John Cleese on Creativity

A few years ago I heard a talk by John Cleese on creativity. Readers may remember him from Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and the antic skits of the characters.

Cleese didn’t talk about the expected issues of creating characters or structuring story lines. His focus was on creativity broadly defined, and how each one of us can learn to be creative. One comment in particular stayed with me because it seemed simple but also hard. It wasn’t particularly profound but it was the kind of insight that came as the result of experience. He said one of his co-workers jumped on the first idea that came, he was sure it would work, and he insisted on going forward with that. I certainly understand the feeling of facing a problem in a story and having a solution fall into my brain that seems absolutely perfect because I want it to be perfect. Not knowing what to write next is extremely uncomfortable. Maybe other writers don’t feel that way, but I certainly do. My instinct is to grab the solution and run, grateful for having an answer to my problem pop up.

Cleese’s warning was this. The first idea to come isn’t the best. His co-worker, Cleese felt, invariably produced something far less successful or not at all successful than what he would have developed if he’d waited. Cleese’s point, put less elegantly, is to consider the first idea the clutter that is concealing the better ideas, which require more time to surface. As frustrating as this can be, he’s right. 

Living with uncertainty is hard especially when you want to maintain the forward motion of the narrative. You’ve set up your characters to act and now you’ve got them marking time, marching back and forth across the page, and you’re worried they’ll lose their mojo. 

My current WIP seemed finished—polished and well put together, the story arc complete. I had a quiet doubt that maybe one or two aspects weren’t quite right, but I was ready to attribute those to the usual insecurities of the writer. I was wrong to do so. I just got the ms back with comments that hit those passages, and they need work. (Thank Heavens for the honest reader.)

This feedback reminded me of an earlier experience when an academic colleague gave me a draft of an article to read and comment on. I pointed out the various spots where he hadn’t answered related questions. He insisted they didn’t matter, but I felt they did. “You have all these puzzle pieces that are part of the question, but you only resolve half of them. You have to resolve all of them,” I told him, “to justify your conclusion.”

In my mystery novel I’m dealing with creating steps in the logic based on facts I created. To solve the problems of the plot, I have to sit with it for several days, listening to the characters, and letting the desire to get things on paper fall away while I wait for my unconscious to work. I have to be patient and trust my own creative resources. I have no idea how long this will take, but it’s necessary. And once the hidden ideas come to light, things will start to make sense, and I can move forward.

If you want to learn more about John Cleese’s approach to creativity, you can explore his book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50719532-creativity

Typos and the rest of it

I’ve read several posts lately about the carelessness of authors and editors today, with typos and other errors missed, often to the point of driving the reader to dump the book for something else to read. I too notice the misspellings, confusion of names, missing words, and other slips in the text. And I too have learned to read right past them. No text is going to be perfect, and holding the writer to a strict standard of three or five errors misses the point of reading fiction or any other prose. I cringe just as much as any other writer when I come across a goof in what I’ve written, and for self-serving reasons I argue that it doesn’t hurt to be generous as a reader. That said, I have another perspective that hovers in the back of my mind.

The rate of error for any human endeavor is two percent. I first learned this in the library at the University of Pennsylvania when I occasionally thought I’d come across an error in the card catalogue (remember those?). A librarian, skeptical, mentioned that figure while examining the card in question one day, found it correct, and explained why I might have thought its location to be inaccurate. Two percent sounds minuscule, but in a collection of twenty-two million items, such as at the Boston Public Library, that means 440,000 could harbor an error. That’s not a negligible number even though it’s only two percent.

I think of this percentage when I come across an error in a printed book. In a novel of 80,000 words, the reader could expect to encounter 1,600 typos or other mistakes. That’s a lot of goofs in a typical book, and I’m guessing most of us would be too disgusted to continue reading past the first dozen.

