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Entries in Twyla Tharp (6)


"Aren't you too old for this?"

From a recent New York Times column by Edward Kelsey Moore:

Among the many things I wasn’t prepared for after publishing my first novel at the age of 52 was the question I’m asked most often. I’ve heard it at book tour events in England, Germany, and here in the United States. The wording and language vary, but the gist of the question is the same: “Aren’t you too old for this?”

People ask for different reasons. Some mean it as a compliment. Young writers ask because they want to avoid the missteps that left me unpublished until such a frighteningly ancient age. Others hint that I must have wasted decades by indulging in foolish pursuits.

Read the rest here!

Though a different situation, this reminded me of the Twyla Tharp quote I posted about artists who "burn out" young simply because they didn't stick with it. 

We really do have funny ideas about our authors, don't we?


Your inspirational quote for Thursday

I wasn't going to inflict yet another Twyla Tharp quotation on you, but right at the end of the book, she says the following:

The libraries and museums are packed with early bloomers and one-trick ponies who said everything they had to say in their first novel, who could only compose one good tune, whose canvases kept repeating the same dogged theme. My respect has always gone to those who are in it for the long haul. When people who have demonstrated talent fizzle out or disappear after early creative success, it's not because their gifts, that famous "one percent inspiration," abandoned them; more likely they abandoned their gift through a failure of perspiration.

Bam. The perfect antidote to the cult of the young and dizzyingly talented. There was a feeling during my college years (at least, I had this feeling) that if you were any good you'd be published in your twenties. No one talked about the long tail. No one talked about the best full-time jobs for writers who were not going to earn a living wage from their writing immediately after college (i.e., all of us). No one talked about getting better as you get older (well, Margaret Weis did one time...). 

But that's the truth for almost all of us word slingers who do eventually become "successful." That's the only truth. We just don't stop writing.


One more from Twyla, and also I am not dead

First, from Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, a great trick to keep the writerly momentum churning:

Some people, if only for sanity and the maintenance of a humane routine, give themselves a creative quota. Painters stop when they fill up a measurable section of canvas, playwrights when they draft out a complete scene, writers when they hit one thousand words or the clock chimes 5:00pm. They stop no matter where they are on the canvas or page. I know one writer who gives himself both options: He stops at a set time or when he hits his word quota, whichever comes first. He is religious about this routine. But he connects to the next day with a fixed nighttime routine as well: Just before he falls asleep, he reads the last few sentences he wrote. Without fail, he wakes up the next morning brimming with ideas, setences, whole paragraphs for the next portion of his story. He claims he flies out of bed sometimes so he can get all the words down before they disappear. Apparently, filling up with words and ideas before sleep gives his tired brain some useful work to do as it regroups and refreshes itself overnight. What his conscious brain can't handle, his subconscious can.

I am definitely going to try this. My dreams are a total waste anyway—time to put them to work!

Second, I am not dead. The blog is not dead. I have not abandoned the blog. "Neglect" is probably more accurate. I have, lately, neglected the blog.

The problem is that I have many things I want to work on, and time spent on the blog is time not spent on these other things. I really admire Hugh Howey, Chuck Wendig, Dean Wesley Smith, John Scalzi, et al. for their seeming ability to juggle ten projects without dropping one of them. Their blogs never want for attention. Mine is more feast or famine, and I know the infrequency is preventing it from luring eyeballs beyond those of you dedicated few.

I believe in the Unwritten Word and want to see it through. I will definitely see it through—some of these pieces (and even moreso your responses to them) have really surprised me and inspired me to keep going. But I also need to find a way to balance it with other projects that are also starved for attention.

So I will ponder. I will make some adjustments, set a schedule, and then, by God, I will bring the writerly.

Thanks for sticking with me.


Useful planning versus procrastination disguised as perfectionism

Yet another from Twyla Tharp (maybe I just enjoy writing "Twyla Tharp"...) from her book The Creative Habit, this time about useful planning vs. procrastination disguised as perfectionism:

Another trap is the belief that everything has to be perfect before you can take the next step. You won't move on to that second chapter until the first is written, rewritten, honed, tweaked, examined under a microscope, and buffed to a bright mahogany sheen. You won't dip a brush in the paint until you've assembled all the colors you can possibly imagine using in the course of the project. I know it's important to be prepared, but at the start of the process this type of perfectionism is more like procrastination. You've got to get in there and do.

I used to bask in the notion that all my obstacles to creative efficiency would vanish if I only had exactly the right resources[...]. But I've learned the opposite is true: Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse.

