Andromeda: Art and Fear

“Well, I’m terrified,” said one of my new MFA mentees last
week, with a smile, as we were finishing discussions of his year-long learning
plan, including a reading list and monthly page-count expectations. (I’m
paraphrasing here, but not exaggerating. He might have said “I’m scared to death.”) 
That same shudder ran through me a few days ago, once I’d
settled into enough of a post-residency routine to dare open up the computer folder
holding my novel-in-progress, untouched for about three weeks. 
I never feel like less
of a writer than after being at a writing conference, workshop, or MFA
residency. Don’t get me wrong: I love those marathons of learning and sharing. It
feels like camp for adult word nerds. But because we spend so much time talking about writing, we spend very
little time actually writing. While some mental muscles get a workout, other
mental muscles wither. One gets a wonderful sense of what could be but loses touch with what is in our current writing projects.
Furthermore, every talk, workshop, and even late-night party
conversation sets up some mighty expectations as well as implicit warnings. We
talk about great authors and classics to which we can hardly dare aspire. We
discuss well-received contemporary stories and take turns criticizing the one
false line, the one flat character—the message being that a few stumbles and a
work is dead on the page.
At this last residency (the UAA MFA summer residency, where
I am new on the fiction faculty) we heard two of our colleagues lecture about
how Raymond Carver and his minimalist style is seeming to wear thin these days.
In another talk we heard great praise for John Updike, but also the concession
that he isn’t being studied academically as much as one would expect. We heard
a phenomenal nonfiction writer critique her own essay – which to me seemed
practically flawless—and explain again and again, with humility and
intelligence, how it had failed.
Now all these subjects and angles are good ones. It’s good
to bring Carver and Updike down to earth, and instructive to hear a living
writer do a post-mortem on her own work. But given that we may never write as
well as Carver or Updike or the living nonfiction writer who shall not be named
here—then what?

At the residency, we also heard great talks on how to write
dialogue and scene – advice that rang so true, but also set the bar so high,
that it convinced me that I’ll never manage to do it right, even with a smart set
of working instructions right in front of me.
At my last meeting with my mentee, I got a sense of his
ambitions: he was ready to jump into some serious and daunting writing this
year. He wanted to find his subject and his voice. He wanted to impress me, and
himself. And he may very well do that. We all
may very well do that. But only if we allow ourselves to also create a lot of
not-great art along the way. Only if we play around with not-quite-right
subjects and try on others’ voices. Yes, Anne Lamott has said it all more simply:
“shitty first drafts.” But also: shitty final drafts. Think of your favorite
novelist’s oeuvre. There is one book you love, a few more you really admire. There
are also books you wouldn’t want to read again, and don’t feel comfortable
recommending. And that’s not even counting the manuscripts your favorite
novelist hid in a drawer.   
The only sure way to protect yourself from disappointment –
and from being the target of someone else’s criticism – is to not create at
all. The imagined novel, short story or memoir is always perfect, and always
full of great potential and flexibility. The real one is, in the words of Art and Fear authors David Bayles and
Ted Orland (a book I hadn’t heard about until the residency, by the way), “a progression of decreasing possibilities, as each step in
execution reduces future options by converting one—and only one – possibility into
a reality.” Or as Stanley Kulitz said (quoted also in Art and Fear): “The poem in your head is always perfect. Resistance
begins when you try to convert it into language.”
Sitting outside on a sunny day with my new mentee, whose
work I haven’t yet read, he could have been  the next Faulkner, the next Cormac McCarthy,
the next Aimee Bender, the next Denis Johnson. But once he sends me his first
story or opening of a novel, all those possibilities will have collapsed. He
will be only himself, writing something that may not soar yet – something which,
in an early draft and perhaps even in a final draft, shouldn’t be expected to
And I, with two more decades of writing under my belt, am no
different. This week, I opened my novel folder and started working on a new
scene, only to discover that it didn’t have strong momentum. I was skimming over
details and description, I was employing empty dialogue, I was neglecting the power
of subtext, I was exposing my own research gaps, I was slipping into cliché mode,
I was flailing around, unable to convince even myself of the scene’s full veracity.
Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have known that scene’s weaknesses. Now I can point
to every single damn failing, while still being unable to correct many of them.
If maturity is knowing one’s limits, then I am indeed becoming a mature writer.
How much easier it was, those weeks when I wasn’t writing the scene at all! How
much harder it is to actually start writing and come face to face with all
those limitations on the page!
“Which of your novels should I read?” someone asked me
recently. (I’ve published two.) I wanted to say: 
“Read the fifth one. Or the
sixth.” The one not yet written is who I really am, or rather, who I want to
be. How could a writer be judged fairly by her first or second novel? The ones
already published are proof of all that I did not know how to do when I was writing
And yet maybe all those failings have potential, too. What I
didn’t manage to do in my first novel I tried to do in my second. What was
missing from my second I am trying all that much harder to bring into my third.
Again, from Art and Fear: “The seed
of your next art work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece.
Such imperfections… are your guides—valuable, reliable, objective,
non-judgmental guides—to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It
is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art
into the real world, and gives meaning to both.”
Terrifying, yes—but exciting, too.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour, and is working on an imperfect first draft of a new novel called The Expert. For the rest of this week, she is wrapping up her fundraising effort at USA Projects. 

2 thoughts on “Andromeda: Art and Fear”

  1. Wonderful post, thank you. It's nice to hear candid explorations of the less than lovely parts of being a writer, especially in such a personal voice. The book "Art and Fear" is full of great counsel, and another favorite along these lines is Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life" by Bonnie Friedman. I wouldn't have done my MFA years without it.

  2. Great post! Criticism is the easiest thing in the world to write, even of our own work, once we've left that giddy stage, those of us who were lucky enough to inhabit it for a spell. I think also of Dwight Garner's recent criticism of contemporary authors, that they're not producing enough, publishing too infrequently to fulfill the role – must we embrace it? – of shaping the culture. Our best work may be something else entirely, something we can't – and shouldn't – quit reaching toward, impossible as it seems.

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