Growing: Advice for writers, from writers

Inspiration for creative growth from Mason Currey of Subtle Maneuvers.

At the conclusion of Substack Grow, we asked writers to share their thoughts on growing their writing practice and Substack publication in the form of an advice column. Today, we’re sharing one such piece of longform advice from Mason Currey, who writes Subtle Maneuvers, an exploration of the day-to-day work habits of great writers, artists, and performers.

We hope to make writer-to-writer advice a recurring feature here on the Substack publication, so let us know what you think—or ask your own question seeking writerly advice—in the comments below.

Dear writer,

To keep going is easier said than done. Some days, growth feels like magic trapped in a bottle. What does it take to grow? What has worked for you, tactically and personally? What didn’t?

Sincerely,
Your fellow writer


Dear fellow writer,

In my experience, growth—personal growth, creative growth, professional growth—tends to happen the way that one of Hemingway’s characters says he went bankrupt: Gradually, then suddenly. The outside observer only sees the sudden part: the big promotion, the book deal, the career that seems to just take off. For those of us in the process of growing, however, it can feel excruciatingly slow. We’re grinding away and nothing much is happening, or the results feel quite meager compared to the amount of effort being expended. 

But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned personally and also through researching the work lives of writers and artists, it’s that when you feel stuck, that’s actually when you’re making the most progress. It’s the condition of being stuck—of trying things out and not being happy with the results, trying different approaches and still not being happy, flailing around in frustration, starting over, starting over again—that fosters growth, though you might not know it at the time. 


“When you feel stuck, that’s actually when you’re making the most progress.”


The question is how to keep going through these periods of gradual, painful growth, or perhaps how to make them a little less painful. People will tell you to trust the process; honestly, I hate that advice. It makes the process sound so passive, like it’s something that just happens and you should relax and enjoy the ride. In reality, the process requires choices, and you can’t just “trust” your way through choices—you have to actively decide, over and over again. 

The decisions that consistently give me the most trouble are around how much pressure to apply to the process. I’m always trying to strike the right balance between pushing forward but not pushing forward too hard. If you’re always forcing the writing, it tends to come out sounding, well, forced. On the other hand, if you wait around for inspiration to strike or to find yourself in the mood to write, you may never get any writing done. For most of us, writing needs some pressure for it to happen, but too much pressure smothers it on the page.

What I’ve found works best, and what I’ve seen in a lot of the figures I’ve researched, is a strategy of attack and retreat. You have to burrow into the work and all its difficulties, and keep butting your head up against whatever creative problems you’re trying to solve – and then you have let it go, do something else, even be completely, irresponsibly neglectful and/or wildly indulgent of your moods for a time. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of working away at something, and it’s only when we give up and turn our attention elsewhere that the solution suddenly materializes, often while we’re taking a shower or doing the dishes or going for a walk. 

That’s a dynamic you want to try to foster in your daily work life, though it does sometimes seem like real growth happens of its own accord, independent of your attempts to game it out. 


“It’s only when we give up and turn our attention elsewhere that the solution suddenly materializes, often while we’re taking a shower or doing the dishes or going for a walk.”


This all reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about the creative process, from the British artist Sarah Lucas. One of her most famous works is a self-portrait in which Lucas is eating a banana (it’s called Eating a Banana) and looking at the camera with an unforgettable expression, a mix of steely defiance, sly self-mockery, and probably-ironic lust .... or is it disgust? It’s a come-on and a put-on at the same time. Here she is describing how the photo came about:

“It was a random thing. I just happened to be eating a banana and thought it might be good. Ostensibly I was beavering away at something else—I don’t remember what, so it probably turned out less good than the picture.

“It’s happened time and time again that some random, spur-of-the-moment idea or juxtaposition has proved more fruitful than laborious projects I may have been working on—although it has to be said that these spontaneous notions could have been a reaction to, and relief from, the labor or high-mindedness I was engaged in.

“Conclusion: earnestness and hard work are to be regarded with suspicion.

I love that. Everyone is so obsessed with productivity in our culture, it’s good to be reminded that we should be at least as suspicious of hard work as we are of so-called laziness. The best kind of creative growth sneaks up on you, or happens behind the scenes while you’re busy doing something else. As the painter Grace Hartigan once wrote in her journal, “Art cannot be seized head on, it must be stalked, it is elusive.”

But I also take Lucas’s point that this spontaneous perfect photo may not have happened without the high-minded, laborious project she was supposed to be working on. Sometimes you need the thing you think you should be doing to show you the thing you actually should be doing. It reminds me of a quote from the poet James Richardson that I ran across recently. He said:

“Over and over, what I thought was the work was a distraction, what I thought was a distraction turned out to be the real work.”

So, what does this have to do with growth? I think it’s about having an accepting and amused and generous attitude toward the inherent arbitrariness and unpredictability and frustration of the whole process. It’s about having concrete, actionable goals but also knowing that your goals are kind of a joke. It’s about embracing the idea that part of getting to the result you want is first cycling through a bunch of results you don’t want. Oh, god—maybe I am saying trust the process??

One final thing I want to bring up is a piece of advice I heard from the writer Hanif Abdurraqib on the Best Advice Show, which is one of my favorite podcasts. Abdurraqib is a poet and an essayist and he’s one of the latest crop of MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipients. He said:

“I see people talking about this idea of growth, and it has to be paired with a disdain for the work that one created before they grew. And I think a way that I’ve avoided that is by understanding that I did the best I could with what tools I had, and because I wrote that book I was able to grow and write something else. Sure, you might hate your first poem, but because of that poem you were able to write better poems. You did what you could with the tools that you had and then you got better tools. And I think that’s kind of a freeing experience, or at least it feels like a freeing experience to me.

That’s it, that’s the secret: Do the best you can with the tools you have. It sounds so obvious, I know—but I also know that a lot of us feel like we should somehow be ahead of where we are now. There’s a reason people warn you against getting ahead of yourself. You have to start where you are, and muddle your way forward from there. And if you remain alive to all the difficulties and possibilities of that process, I think growth is inevitable.

Sincerely,
Mason

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