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Friday, March 4, 2011

A Screed on Craft: Input versus Output

Somehow, referring to myself as an artist seems too precious. (And anyone familiar with my work would probably agree!)

I prefer the term craftsman. Referring to what I do as a "craft" rather than an "art" puts the emphasis on the actual work and not on such notions as "talent" or "potential" or even "theme," all of which lead to abstractions that I consider a soul-sapping quagmire into which many otherwise fruitful conversations can disappear.

What's more, I consider almost all discussions of any "craft" to be largely a waste of time. Either you're talking about a particular work (be it a painting or a motion picture or a book or a meal) or you're just blowing a lot of unhealthy smoke. And listening to such discussions can be just as lethal.

To paraphrase an old bit about Faulkner when he was asked about the efficacy of creative writing programs, he is said to have answered that they were a waste of time because "if you're writing, then you're too busy to discuss it, and if you're not, then there's nothing to talk about."

Of course, having said all of this, I now turn to my own abstract discussion of craft: the idea of input versus output.

In my writing-student days, I once sat in a graduate-level seminar and listened as a sage instructor told us to beware of becoming "too smart to write."

"You can actually make yourself too well-informed," I remember being told. "And you end up outwitting your own imagination."

For a compulsive reader and browser like me, this was revelatory advice.

Like all wannabe artists, I want my own work to stand up to the competition. I want it to compare favorably. In order to do this, I have felt compelled to survey the artistic landscape with comprehensive regularity. Plus, in any creative endeavor, it helps to know what's out there before you give into any grand delusions that you should add to it.

So I read a lot. I also watch a lot. And I listen a lot.

And all of this takes a lot of time and energy...

...which means that I then have less time and energy to devote to composing my own work.

Also, this constant survey of my artistic milieu tends to short-circuit my own impulses to create, as comparisons inevitably occur between what I'm trying to make and what's already been made by others. And, yes, my own work, especially in its more larval stages, almost always compares unfavorably, to say the least.

The novelist Philip Roth famously despaired that his imagination was constantly being trumped by the day's headlines. It's a despair I'm familiar with. And yet, like Roth, I still feel compelled to write. (If only my writing were as magnificent as his!)

So, in order to keep my appetite for input from drowning my compulsion to create, I've learned to control it.

The solution is simple: for every hour of input, I schedule an hour of output. Thus, a 2-hour movie means I owe myself a 2-hour session of composition. And an hour of book-reading means I must follow it with an hour of writing. And so forth.

As anyone can tell you, input is easy. You just relax and let whatever's in front of you wash over you, whether it's a painting or a short story or a woman singing the blues. You pay attention, sure, but the effort that such attention demands is as nothing compared to what's required when you switch modes over to output.

Output is hard. It's physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. It requires even more attention than input, obviously, so I never let myself get discouraged when, after a 2-hour reading session that has allowed me to devour half-a-novel, I then engage in a 2-hour writing session that yields just a few dozen words.

Even something as lowbrow as my vampire novel took months to write, so I shouldn't be surprised at the agonies involved when I compose anything. Birth, as they say, always requires labor.

In any case, this is how I juggle my need to read with my wish to write. It's a balancing act.

And the hour I just used to compose this blog post means I can now spend another 60 minutes with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

As they also say, moderation in all things.

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