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Writing Closer, Writing Harder: Two Quick Lessons from Humble Creatives

I’ve been working this week on listening—far deeper and far more carefully to all the noise that’s happening around me, but most particularly to the thoughts and observations of other creative folks.

Fellow writers, musicians, fine artists: they’ve each got lessons to impart about the call to creativity and all the wonderful and terrible things that come from choosing to heed it in a meaningful or authentic way.

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Yesterday evening, I caught the tail end of a radio interview with Norweigan author Karl Knausgaard, whose latest work focuses on the profoundly, almost painfully mundane: toilet bowls, wasps, fingers. He noted that the subjects of his recent oeuvre could all be located fewer than 20 meters from the house he sat down in to write about them, and I found that so beautifully profound.

As a reformed dharma bum, I have often been guilty of focusing too much on being Interesting. Doing Interesting Things, meeting Interesting People, and trying to convince those around me that I, too, was abidingly Interesting. Who wants to write about a toilet when you could be writing about, say, a Great Pyramid or that time you lived in a hut in Mexico and a cockroach crawled into your underwear and bit your lady parts?

But here’s the thing: travel yarns and fantastical recountings of grand adventures eventually bore even the most enthusiastic audience. Because they either make your readers feel shitty about their own impossibly dull lives, or they make you yourself look like a thrillist, self-satisfied hack, or both.

Save what little money you’ve amassed. Stay home. Stare at the wall. Pick your fingernails. Talk to your crazy neighbor about her job inspecting motherboards for a defunct supercomputer company back in the ‘80s. Write close.

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This afternoon, again by way of the radio, I learned of the passing of American jazz guitarist John Abercrombie. I’d never even heard of the guy before today, but now he’s on my radar, if only because he worked tirelessly for his art, he pushed himself to try to new things long after he’d found commercial success, and he has a few rather valuable nuggets of insight into the creative process.

My favorite thought from Mr. Abercrombie: on a personal level, success in a creative profession ultimately matters far less than you think it matters. In fact, creative folks are often unaware of when and whether they’ve “arrived” in a meaningful sense, because they’re simply too focused on the hard work of trying to get there. And that work never ends, regardless of how many simpering fans and industry head nods you amass.

That act of continuing to work and to create and to improve, that pushing through, that indistractibility from your quest, comes eventually to matter far more than the recompense. Stay committed. Be your own worst critic. Improve. Then improve more. Write hard.

This week, my last full week in a ridiculously busy summer of writing and editing, is already halfway over, and I feel as if I’m losing steam. Today was sort of a flailing, brain-farty mess, but that is another post entirely. From here till monday, I’m determined to do right by Mr. Knausgaard and Mr. Abercrombie and also the better angels of my own creative nature.

By listening better, by writing much closer and much, much harder. Here goes.

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3 thoughts on “Writing Closer, Writing Harder: Two Quick Lessons from Humble Creatives

  1. erinjbernard says:

    Yes, I was just thinking about something similar the other day; the ability to write (not necessarily well, but just the fact that we humans invented writing at all and my hands can hold a pen and scratch it across a paper) is, to me, the most precious gift. If I lost that, I’d lose everything. If I have that, I don’t care what manner of shitstorm is swirling around me… Let me write, and I’ll be fine. It’s as natural as breathing or drinking water.

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