There’s a reason we’ve come to expect a nearly perfect text. Over the decades, publishers have trained us to expect a clean page, and they achieved this with a battery of experts. Writers turned in a type-written, or sometimes a handwritten, manuscript, which then went to a content editor, next to a line editor, and finally to a copy editor. At each stage the writer reviewed the work. The text was then sent to a compositor who put words into type, and don’t think the compositor wasn’t also sometimes reading, noting what he was seeing. But once the text was set, it was printed, went into galleys, and was sent to at least one proofreader as well as the writer. Think of the number of trained people reading the novel, catching those 1,600 slips, saving the writer from embarrassment. (And consider this: many publishers charged for the correction of errors in proofs after the first ten or twenty. That may explain why some nonfiction books were riddled with errors in earlier decades.)

Most of those people don’t exist today, and if they do, they’re probably working in very specialized areas where accuracy counts more. Think of chemistry, mathematics, and other technical subjects.

I think of these things when I’m reading along and trip over a missing word or letter. Occasionally I think about writing the author so she or he can make a change in the next iteration, but I don’t do it. Instead I marvel at how proficient we’ve become at catching these little stumblers, and how clean our texts are now. We demand a lot of writers today, and for the most part we writers deliver a clean, readable narrative with few flaws to make a reader feel brilliant for catching the slip or smug that she or he never made that one. At least, we haven’t yet. Every time I catch an error in whatever I’m reading, I remember to be humble. That could be me next time.

How many drafts?

On a variety of blogs lately, writers have been talking about drafts, and I’ve been taking note. I’ve enjoyed reading other writers’ processes, and learning where I can. My process is a little different from the others I’ve read.

I begin with an idea and an opening scene, which sets up the core problem for the main character. As the idea develops while I’m working on other things, I jot down more ideas—a scene later in the story, a line of dialogue, a supportive character, a subplot, an interesting name, setting details. After a while I have a few pages of these bits and pieces, and I can feel the story growing warm and alive. That’s when I begin writing. I know it’s the right time because I wake up in the morning looking forward to working on the story.

By about page fifteen I have added something else, a detail not on my original list, which will mean correcting an earlier statement. This happens all the way through, with sometimes larger changes and scenes inserted to bring the various threads into alignment. Is each change a new draft? By the end of writing out the story for the first time, which could be Draft 23, I’ve made numerous changes, added at least half a dozen scenes to flesh out information I hinted at, and changed the murderer at least twice. Each change shifts the story, tightens the plot, clarifies and sharpens. What I end with feels close to what I had imagined, but in execution it can seem quite different with a fullness I didn’t imagine.

And then comes what I consider the real work—reading through the entire ms again, before printing it out, to ensure that other details (motivations, physical appearance, timing of revelations) are consistent throughout. This is when I find it necessary to add another two or three scenes to reinforce the logic of the entire mystery, and the story begins to feel complete. After that, I print out the whole thing, which by now should be the word length I wanted, about eighty thousand words, and read it again, this time with pen in hand to polish and tinker with words. I may do this twice. I know I’m finished when I find less and less to change or improve, and can read through pages without scratching out or inserting anything.

Perhaps I have only two drafts—online and printed, or four, two online and two printed. Or perhaps I have about 25 online drafts and two printed. However they are counted, the drafts pile up slowly until the finished narrative feels new to me, partly a surprise and partly a relief that it actually holds together.

How many drafts do you produce? How do you count them?

The Other Reason I Write

This is an exciting time. Crime Spell Books has just announced the list of stories and writers that will appear in its first Best New England Crime Stories anthology. This is the nineteenth such anthology after Level Best Books announced it was discontinuing the series last year.

Last fall two of my colleagues and I agreed that the cessation of the annual anthology by Level Best books was a sad end for a publication we all loved and two of us had worked on. Leslie Wheeler and I had been editors and Ang Pompano had published stories in the anthologies. But I had another reason for being disappointed.

I was one of the original founders of Level Best Books, along with Kate Flora and Skye Alexander. There’s something wonderful in creating something that lives after you—and doesn’t need you to prosper. That was the Level Best Books anthology.

