Sometimes I need to be reminded of stuff like this. It’s a great even-handed take on the nitty gritty of creative process that comes from her own personal experience. So much of it rings true. Just a tiny excerpt, about the distance between an idea and its execution, and how not to get bogged down in waiting for perfection:
Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it.
But that’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart. I’ve had people come up to me at book signings, in grocery stores, at every cocktail party I’ve ever attended, and tell me they have a brilliant idea for a book… I feel for these people, even as they’re assuming I’m not bright enough to realize where they’ve gotten stuck.
If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.
Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper. For me, it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together… I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from teh region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly assembled. Dead. That’s my book.
…The journey from the head to hand is perilous ad lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write – and many people who do write – get lost… Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words. This is why we type a line or two and then hit the delete button or crumple up the page. Certainly that was not what I meant to say! That does not represent what I see.
It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out. Think of the diamonds, or, for that matter the ever-practical coal that must be chipped out of the mine. Had I wound up with a teacher who suggested we keep an ear cocked for the muse instead of hoisting a pick, I don’t think I would have gotten very far.
…I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it…
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. … it is the key to making art. Every time I have set out to translate the book that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.
– Ann Patchett, “The Getaway Car“