Monday, 27 February 2017

The War of Art, or Grinding It Out Is Not For Everyone

One of my favourite stories is about Bobby Kennedy. When he came into work and had no energy and no idea where to start, he would just take the first piece of paper from the In-Tray and deal with it. Then the next one, then the next, and lo and behold it was half-past ten, the time was passing productively, and he was doing his job.

My second favourite line about this stuff is from The Player, when the Studio Head says to Griffin Mill: “You can’t quit. You have eighteen months on your contract and I will sue you for breach if you don’t show up to work every morning. With a smile.”

At some point in everyone’s life, we learn to show up and grind. True enlightenment comes when we learn to do it with a smile. Took me longer than it should have. The trick, and I swiped this from someone, is not to do the work you (think you) love, but to love the work you do. The surly English tea-shop owner of 1960 TV comedy has been replaced by the bright and chirpy Spanish or Eastern European girl or boy behind the counter. Except that they are probably graduates, who would rather be employed in London than out of work in Madrid. They decide to do the job well because the alternative is to be a grouch, which is bad for them and bad for the customers. They learn to get on with the other people at work and take some pleasure from their company.

The advantage of going into an office to work is the focus it provides. You’re there to work, and maybe use the phone to arrange for the guy to repair the boiler. You don’t have to do anything else. Like listen to your spouse, or mow the lawn. The opportunity for procrastination is reduced: you can’t make a start on re-painting the back bedroom.

If you want to know why people who read novels are different from people who don’t, and people who write novels, or anything else much, are different from both, then a little meditating on the process described by Stephen Pressfield in his The War of Art will tell you.

Everything this little book says about the process of the solitary writer is true. Well, except for the mystical nonsense about Muses at the end. It describes a process that is not even deferred gratification, because there is no gratification at all. Show up at the laptop, hammer away for four-five hours, stop when you start making mistakes, go do other stuff, and repeat tomorrow. Rain or shine. Ignore the outside world, just write. So what if you miss the bit where NASA discovered life on Mars? All to produce a product which maybe five thousand people might read. If you're lucky. There can be no anticipation, no daydreams, as those are the distractions of amateurs. Solitary, unrewarding, with no guarantees of income, recognition or even pleasure. At least the middle manager, preparing slide decks proposing products that never get made, gets paid for doing it, and maybe even complimented on the presentation and told to keep up the good work. The writer just gets rejected. And not paid.

As described in The War of Art, the artist’s life is one long low-odds campaign, one long solitary training session. I had the sense that when he does get to hold the Oscar trophy, it’s too late, the fruit is withered, the wine is sour, and as a pro, he knows it means nothing tomorrow. Winning an Oscar doesn’t guarantee getting produced. It might not even guarantee a meeting.

This is the life of someone on the fringes of the economic and social world, at least until he gets rich, or unless he's a fun guy to be around. That sense of being on the fringes, of holding on to the economy by a frayed string, of living a life with few rewards and little anticipation (anticipation is a chunk of our enjoyment of an event, perhaps all of it in the case of Aston Villa supporters) and of unrewarded, unrecognised effort, all that is going to seep into his characters and the fictional world he creates. There's going to be something empty about it, something slightly desperate. And his readers are going to feel this, even if they can't identify why.

People who read literary fiction identify with this world-view: they are on the emotional or economic fringes themselves, They don't identify with the world ordinary people live in. Ordinary people who do read, read Chick-Lit, detective novels and thrillers. And a few writers can create fantasy worlds that feel whole and rewarding, but those are few and far between, as for example, Tolkien and Pratchett.

That's the by-the-way insight of this piece. Back to the mainstream.

Showing up is not enough on its own. It's not even a start. Woody Allen was being ingenuous when he said "Ninety per cent of success is showing up." Since almost one hundred per cent of people show up every day, year after year, and don't win Oscars or even decent salaries, it must be the ten per cent that matters. What the show-up-and-grind merchants are saying is that the ten per cent, the talent, ability, intelligence and ambition are wasted if we don't show up and grind. I guess they are exposed to a number of clever, glib people who think that creativity is easy, and that writers have easy lives, and they want to point out that writers too are virtuous, industrious workers.

I've said before that sobriety is only for people who have a problem with drinking (or as part of a training regimen), and that emotional sobriety is for people who have a strong tendency to associate with dysfunctionals. I want to add that the grind-it-out attitude of the War of Art is only for people who have chosen vocations that pay badly, offer very little appreciation, have a high level of insecurity, and little or no opportunity for working with others. Most tradesmen have (what we used to call) mates, assistants or partners. It's not the attitude for a barista, a nurse, an analyst, a paramedic or anyone else who works as part of a team, with people who can do things they can't. If you're having to grind it out, and you're not a writer or some other creative type, then change your employer, your supervisor, your job or your attitude.

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