All Agony and No Ecstasy

In 1961 Irving Stone published The Agony and the Ecstasy about Michelangelo’s struggles to produce great art.  I never read the book but saw the 1965 movie.  I think most artists are driven.  I always wanted to be creative as a great artist, but I’ve never wanted to be that driven – it scares me because it seems like possession.  But man, I need to be a bit more driven than my laidback lazy self.  Where does drive come from?  Inside or out?  Can it be self-induced?  Would I take a pill to produce it like in the film Limitless.

Once again I’ve taken a week off from work to write on my novel, and once again it is all agony and no ecstasy.  I have no trouble writing non-fiction, but fiction is painful to produce.  And yet, writing fiction is the one ambition I still have left in life.

This morning Zite brought me a link to “To Who it May Inspire,” a letter at Letters of Note.  It’s a handwritten note from Austin Madison, a Pixar animator, who tells people to persist, and reminds them that only 3% of the time is it fun to be creative, and the other 97% of the creative process is painful, and finally he encourages people to always persist in working through the 97%.

That’s always been my problem, I keep waiting for the 3% mood to hit, and not putting in my 97% of the time actually drudging away.  And that’s the regret of my life I would say.  I don’t know how to persist through drudgery. 

I’ll turn 60 soon and I wonder if I shouldn’t give up on this last dream.  I don’t know if I can though – it might be a permanent fantasy that runs in my head no matter what.  When I was young I dreamed of writing novels as a way of getting out of 9 to 5 work, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s easier to go to work every day than write.  In a couple of years I’ll be able to retire and the incentive to write to avoid work won’t matter any more.  What then?

I don’t think about writing for money anymore, anyway.  I hope this won’t sound silly, but the reason why I still feel guilty about not writing is because I have so many characters that will die unless I create a story for them to live in.  Even though I don’t write regularly, I do fantasize about my characters all the time.  I think my main problem is I don’t have a good plot for them to live out.  I started watching this week Martha Alderson’s 27 part series on YouTube about plotting.  She discusses many examples from classic and current books, so these videos are enlightening even if you don’t want to write.  They would also be good for people who like to review books.

Martha reminded me of something I’ve learned from many writing classes – that is my character must want something.  And my characters are ambitious, but they are like me, they don’t want to work at the drudgery any more than I do.  So now I’m working on two dimensions of persistence – I must persist and making my characters persist.

Another piece of advice from Martha is I need to know where my novel is going.  That’s always been my biggest weakness.  I’ll start writing, and crank out scene after scene, and eventually realize I’m not going anywhere.  I’ll stop for awhile, maybe months.  Then I’ll return to it and start at the beginning again and write all new scenes until I once again peter out.  I’ve finished 30+ stories for writing classes, but only two of them were ever liked by other people, and that was because I created satisfactory plots. 

My best example is “Annaclara’s Heroes” written almost ten years ago.  It’s as closest to Martha’s advice as anything I’ve written.  I went ahead and published it on my blog this morning to see if seeing it inspires me to write more.  Also, I feel bad about not letting Annaclara out of her desk drawer dungeon. 

“Annaclara’s Heroes” is the best I was ever able to do with fiction writing.  It was 12,000 words and I wanted to make it a real novel.  I was only able to complete it because it was the major class assignment for a Historical Fiction course.  Reading it now reminds me of how much work it took to produce.  I had to focus very hard for weeks.  And I think I did because I wanted to impress my classmates and teacher.  I don’t have that incentive when I write stories now. 

That’s the thing about writing fiction, it takes weeks of intense focus.  And for what?  Let’s say I sold a story to F&SF or Asimov’s and got $400.  That’s not a lot of monetary incentive.  I think the real motivation is to create something beautiful, and I do have that kind of motivation.  Just not the drive – but can I reprogram myself to have the drive?  That’s a fancy way of saying, “Can you teach an old dog new tricks?”

I think about writing when I retire, and I take off a week now and then to imagine being retired to see if I can get to work.  But a week is never enough.  I usually have a zillion things to do with my meager week of freedom.  And that might be key to my failure.  Creative people can focus on one ambition with laser-like focus.  My inner light is like a campfire that flickers, jumps, pops, flares, fades, and never stays focused – it creates more heat than light.

I’ve got hundreds of books on my shelf waiting to be read, and hundreds of movies waiting to be watched, and a dozen half-ass hobbies I want to spend more time on – and all of this distracts me from writing.  I keep telling myself I must free myself from all desires but one, but I can’t.

I am reminded of the movie Destination Moon from 1950.  The crew of the first rocket to the moon uses up too much fuel landing and can’t take off unless they can get rid of enough mass.  They end up throwing everything imaginable out onto the surface of the moon to lighten the ship, including their radio and space suits.  If I ever really want to be serious about writing I’ll need to jettison all my other distractions to sharpen my focus.  In the film the astronauts have one great incentive – they’ll die if they don’t.  I don’t have that kind force driving me.

I think I’m not a writer because of lack of drive rather than talent.  I’m not sure talent is critical to the equation, at least I hope not because I’ve never felt talented.  I’d like to believe its how hard you work, and I’m just too lazy.  The fascinating question is whether or not laziness is a quality I can change.  After fifty years of not applying myself diligently I should be able to answer that question without equivocation, but that old adage about hope springing eternal seems to trump it.

I tend to think we all have unfulfilled ambitions we carry around our whole life.  At what point do we give them up.  I have friends who claim they gave up long ago, but I wonder about their secret fantasies they never tell about.  I like to contemplate changing myself.  I don’t know if its possible, but I tend to think I’m not alone.

JWH – 9/9/11

5 thoughts on “All Agony and No Ecstasy”

  1. When you talk about letting Annaclara out of the desk drawer dungeon, that’s how I feel about some of my characters. I’ve gotta get back to work too!

  2. Jim, one of the things I particularly liked about your short story was that I cared about the characters, right from the start (Annaclara in particular, but also Marcus).

    There’s a real knack to that, and a lot of authors don’t have it. You, apparently, do.

    1. Thanks Bill, that’s encouraging. The reason why I consider “Annaclara’s Heroes” my best story is because people like the characters. That’s not true of my other stories. In fact, my classmates often hated my characters. They thought I had neat story ideas with cold intellectual characters. When I wrote “Annaclara’s Heroes” I tried very hard to not be me and to convey emotion. It was draining.

      I would love to create a whole novel for Annaclara and Marcus but the psychic commitment is tremendous. I’m blown away by writers who can focus so intently and produce novels. Can you imagine the mental energy that went into The Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin? Or the Harry Potter novels. I fear the work. A short story takes weeks of focus, and I have to jettison everything in my life but work at work, and writing at home. A novel would take over a year. I’m trying to psyche myself up to try again, but it’s hard.

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