In Impro, Keith Johnstone writes that when improvisers try to be original, they fail. “Don’t be original; be obvious.” When you state the obvious, you actually seem original. Paradoxical, eh? Likewise, the more specific the feelings, experiences, stories – the more universal they appear. The trick is, what’s completely obvious to you isn’t obvious to anyone else. Many people can tell exactly the same story about exactly the same event, but if each speaks from their authentic point of view, each story will seem “original.”
The author of genius does keep till his last breath the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness, of a child, the “innocence of eye” that means so much to the painter, the ability to respond freshly and quickly to new scenes, and to old scenes as though they were new… This freshness of response is vital to the author’s talent… But there is another element to his character, fully as important to his success. It is adult, discriminating, temperate, and just. It is the side of the artisan, the workman, and the critic rather than the artist. It must work continually with and through the emotional and childlike side, or we have no work of art. If either element of the artist’s character gets too far out of hand the result will be bad work, or no work at all. The writer’s first task is to get these two elements of his nature into balance, to combine their aspects into one integrated character.
Very few of us are born into homes where we see true
examples of the artistic temperament, and since artists do certainly conduct their lives—necessarily—on a different pattern from the average man of business, it is very easy to misunderstand what he does and why he does it when we see it from the outside. The picture of the artist as a monster made up of one part vain child, one part suffering martyr, and one part boulevardier is a legacy to us from the last century, and a remarkably embarrassing inheritance. There is an earlier and healthier idea of the artist than that, the idea of the genius as a man more versatile, more sympathetic, more studious than his fellows, more catholic in his tastes, less at the mercy of the ideas of the crowd.
In this sketch from Monty Python’s 1973 album, “Matching Tie and Handkerchief,” a crowd gathers to watch Thomas Hardy begin his latest novel, The Return of the Native, while an announcer provides a running commentary.
Here’s poet Wislawa Szymborska in her Nobel Lecture, talking about how the lives of artists or scientists can make great films, but not poets:
But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens … Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?
Yesterday Matt Thomas tweeted a mashup of the first line from The Old Man and the Sea and the last line of The Great Gatsby. Then he tweeted one with the first line of Moby-Dick and the last line of Gravity’s Rainbow. I thought this mashup needed to become a genre, so I gave it a hashtag: #firstlinelastline
Writer’s block is a modern notion. Writers have probably suffered over their work ever since they first started signing it, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that creative inhibition became an actual issue in literature, something people took into account when they talked about the art. That was partly because, around this time, the conception of the art changed. Before, writers regarded what they did as a rational, purposeful activity, which they controlled. By contrast, the early Romantics came to see poetry as something externally, and magically, conferred.
My working process is no doubt much the same as yours and the same as many other people. The artistic process seems to be mythologized quite a lot into something far greater than it actually is. It is just hard labor… As anyone who actually writes knows, if you sit down and are prepared, then the ideas come. There’s a lot of different ways people explain that, but, you know, I find that if I sit down and I prepare myself, generally things get done.