...and, related:

Remember this the next time you moan about the hand you're dealt: No matter how limited your resources, they're enough to get started. Time, for example, is our most limited resource, but it is not the enemy of creativity that we think it is. The ticking clock is our friend if it gets us moving with urgency and passion. Give me a writer who thinks he has all the time in the world and I'll show you a writer who never delivers. Likewise with money, which comes a close second as our most limited resource. It's tempting to believe that the quantity and quality of our creative productivity would increase exponentially if only we could afford everything we've imagined, but I've seen too many artists dry up the moment they had enough money in the bank. For every artist who is empowered and inspired by money, there is another who gets lazy and self-satisfied because of it. Necessity will continue to be the mother of invention.

Too true. When you're insanely busy all you want is a gaping expanse of time in which to write write write. But odds are pretty good that you'll accomplish much more in the limited free time you have each day than if you had the entire day and nothing else to do but write.


Little/weekly challenges

Another great exercise from Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, but one that sounds suspiciously familiar:

Give Yourself a Little Challenge

George Harrison once decided, as a game, to write a song based on the first book he saw at his mother's house. Picking one up at random, he opened it and saw the phrase "gently weeps," whereupon he promptly wrote his first great song, "While my Guitar Gently Weeps."

You can give yourself the same kind of challenge whatever medium you work in: paint only in shades of green; write a story without using the verb "to be"; film a ten-minute scene nonstop with one camera. Giving yourself a handicap to overcome will force you to think in a new and slightly different way...

Turns out I've been doing this all along! That's exactly what each of these weekly prompts area handicap to overcome that forces me to think in a new way. 

Even when the resulting story/play/cave painting/whatever is unrecognizable from the original phrase or idea I started with, I still would not have gotten where I did without that initial challenge to push against.


My creative autobiography

In Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, which was commended to me by someone who knows of habits creative, the author asks thirty-three questions, the answers to which will then constitute your "creative autobiography." 

Now, I love me some how-to books about writing, but for some reason I read them like easy novels and then put them away. I have never, not once, actually completed any of the exercises in those books. 

Until today.

So brace yourself, because this is a long'n...

What is the first creative moment you remember?

Playing “Make Pretend” with my sister Sarah and other childhood friends. “Let’s make pretend that we’re Care Bears!” “Let’s make pretend” ...I don’t know... “that we’re baby birds!” It was really just us pretending to be things we had seen. Also, “imaginate” was a verb.

Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?

The other kids who were also playing, mostly. I don’t remember any sort of adult presence during these. Surely there was, somewhere. I mean, right? Otherwise: irresponsible.

What is the best idea you’ve ever had?

Probably starting this blog.

What made it great in your mind?

I thought it could be a fun and unique way to make peace with my college experience and make me publicly accountable for my writing output each day and possibly attract an audience for future books.

What is the dumbest idea?

Getting a graduate degree in Creative Writing immediately after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing.

What made it stupid?

Three reasons: 1) While I did learn a few things about myself and my writing, and though I did find several good friends, I didn’t need a second degree in Creative Writing. (Whether I needed the first is also debatable.) 2) I would have gotten so much more out of the experience if I had taken a year or two between degrees to be in the “real world,” establish better goals and a work ethic, etc. 3) And, worst of all, I couldn’t afford it—my year was 100% financed by student loans. The level of debt I took on affected my life and future prospects in ways I could have predicted but did not.

Can you connect the dots that led you to this idea?

Yep. As I wrote in Week Ten’s nonfiction piece, “I had already accrued a terrifying amount of debt from my undergraduate years, and I feared that the Sallie Mae steamroller would destroy my life if I had to start making payments before I had my Master’s degree. At this time, my understanding was that Master’s degree = college professor, and college professor = ability to pay off staggering debt in timely manner.” I believed that a Master’s degree was the only way to achieve my dreams, and that if I didn’t get the Master’s degree now then I never would.

What is your creative ambition?

To make a comfortable living writing, teaching, and collaborating with others.

What are the obstacles to this ambition?

There are considerable financial obstacles. My aforementioned student debt, for one. Probably a larger obstacle, though, would be sustaining the writerly discipline, which seems to work only in short bursts, and only if I am tending to a variety of projects—no one of them getting my full attention. I also love certain video and computer games beyond reason or cure. They’re particularly addicting when I should be writing.

What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition?

Establish an aggressive writing routine. Do not waver from it. Re-establish the routine immediately after I waver from it.

How do you begin your day?

I have for several months been getting up between thirty and sixty minutes early and trying to use at least some of that time for writing. Make coffee, eat breakfast while reading email and catching up on Facebook and blogs, retreat to home office with coffee and attempt to squeeze out some words before I have to shower and leave for work.

