The Practice of Art


John Hartness, author of the Quincy Harker books and the Black Knight Chronicles, is an excellent author. He’s an even better publisher. His small press, Falstaff Books, is batting 1000 by putting out paranormal fantasy books that make me think. Every Falstaff book I've read so far has been provocative. The latest, Perishables, by Michael G. Williams, is the first of the Withrow Chronicles and recounts the first and second zombie apocalypses from the perspective of a 350-pound vampire who enjoys both food and blood. Withrow Surrett was an artist both before and after the Big Bite, as he calls his turning. In the present, he palms himself off as the grandson of a famous artist, selling "newly discovered" works by his "grandfather" to fund his immortal life. At a dinner party for the board members of Withrow's Homeowners Association ('cause, you know, don't all vampires join their local HOAs?), Withrow gets into a discussion about the paucity of imagination that motivates artists to paint landscapes, according to a particularly bitchy member of the HOA. Withrow, playing the role of art broker rather than art maker, stifles his impulse to inform his nasty neighbor that many artists begin with landscapes because they will "sit still long enough for you to practice your craft, to learn, to experiment, to compare the results of one technique with another, to learn the little inner cues that tell you when you're doing something right, that you should just keep working and not overthink it for a little bit because you've got that vibe..." I recognized his description of the artistic process immediately and just as quickly applied Withrow's musings to my own craft. 

I'm working on my first paranormal romance novel. I started by writing 50,000 words during National Novel Writing Month (which Michael G. Williams used to jump start his own work).  This was followed by tossing out said 50,000 words, and writing a 50-page outline that involved an actual plot. And then writing the first two chapters over and over to discover that art is fueled by craft and craft is fueled by practice. Who knew?

Well, pretty much every published writer out there. This shit is hard, hard, hard. I get why painters would practice on landscapes. It's a lot easier to shoot fish in a barrel than to try to snag them on a line as they dart past you in the water. Given the static nature of pen and paper or computer screens, I thought that writing would be infinitely easier than painting, and that translating what I "see" in my imagination into words that bring these images to life for someone else would be relatively easy. I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

I've always believed I could write well. That I have a way with words and can turn a phrase pleasantly. And I can. I have also proven that I can write papers, articles, presentations and reference books to acclaim and success. Then I took up blogging and I've been happy with those results as well. But writing fiction is whole other animal. I had no idea how difficult it is to show, not tell, to avoid the use of the passive voice and adverbs, not to mention variations on the verb "to be."  Yikes. I guess I'm at the learn, experiment, compare techniques period of my "art."  I haven't yet gotten to the inner cues that tell me I've met my Muse and if she is happy. It's discouraging. 

I really, truly, deeply thought that art happens. With or without adverbs. I believed that talent would win and that I could translate nonfiction success to fiction fulfillment. Sadly, it hasn't worked out like that. I don’t feel remotely inspired; I feel like I'm slogging through a swamp filled with quicksand.  And I'm sinking fast. I thought I could be exempt from the sheer drudgery of writing and re-writing, putting words on the page one day only to trash them the next, a good night's sleep revealing my supposed "brilliance" as pyrite, not gold. 

And then I realized that somewhere in my brain I thought that coming to my craft as an older person meant I could cut to the front of the line and forgo all the grunt work. Not so. And maybe that's a good thing, although that is a difficult pill to swallow. I think that as we get older our comfort zone is in the end zone; we have no stomach for starting at the bottom and working our way up the ladder. Again. It's why so few of us chuck our day jobs and start over in new fields. Money and increasing salaries play a role, of course, but this applies to our avocations as well as our vocations.

It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. And I think it’s because we old dogs are really uncomfortable with the uncertainty and vulnerability of being newbies who learn more slowly than we used to and adjust less readily. It's scary as shit to try new things and fail repeatedly before we get it. If we get ever get it at all. There is tremendous internal pressure to give up when we are not immediately successful. Because we tell ourselves—or at least I do—that I should be better at this than I am, and when I'm not, my identity is at risk. 

But the opposite is also true. The continued ability to learn new tricks, to tolerate discomfort, to practice, practice, practice, even when we just don’t get it, can be the essence of identity. I'm a big believer in personal growth.  Growth can be painful. And I'm here to tell you that picking up new skills later in life is fulfilling but frightening, satisfying and scary. In my youth, self-doubt felt like a second skin; today that same uncertainty feels like sandpaper against my body – and my soul. I'm raw and bleeding. And that's okay. I will continue to practice my craft so that I can make my art. I’m starting with landscapes while I suffer the plague of trial and error.  Again.  And again.  And again.