It's not uncommon for beginning painters to become frustrated at their limitations. He always tells them the same thing: Talk to me when you’ve done a hundred paintings. I’ve noticed that novelists will often say they’ve written a million words by the time they’re published.
I was sharing with Scott that I’ve been surprised at what’s come out of my participation in the Dickens Challenge, and that contrary to what I used to think, a little pressure in the form of a weekly deadline seems to actually help, not hinder creativity.
Writing to a deadline has also helped me to get over my frustration at not being Joyce Carol Oates. If you saw my reading list from 2007 you’ll know that I’m a big fan of literary fiction. Reading great prose shouldn’t be a bad thing, except that it leaves a beginning writer, like me in the horrible position of knowing good writing when I see it, and consequently, feeling entirely inadequate because I can’t create it. The Dickens Challenge eliminates that stumbling block because it demands simply that I produce a chapter a week to the best of my ability. That doesn't leave me time to tweak and fiddle and polish, but it also doesn't allow me to fall into the trap of trying too hard either.
When I explained this problem to Scott, he nodded and said perfectionism breeds paralysis. Yes, yes, yes I agreed. How foolish it all seems when I consider the millions of words that the authors I admire probably wrote before I was able to read their work.
My reluctance to put pen to paper because I have such high expectations of myself would be like a beginning painter finishing two or three paintings and then being unwilling to start on a third unless it was certain to be as good as a Vermeer or a Renoir.
Scott gave me a further bit of insight. A well known painter once said that each time he begins to work, his goal is to create a mediocre painting. This allows him to paint good and sometimes great paintings, but the key is that it allows him to begin.
The time constraints of the Dickens Challenge have had, I think, a similar effect on me. In my mind, I’ve defined this as an experiment to complete a chapter each week and eventually finish the first draft of a novel. Not a great novel or even a good novel, just a completed novel. Timothy Hallinan has a great series of posts on finishing that really gave me the inspiration to focus on this simple, but critical goal. Since the time constraints for the Dickens Challenge force me to work by the seat of my pants and there is no time to edit and polish, I’ve freed myself of nearly all expectations. Lo and behold, this has made the writing far more pleasurable than it’s been with either of my previous attempts at writing novels. By publicly posting the work in progress, I have truly gotten over myself and I've given myself permission to write whatever wants to be written.
Although I know good writing when I see it and I prefer to read literary fiction, I’m well aware that I don’t write that way. I don’t know what my style is. To my surprise, Scott said that he wouldn’t expect me to have developed one yet. Painters learn through a process of conscious and unconscious imitation and after many paintings, an artist eventually discovers his own style.
I think writing tends to be a little less imitative than painting is, but I don’t think we can avoid being influenced in our writing by what we read. Since I read pretty widely, I have no idea what that might mean for me. I'll have to keep writing and find out.
I’ve struggled with the knowledge that nearly every published writer I know wrote one, two or three novels before finally publishing. I believe that knowledge has indirectly hindered my ability to finish either of my two unfinished novels (DC makes three). How could I put everything into something that is very likely never going anywhere?
And then it came to me. I have to finish one or two or ten so that I can learn how, so I can find my style and so I can prove to myself that I can do it. How did I not see that before? This doesn’t make me want to take it any less seriously. To the contrary, I understand that no matter what I end up with at the end, I’ll have learned a lot. Maybe it will be something worth taking further, but more likely it will be something to put aside so that the next one will be that much better.
Certainly, it will take me that much closer to a million words.
The Dickens Challenge writers are posting every Monday at their own blogs and on the Dickens Challenge site. The links are listed on my sidebar so if you have the time, please to try to check them out. We have an interesting mix of styles and stories and some incredible writers.
Thank you to all of you who continue to return to read my weekly excerpts. I sincerely appreciate the time that you take to read and comment.
Everything I've described is my experience. Everyone has a different path, so I am curious as to how my recent experiences and discoveries compare to yours.