What are your habits? What patterns do you repeat?

I know I would be a lot more productive if I saved the email/Facebook/blogs for after I’ve written, but if procrastination is poor impulse control, then I am a master procrastinator. I do tend to jump from thing to thing. A real writing streak happens rarely, and only in moments of perfect engagement or (more likely) deadline-induced panic.

Describe your first successful creative act.

I don’t remember if it was fourth or fifth grade, but out of nowhere I wrote this epic adventure about my and my sister’s mice—Michael and Zach. I was discovering the story as I was writing it and I enjoyed every minute. I don’t remember if I showed it to anyone or what their reaction was. I wish I still had it.

Describe your second successful creative act.

This was maybe seventh or eighth grade? My friend Chris and I imbibed near-lethal quantities of Jolt soda and stayed up until 2 or 3am writing a parody script of Star Trek: The Next Generation that had to do with, uh, adolescent... concerns. And over the next few weeks we even designed and assembled a cardboard set for the movie in my mother’s basement. Tragically, we never did film it.

Compare them.

Both involved writing that was spontaneous and fun to do. Neither felt like work—I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. And they both had to do with things I was interested in.

What are your attitudes toward:

Money? Like a wild animal or a loaded gun, it can hurt you if you do not handle with extreme caution.

Power? Not interested. Wouldn’t know what to do with it if I had it. I like collaborating too much.

Praise? Yes please! (Though my first impulse is always to deny or demur.)

Rivals? Like power, not really something I think about. (Apart from occasional pangs of jealousy. We all get those. I’m not a monster.)

Work? Where I find meaning. Or could. Someday. Maybe.

Play? Much more fun than work.

Which artists do you admire most?

Joss Whedon. Tony Kushner. Aaron Sorkin.

Why are they your role models?

They are all writers with a unique style that is equal parts funny and poignant without detracting from either. 

What do you and your role models have in common?

Though I’m not at their level, funny and poignant is also what I do when I’m firing on all cylinders.

Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you?

Apart from my girlfriend, who is wonderful, and my cat, who is totally awesome and not at all conceited about it, and my friends and family and have I covered my ass yet…?, I don’t know that I have a mentor or one source of inspiration. My inspiration mostly comes from the things I read and see, and then, once I have ingested enough, from within.

Who is your muse?

Thalia and Melpomene, of course—the Greek muses of comedy and drama, respectively. Kidding. I just looked that up. Do people really still have muses?

Define muse.

Your ideal audience, I guess? Someone or many someones you hope to impress or amuse? (Amuse! See what I did there without even trying?)

When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?

I wet myself both as a defense mechanism and to show submission.

When faced with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness, or indifference in others, how do you respond?

Depends whether or not I am invested in this particular’s person success. If I am, even a little (and it does not take much), then I try to advise, help, inspire, cajole, and/or argue with. If I am not, then I avoid. Like a stupid, hostile, intransigent, lazy, and indifferent plague.

When faced with impending success or threat of failure, how do you respond?

Success, like praise, can make me feel oogy. I am probably a high-functioning sufferer of the Imposter Syndrome. Failure itself can knock me down for a while. But the threat of failure can motivate me unlike anything else. (My father’s half of the family fondly refers to this as the “Crose Call.”)

When you work, do you love the process or the result?

Sometimes I love the process. Usually I love the result more, because now it’s out there and people can respond to it. For some reason, it’s only when people respond to something I did that I feel like I actually did it.

At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?

When I log in to my bank account and am confronted with certain hard truths.

What is your ideal creative activity?

Either brainstorming with collaborators or writing something when I am truly plugged in to it.

What is your greatest fear?

Disliking my life and feeling helpless to change it. Being a bad or disinterested parent. Being disliked and/or utterly alone.

What is the likelihood of either of the answers to the previous two questions happening?

Very likely and not very likely, respectively.

Which of your answers would you most like to change?

The “greatest fear” one, with my attitude toward money a close second.

What is your idea of mastery?

Confidence. An inner calm. Unshakable faith in myself and the process. A sense of purpose.

What is your greatest dream?

A happy family, a beautiful restored farmhouse, close friends, and making a comfortable living writing, teaching, and collaborating with others.


Well, that revealed some interesting stuff! "Collaborative" and "collaboration" are my two favorite words, but I really had no idea just how people-centric many of my hopes and fears are. It also made me realize that I need to focus more on chasing what's fun in my writing rather than what I suppose people will think is good. Also-also, I need to make a lot of money so I can stop worrying about money.

Did this stir up anything for you? I'd be interested to see how other people respond to these same questions. Post a link in the comments if you give this a try on your blog!