Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day 87: Writing is a verb

I feel fat.

I'm not fat.

I feel fat because I haven't exercised this week. I haven't exercised because I can't move my body very well thanks to the muscle spasm in my neck and back due to injury. I know that if I were to have exercised, I wouldn't be feeling fat.

The same is true for art. As artists, if we don't keep up our art, we get into trouble. Demons rise. The best, quickest way to keep them at bay is to do our art. Painters must get out the paints and get them on the canvas even if the image hasn't yet come to mind. It will as the painting commences. Writers must write, even if it's three (sporadic) morning pages a day. Eventually, and often quite suddenly, an idea will flow onto the page and the writer will think That's a good idea. I could write more about that. The musician must dust off the guitar and pluck away, even if it's just a cover song at first. Eventually a riff will arrive, then a few lyrics, then a song.

The art is in the doing.

People often tell me about books they'd like to write but instead of discussing the writing itself, they ask about publishing or they launch into their fears of someone stealing their ideas. I ask them if they've written any of the book. Often, they tell me that they don't want to waste their time writing the book if they don't have a publishing contract. That's fine, I guess, but they haven't anything to show a publisher even if the publisher showed up at their house and asked for a cup of tea and their ideas. Of course, the writer would have a lawyer present and contracts would be signed so the publisher wouldn't steal their ideas.*

This is a ridiculous scenario because the publisher doesn't know if you can write in the first place. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love had the book deal in her pocket before she hopped on the plane to Italy. She only had this because the publisher knew her book proposal was good, but more importantly, her publisher knew she was a good writer. Why? Because of her previous works. And she likely, at some point, had to show writing samples to prove she could write. By the way, check out her thoughts on writing and TED talk about creative genius. So good.

Many writers expect a publisher to hand them a contract and a hefty advance before one word hits the page. That's just bad business. If you feel this way, stop deluding yourself and start writing.

Writing is a verb. 

If I were a publisher and you were my close friend, I wouldn't give you shit until you showed me writing samples and a well-thought-out book proposal. Then I'd have to evaluate if it's a good business decision to take you on. In other words, can you book sell?

And another thing, do you have enough material to fill a book? I come up with great book ideas all the time and I constantly start writing books. Much of the time, I run out of material or desire within a week or two. Did I waste that time writing something that will never make it to the New York Times Best Seller List or even to a bookshelf? No. Because I wrote most of the material in my morning pages and I had to write three pages a day anyway. The book idea served it's purpose. Onward.

Last year, my coauthor Marni Kamins and I wrote a book for 9 months and decided to chuck it because, though the idea was great, the book itself, in our estimation, wasn't good enough. C'est la vie. Was our 9 months a waste? No. We needed it to get us to the book we're writing now, which is a much juicier read. It doesn't have a contract behind it yet. In fact, we haven't even shown it to our publisher yet. We'll get to it. First, we need to lay track on the book, to see if it's a viable idea, to see if we want to be defined in the world by it's subject matter. You do, after all, have to live with your hits.

We did not expect to hear thousands of stories about breakups after our first book, The Breakup Repair Kit, was published. Nor did we expect to hear dating woes galore when our second book, The Dating Repair Kit, was published. Are we prepared to hear the new stories that arise out of our new book? We think so. But, we have to keep writing to be certain.

So dear artist, quitchurbitchin' about wasted time and idea stealing and start your art. What's the worst that can happen? That you waste a little time (you won't) or someone will steal your idea (see below).

*After The Breakup Repair Kit came out, another cheap gift book came out from another publisher with a similar title. It was a short, crappy version of our book. Did they steal our idea? Likely. The healing steps were similar. Did they probably make a few books off it? Likely. Did it bother us? A little. Ultimately, if it's a good idea someone will rip it off. Take it as a compliment, act on it if it's important to you, and stay one step ahead by focusing on your own art.


  1. Thanks for the reminder. It's amazing how when you tell yourself you need to do the "verb" a few times a week for a certain amount of time, that time usually amounts to much more than you promised yourself - so you get even more done. Oh it's just the initial doing that trips me up sometimes...

    In terms of copycatting, I really think there's a sort of collective consciousness in the world. I've been working on a book idea for over a year now (I have trouble with the verb) and just this weekend saw a title quite similar to mine... If I ever get published, she may call me a copycat even though I didn't know she existed!

  2. I looove the book plugs.Those "Repair Kit" books are the bomb, if I do say so myself.
    Also, funny that you mentioned TED in today's blog. I just found out I am going to the TED conference in April at USC! CAN. NOT. WAIT.

    9 months of writing is still 9 months of writing. published or not, it's a lot of good practice toward those 10,000 hours. Plus, the journey itself was great.

  3. Well said! Thank you for the nice kick to my create shorts for and shaking some inspiration loose! Ever think about becoming an artist/writer's coach? You would be good at it.

  4. Mel Heth, I hear you about the "initial doing that trips me up sometimes." What is it with the initial that is often harder than the doing?

    Marni, Congratulations on the TED conference. And yes, 9 months of writing is still 9 months of writing, which is exactly how much writing I have left of this blog this year.

    Creative Sprite, artist/writer's coaching has crossed my mind, but only since this blog has been born. I find myself liking my posts about creative lessons most of all. Perhaps we're onto something. Hmmmm.


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