In the absence of fairy dust

Sometimes half the battle of learning from someone is semantic – especially in artistic enterprises, which aren’t bound by professional accreditation bodies to maintain a particular set of definitions. Of course there are academic terms that we use to describe the basics – in writing fiction, for example, we’ve got plot, character, setting, point of view, etc, etc.

Although these are all important elements of fiction, they are less useful in describing – let alone mastering – the slippery beast that is storytelling. For example, a story is set into motion by what Robert McKee calls an “inciting incident,” but a prof of mine calls the “why now” moment. During revision, I’ve taught myself to look at a draft and ask myself what feels “hot,” or what feels like there’s some there there. Last year I had a revelation that this is what Hemingway and others mean by writing until something is true. It feels true because there is, for me the writer, meaning there (ie, psychological/emotional meaning).

So definitions of terms in creative work can be fluid and nuanced and vary from artist to artist. When one artist attempts to convey, in his or her own vernacular, an understanding of the process through which a story or a novel or a poem or a painting was constructed, the receivers of that info may not fully understand until they arrive at a corresponding point in their own work. Which is to say, we learn by doing.

But blather, blather, blather, am I right?

I started this entry because I was so excited to discover another interview with Ira Glass in which he yet again uncovers interesting mechanics of storytelling that I’d perhaps intuited on some level but failed utterly to name AND offers reassuring words about the artistic process:

If you do creative work, there’s a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired.

This ties in to an entry I’ve been trying to write on the topic of artistic work ethic (forthcoming Thursday?). But the subject of this interview was actually wrongness, and part of a series of Q&As for Slate by Kathryn Schulz, the author of the interesting-sounding Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. She’s also got a great Q&A with Bourdain on the same topic. Here are echoes of Glass:

Professional cooks learn through trial and error. You make an omelet 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 100 times under pressure. Eventually you get good at it. It’s all about repetition.

So take that, fairy dust/muse/whatever-you’re-called! Screw you. I will slog my way to mastery, or my own approximation thereof.

**This is not relevant, but in the Q&A, Schulz and Glass briefly discussed Michael Lewis, whose well-received works of nonfiction on finance and sports I am unlikely to get around to reading. But! Lewis is married to Tabitha Soren?? With whom he has three children?? Tabitha Soren: a blast from the past. Apropos of nothing, encountering her name back in high school was the first time that I fully registered the phenomenon of hipster naming conventions. An observation I make with mingled head-shaking and affection.

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