there’s something fishy about creativity

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Writing, we’re tapping directly into the unconscious.

It’s weird: “you” are up here, above the water. What you need is down there, below the black and rippling surface. You have no idea what’s down there, but you want it anyway.

As writers, we’re all just fishing, praying for a tug on the line. Aside from a lucky few, most of us spend far too much time fiddling with our rods. Eventually—hopefully—we coax ourselves into actually casting. That’s the hardest part. You have no idea what’s down there or whether there’s anything down there at all.

The creative miracle is that as soon as you start casting, you start reeling in fish. Every time. Writer’s block, as professional writers will tell you, doesn’t exist. Rod-fiddling exists. Once you start casting, the fish start biting. You immediately remember what you somehow forgot the instant you stopped writing last time: the water is teeming with fish.

(I always wondered why my mom would constantly tell me there are plenty of fish in the sea. She must have been talking about my writing. Thanks, Mom!)

Of course, you can’t be too picky. Turn up your nose at too many flounders and you’re in trouble. You’ve got to reel in every fish, no matter how slimy, and take a good, hard look at it. Skin it, fillet it, figure out how to incorporate it into a meal. You may end up tossing it later, but you can’t just throw it back in if it doesn’t look right at first.

Yes. Writing is like fishing. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe writing is like rappelling, or freediving, or double-entry accounting.

Does any of this resonate? When ruminating on your own epic struggles with the Muse, to what strained metaphors do you turn?

Either way, I’m sure I got the fish words all wrong—even though I did, once, edit a book on fishing. I’ve only ever actually fished once. I caught a fish and it was slimy and I turned my nose up at it. Haven’t caught any fish since.

“Working” on my book, I’ve been on a deep dive into the creative process. As “research,” I’ve watched or re-watched a number of excellent documentaries about the creative process. (If you’re going to be honest, talking about your book requires copious quotation marks.)

Some of the best bits follow. In this era of cord-cutting, I suggest using JustWatch to quickly check where each movie is available: Hulu, Netflix, etc.

Last Dance (2002)

Maurice Sendak in a still from Last Dance

I’m only attracted to subjects of a tragic dimension. It has to be serious. It has to tell a story that’s a little hard to take. It has to draw blood.

—Maurice Sendak

I first saw this PBS documentary, about Sendak’s collaboration with the dance company Pilobolus, when it debuted. So, well over a decade ago. This line stuck with me all that time. Boy, did it.

Recently, I decided to dig up a copy just to make sure I had the wording right. “It has to draw blood.” I remember my bell ringing when Sendak says that. Whatever I was going to do as a writer, that.

This guy wrote and illustrated children’s books. Yet in his work there is always truth and weight and a deadly seriousness. Sendak, whether he took us to the night kitchen or to where the wild things happen to be, was not fucking around.

Regardless of what you’re working on, ask yourself, does it draw blood?

If not, why are you still working on it?

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (2007)

Philip Glass

You get up early in the morning and you work all day. That’s the only secret.

—Philip Glass

I’ve liked Glass for a long time. I like his work for opera, like Einstein on the Beach, and I like his work for film, like the soundtrack for The Truman Show. That said, I don’t think you have to see the merit in minimalism to appreciate this film.

Glass is a worker. He’s one of the lucky few I mentioned above. He has succeeded and endured through an unshakeable discipline. The guy casts his rod, every day.

You can hear the edge of contempt in Glass’s voice when he says these words. How could you work any other way? he clearly wonders. What else could it come down to, over the course of a career?

To do what he does, Glass sits down at the piano in the morning and he composes music with a pencil and a stack of staff paper. Nothing could be simpler—or harder.

That said, I’m not sure I want to actually be the guy. It takes a toll on Glass’s personal life, as the documentary makes all too clear. There is a lesson, however, for any creator in the clarity of this composer’s relentless work ethic.

The next time you’re debating whether to sit down at the keyboard—alphanumeric or otherwise—think about Glass at his piano with his pencil and staff paper. There is no secret beyond the work.

Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012)

Woody Allen at his typewriter

Speaking of personal lives…let’s not. What struck me in this documentary was what Allen reveals about the mechanics of his writing process.

Whenever he has an idea, Allen writes it down in ballpoint pen on yellow legal paper. Then it gets stuffed in a drawer next to the bed. Whenever he starts working on a new script—which happens the day after he completes work on his previous film—he pulls out his pile of scribbled notes, shuffles through them, and selects an idea that interests him.

I can only look at the crazy amalgam of high-tech writing tools and databases I’ve assembled and shake my head in embarrassment.

Idea in hand, Allen sits down to write:

I bought this when I was 16. Still works like a tank and it’s a German typewriter and it’s an Olympia portable. I’ve had it my whole life. It cost me 40 dollars, I think. The guy told me it would be around long after my death, and I’ve typed everything that I’ve ever…written every script, every New Yorker piece, everything I’ve ever done, on this typewriter.

Allen edits himself by cutting out the good parts with scissors and stapling them to a fresh page.

The simplicity of this. Again, simple and hard, like all truths.

This is not to say you should imitate Allen’s practice. I’m just saying that simple tools are all you really need. I’m always getting carried away with my toolset. Often that’s been valuable—writing for the web solo is vastly more difficult than handing off a typed screenplay to a team of assistants.

That said, tools have also been a massive distraction from my work: rod-fiddling of the highest order. Whenever I get carried away now, I bring myself back to the mental image of Allen at work: Where’s my yellow legal pad? Where’s my typewriter? OK, back to work.

Speaking of which, back to work.