And that, of course, is the lingering problem: The maintenance of an arbitrary division between “literature” and “genre,” the refusal to admit that every piece of fiction belongs to a genre, or several genres. There are very real differences between science fiction and realistic fiction, between horror and fantasy, between romance and mystery. Differences in writing them, in reading them, in criticizing them. Vive les différences! They’re what gives each genre its singular flavor and savor, its particular interest for the reader — and the writer. But when the characteristics of a genre are controlled, systematized, and insisted upon by publishers, or editors, or critics, they become limitations rather than possibilities. Salability, repeatability, expectability replace quality. A literary form degenerates into a formula. Hack writers get into the baloney factory production line, Hollywood devours and regurgitates the baloney, and the genre soon is judged by its lowest common denominator…. And we have the situation as it was from the 1940’s to the turn of the century: “genre” used not as a useful descriptor, but as a negative judgment, a dismissal.
That’s a quote from a conversation the American writer Ursula K. Le Guin had with another American writer Michael Cunningham back in 2016 for Electric Literature.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 22 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about keeping the non-essential behind the damn bushes, and how it’s important to remember, focus doesn’t have to be an eight hour work day. It can be as little as fifteen minutes a day. As long as they are fifteen focused minutes, every day.
So today I want to talk about limits, limits and limitations, how something doesn’t have to be generic because you are aware of genre, so it remains useful as Le Guin called“genre” a descriptor, and not “a negative judgment, a dismissal.”
An American novelist came to La Muse ten years ago. He was just starting out, and he was lost. The structure of his novel was driving him crazy. He asked me to help him. It was a historical novel and he’d been researching for nine months, all over the south of the United States. We talked about the main acts of the story, his flawed hero, a little about the stages of each act and then I got him to put it on a wall, visually.
Faulkner used to do the same thing. He’d actually write the outlines of his novels onto the wall, much to the dismay of his wife, to “see” the book, to look at it in a different way. Screenwriters do this when they beat out the acts of a screenplay by putting all the major scenes on cards, and then onto a cork board. I’ll never forget the first time I went into a screenwriter’s room a week into a retreat. It had post-its everywhere, each act in different colors.
Anyway, I listened to the American novelist and tried to figure out what he had so far, what the ingredients of his genre he already had. After about fifteen minutes, he stopped talking.
“Where’s your midpoint?” I asked.
After a moment, he said “I don’t know.”
“What’s your inciting incident again, your catalyst?”
Again, after a few moments, he said, “I’ve no idea.”
Thirty minutes later he realized what he thought was a whole novel was only half a novel. The ending he had in his head was really only the midpoint of the novel. Instead of a heroine who was going to evolve he was going to have “an emotional crazy person” (his words) at the end. It was all in front of him, on the wall, staring back at him, on post-its, not on his computer screen. For the next three weeks he changed, edited and added to his wall.
When he was leaving he said, “You know the best thing I got out of all this?”
“What?” I asked.
“Limits. And better, to know what bits were missing.”
If everything is limitless, we can’t create. Creation needs form, or forms. We can de-form, con-form or trans-form through our creations but you still need form, limits.
Shakespeare not only wrote plays with stories, but he also wrote in iambic pentameter. To read his plays you would think it’s simply characters talking in beautiful prose, but behind those words there are limits, each line couched in a five-feeted poetic structure.
However, creation is not always maths. Giving creation “axiomatic” interpretations and definitions, as in maths, is like saying a sonnet is a sonnet only if it’s a,b,a,b,a, etc., as in a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. But this would mean Dante’s creation of an a,a,b,a,a,b, etc. sonnet is not the true form, or, is incorrect. And if the sonnet had stayed “axiomatic” then we would never have had the Occitan sonnet, or the Shakespearean, or English sonnet, never mind the Urdu sonnet or contemporary free verse sonnets.
Everything has limits, but a lot of limits are invisible. Poetry is a great example, from sonnets to villanelles, with structures and limits in words and lines.
A business plan starts with an introduction, thesis, anti-thesis and new thesis. A car has an engine, wheels, seats. A screenplay has an Act One, its Catalyst, an Act Two, a B Story, a midpoint, an All is Lost moment, and a Third Act Finale. Novels have limits too, and specific novels have specific limits, or ingredients like that American novelists’ historical novel. For example, if you’re writing a detective novel then there are certain ingredients — an unusual detective, a femme fatale, some red herrings, and of course a murder to be solved. These are basic ingredients, or limits.
I like to think of it like a recipe. An omelette without eggs is not an omelette. Everyone knows what a cheese omelette is. You could call this your Sherlock Holmes detective novel. Then there’s a western omelette, with different ingredients, say an Agatha Christie whodunnit/whydunnit, which is a different kind of recipe. Now take that omelette and put it in an oven with even more ingredients and you have a “frittata”, a Leonardo Sciascia detective novel. Put a base under your frittata omelette and you get a quiche, say a “quiche Lorraine”, and you get a completely different kind of detective novel, a Maigret or Raymond Chandler novel.
The point? You start off with the basic ingredients. Eggs or eggs and milk. With a detective novel, you start off with a detective and a murder. If you start writing a detective novel without an unusual detective, without a murder, then you’re creating something completely different. So, you have to know your genre even if it’s only at a basic level. If you’re writing a horror movie, you better know the limits, the basic invisible recipe of the genre before writing your own. What you add to it afterwards is up to you. But you have to have limits.