In 2003, when we began, print-on-demand hadn’t yet taken hold and become the easy, accessible (and cheap) process that it is today. As the first editors, we chose paper, dealt with printers and shipping, and hand delivered books to bookstores and events. We advertised and promoted. And that came after reading and selecting stories, editing and proofreading. And back then proofreading meant reading the printed text against the paper manuscript, looking for errors in composition and type setting, not in the writing of the story. The process is so much easier today that any writer can put together a collection of stories and publish it digitally and through POD with or without technical help.

Creating this new anthology satisfied something in me that I don’t usually find elsewhere. I love the process of making something. Yes, I write stories and novels, and have a number of both out circulating with editors. I cannot imagine a life without writing, and indeed I’ve never had one without it since I was a teenager. But the finishing process has its own special appeal—there’s a tactile pleasure in putting together the front matter and back matter, arranging the parts felicitously. I get some of the same pleasure from matting and framing a photograph for the few times I’ve done an exhibit of my work. That form of satisfaction is probably why I do needlepoint and embroidery, and used to sew all the time. Sometimes I arrange tools and equipment in the garage or cellar for their appearance rather than practical reasons. I may end up a sculptor making assemblages or found art pieces. I love using my hands. But I’ll still be writing.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to share with all of you those aspects of my writing self that don’t often come out. I talk so much about writing—how to do this or that—that I sometimes forget that each of us who writes has more going on and other ways of being creative and finding a sense of accomplishment than the one part we talk about on line. The beginning of the resurrected anthology is one of them for me. So while all the writers are celebrating having their stories in the new anthology, which I fully understand, I’m celebrating making another object that will satisfy another part of me.

Hemingway and Me

The multi-part series “Hemingway” by Ken Burns was required viewing in my household. I was glad to learn he wrote every morning, liked learning that not every story he wrote worked, and listened carefully to how he incorporated material and people from his life. But I especially liked getting a look at his edited pages. Unfortunately, even on pause I couldn’t get close enough to read what he crossed out and revised.

Some years ago I was able to see an edited page by F. Scott Fitzgerald, where he changed two words. Two words? I had to believe that the page on view was close to the final edit, and not the first draft.

Hemingway’s edited pages grabbed my imagination because I have a suspicion that any page of mine that isn’t heavily edited isn’t finished, and is not worth reading. Over the years I’ve always wanted to write a perfect paragraph and then another and then another after that and on to the end of the story. But it has never happened. During a workshop years ago the leader asked us to write one perfect paragraph, which I did. It was so good in her view that she sought me out afterwards to talk. I still have the paragraph—unattached to anything else. Any effort to try to use it as the opening of a story has failed miserably. After literally decades, it sits “perfect” in its own little world. I don’t know why, but I suspect it is because the emphasis was on the writing and not the story. The character, whose presence is limited, goes nowhere because the paragraph isn’t about her. It’s about writing.

Every story I write, short or long, seems fabulous as I write it. Then I finish it and read it over, and conclude that it is unarguably horrible. So begins the rewrite. By the time I’m finished I’ve been through ten or more drafts and I’m still not confident that I’m really finished, but it seems time so I send it out. I confess to a tendency to send out a story too soon, but it gets it off my desk and makes me think about it. When it is rejected, as is most likely, I reread it and figure out a better ending. Endings are a trial for me, but if given sufficient time to think about whatever one I’ve settled on, I can generally improve it. I have greater confidence then, after messing with the thing for a couple of months, and send it out again. This can go on for quite a while, but each time the story gets better.

I tried to explain this once at a library talk. People nodded—they’re invariably polite at these events. But then I pulled out the edited pages—several versions—of the first chapter of the mystery I was currently working on so people could see what an edited page looked like. Their eyes popped open. They got it.

No story of mine is going to work unless it is revised and rewritten almost a dozen times. And after watching “Hemingway,” I’m glad to know I’m not alone among writers.