Recently, I read Annie Dillard's The Writing Life and Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist. Despite the  differences between these two writers, the books had many common threads. The writers' words cheered me, like a visit with good friends. I felt so much better about my work, not because it doesn't stink anymore, but because all writing stinks (or, at least, all writers go through phases of believing that their writing stinks). I suddenly felt like part of a weird and wonderful community: “Look at this writing – isn't it the pits?! Let's make more!”

In addition to making me feel better about being awful at writing, these books also contained some concrete ideas to help me work through the most difficult times in my work. For example, I love the way Dillard talks about revising her work by spreading it out on a long table. She writes that she then walks around the table, moving and changing the pages, “hands full as a gardener's.” Who, in the computer age, ever has a sense of one's work as taking up more space than a laptop? Much less, being able to hold one's own words in one's hands? I've spent countless hours writing hundreds upon hundreds of pages, and my work more or less disappears into a small white box.

The idea of working with pen and paper also comes up in Steal Like an Artist. Kleon writes, “It wasn't until I started bringing analog tools back into my process that making things became fun again and my work started to improve.” I had to read this sentence several times, because it had been so long since I'd thought of writing as fun. So, the next time I became stuck on a scene in my book, I printed it out on paper. With my computer put away and an actual writing implement in hand, I did some quick revision. It felt powerful, but there were still large parts of the scene that were unclear to me. So, I flipped the page over and drew a picture. It was electrifying.

I have an untested hunch that anyone who is good at anything has to be comfortable with being awful at it, and has to be empowered to try different strategies to get better at it. Going to the work of my writing mentors gave me the tools to get myself out of a writing funk and, yes, to make my work fun. I don't have time to wait for sunsets and song lyrics to inspire me, I have to get to work. Annie Dillard writes that “what you do with your days is what you do with your life.” And what I want to do is write terribly, just like the masters do.

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