What I’m trying to get at is that this applies to nearly any creation. You could start a business, like we did with La Muse. But how much easier it would have been if we had created it with a recipe – a business plan – with market research, a marketing campaign, financial projections. It would have alleviated a lot of stress, and we wouldn’t have had to learn the hard way, by making mistakes, and having to pay the consequences, literally, over the years.
I’m reminded of an old Classics lecturer of mine who used to talk a lot about the Alexandrian idea of “beads on a string”. When someone would go on retreat to La Muse to write a book of non-fiction, a memoir, or novel, and they were stuck, but were also resistant to talking about recipes or genres or plans, I usually ended up talking to them about beads on a string. Oftentimes, they’ve been writing their memoir for years and they were stuck because they didn’t know where it started, how it finished, what to leave in, what to leave out. They had the voice and all the key moments, but they didn’t know how to organize it all.
As opposed to talking about acts and beats and genre we talked about whether a passage about childhood would be a red bead. A chapter about being an adult, what colored bead? A paragraph about growing old, what different colored bead? This way they engaged with limits and genre without getting “overwhelmed” by what they saw as “over technical structures”. They started to see their story visually, like how I just described Faulkner doing. They realized they had too many red beads, or that some yellow beads are at the beginning when they should be at the end. And eventually, by the end of the process they’d worked out how their book should be constructed, and how all the beads are threaded together to make a beautifully symmetrical necklace, like Vergil’s Eclogues, Shakespeare’s plays Beethoven’s symphonies, organized, with highs, lows and an ending.
Your book, business, goal, will fail if it does not have a plan based on a recipe, genre, or beads on a string. It saves you so much time when you know the limits, the basic ingredients of your creation. You don’t have to get into the minutiae but if you have limitless avenues, you go down all of them. If you’re focused, like the examples I gave in the last episode, and learn one thing really well, change it or adapt it into your creation, then you will get there a lot quicker. Everything has a structure, ingredients. Know the structures of your field. Know the limits of your field but don’t get bogged down in the numbers.
Which leads me to another thing. Some creators love numbers. But a lot get anxious and frustrated by numbers. An example I used to hear at our retreat all the time: “I wrote my 3000 words today.”
This drives me crazy. I have enough numbers in my life without stuffing consumerism in the creative part of my life. I want the right side of my brain, the creative side, working. The left side of my brain does enough counting the rest of the day. Adding up bills. Looking at the bank account. Counting how many liters of milk we have left in the fridge.
The only numbers I look at are the clock. Every twenty minutes or so, I get up. Move the body. Take off the glasses. Right my vision again, by looking at the horizon, not the blue screen. When I’m working on a project, away from the day job, every three to four hours, I eat, or go for a long walk. I get diminishing returns if I stay seated for more than four hours. I find it harder to return to the desk. I feel more tired the next day. This way I know I’ve done my work, irrespective of whether it’s 10 words or ten thousand, and this relives a lot of anxiety.
This is my process. Everyone has to find their own. Some people like word counts, but not me. I think it creates stress. What I think is more important is to know your time process. Some people work early in the morning, like Auden. Others are like Dostoyevsky. They work late at night. Some work eight hours a day, others one hour a day. Again, we’re all different, but if we’re consistent with our time, focused, then the numbers will not create walls of pressure and stress.
Forget numbers, discover your time process instead, and set yourself goals. My goal is four hours a day when working on a new project. Sometimes this is not possible. Life can get in the way. But I don’t stress about it now. I wait, and the new goal is to set my process up again, when the move, relationship, change has transitioned into a more stable time.
Benjamin Franklin used to set a goal for each day and at the end of the day he would ask himself had he achieved it. If not, he would analyze why he hadn’t achieved it. The next day he would start all over again. Many other creators do the same thing. The actor Matthew McConaughey does the same thing.
Another part of this is by forgetting the numbers I’m able to be always working on the next goal. While one book, house, project is being created I’m already taking notes for the next ones. Goals create focus and positive thoughts because as the years pass you see what you’ve achieved. Again, as with focus, there has to be limits, some kind of a plan because no plan ever works out the way you wanted it to, but if you don’t plan you’ll never achieve any of your goals.
A long term goal is when you see far off into the horizon. Everything you are doing today is a part of getting to that end target, away from the limits of the reality around us. It’s like a game of soccer. You keep making passes until one day at the end of the field you score a goal. The amount of goals you score is up to you, fate, and it’s never a feat done in one kick. It’s about looking into the future at where you want to be.
What age are you now? Add ten years to it. Where do you want to be at that age? How many books, paintings, clients, do you want to have by then? Now, go out in years. Year 1, 2 and so on. “In five years I’ll have this done.”
Lucas, Gehry, Musk had goals. As opposed to seeing problems they look for solutions. Lucas: How do we make the special effects for “Star Wars”? There’s no company that does it. Create one to do it. Gehry: How do we make a building bend? Use different materials in ingenious ways. Musk: How do we get off fossil fuels? Create inter-related businesses to supply houses and transport with energy using the houses and the sun.
None of these creations came out of thin air. They were planned and these creators looked at the limits in their field and changed their genres. They created long term goals that were realized. Most people believed these creators would never achieve their goals, but with time, they did.
So, have patience. “Instant gratification” does not exist, only moment to moment “joy” in creating. Plan long term, and work short term on understanding the limits of what you create to understand the basics so you can add, enhance the genre, the field that inspires you.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from an American writer, but as I always I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. This one literally means: Practice makes mastery.
Cleachtadh a dhéanann maistreacht.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.