[Ed.: It seems appropriate that this post has been sitting in my queue, unwritten, for as long as it has. I refuse to admit how long that is, though a clever reader could easily figure it out, nor will I admit the number of miles I've carried Bird by Bird, just waiting for a chance to copy out one quote. Later: Er, that would be long enough that I'm not certain just which quote I meant to copy. I guess you'll just have to read the whole thing.]
The “artistic fallacy” is my own term for something I’ve said many times, though usually in private, and heard from others in person, online, and in print. The artistic fallacy – the idea that if only something were different, the sufferer could write/paint/create a masterpiece. Unless you’re a far better person than I am, you’ve probably suffered from this yourself, in one form or another. It could also be called the “If only” disease.
“If only my family didn’t take so much time, I could have written a novel by now.”
“If only I had a better place to work, I could be painting for a show.”
“If only work weren’t so draining…”
“If only I could get my supplies organized…”
Stephen King writes about this quite eloquently in On Writing, where he describes his desire for a particular large desk that would make his writing so much easier. He kept writing, though, and eventually was successful enough to install the desk of his dreams.
He never used it.
The key phrase in the above description is “kept writing”. All of us have the same number hours in the day, most of us have to work for a living, have families to tend, houses to clean. The important thing is to do it anyway, whether it is writing, knitting, painting, making music. My life isn’t going to magically change, and neither will yours, I expect. No winning lottery ticket, no hitherto-unknown rich uncle, no sudden change to a 15-hour workweek at the same salary. Everyone, from Stephen King on down, has the same kind of life, and you make of it what you will. Persistence is more important than just about anything else, I think – if you write 50 words a day, it will still be a novel when you’re done, and if you knit two rows, it will still become a sweater. More importantly, you will be the person who wrote a novel, or knit a sweater, and not one of the millions who say to themselves every day, “If only…”.
Anne Lamott writes about the other half of the artistic fallacy in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It starts in the same way, but addresses the after, rather than the before. “If only I had published a novel/practiced the piano/finished my masterpiece, I’d be rich, and famous, and people would like me.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if were that easy?
There has to be some other reason besides dreams of success to start and stick to a project. You write because you enjoy it, or you weave because it makes you happy. If you don’t enjoy the process – seeing words on paper, or yarn become cloth, or colors come together to form the picture you see in your head – then why bother? The doing must be rewarding in and of itself, to get you past all of the “if onlies”.
Anne Lamott says it better, as does Stephen King. As I was contemplating this article, I also kept running into other people saying the same thing in their own way, including the Yarn Harlot, and in pictures, How to survive writing a graphic novel by Grady Klein.
There are things you can do, to help manage time and stuff, and I’ll be talking about some of my favorite strategies in future articles. Not that I’m a fantastic role model, but I think about this sort of thing a lot, perhaps sometimes to the detriment of actually doing it.
And sometimes I give in to the urge for that something whose possession will change my life and make me productive. This time, a bright red Lamy Safari fountain pen, and a bottle of Noodler’s black ink. How can you not love an ink called “Noodler’s”?
I have had a love-hate relationship with those $5 Schaeffer’s fountain pens for years. I love the idea of using one, and hate the reality! I finally did some research, and found an affordable fountain pen that people actually liked. I like it too – it writes very smoothly, and I haven’t yet gotten ink all over myself and my paper – but for some reason it didn’t spontaneously write a best-selling novel. Drat!