Advice on creative growth from Mason Currey, who writes Subtle Maneuvers, an exploration of the day-to-day work habits of great writers, artists, and performers.
I loved this advice from Mason so much. I've been a freelance writer for ten years, and before that an Archaeology student, and every time I sit down to get a piece of writing done, it's All or Nothing. When it's All, I'm obsessed. When it's Nothing, I couldn't give a tinker's cuss, and I'd much rather do anything else, including household chores (there are surely the seeds here of a great strategy for having a home so tidy that Marie Kondo would feel envious).
And I've spent almost all of those ten years feeling like this was a flaw. That I wasn't being "serious" with my writing. That I needed to pace myself, and learn to work in that low-intensity way that we all learn to do in day jobs, stretching the work out so it lasts until the end of the day.
But when you're fully in the flow and All in, *that's* when you're really showing up. It may not be sustainable for very long (ie. you need to learn to step away and fully relax afterwards) but while you're doing it, you're doing the best work you're capable of. Which surely is the point of all this?
So, yeah. I felt deeply seen and validated when I heard about "attack and retreat" here. And my imposter syndrome went down a few notches. Thanks, Mason.
"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??"
This made me laugh. And it also rings true. I think there is something there about not taking oneself too seriously -- maybe the word I am looking for is humility -- and moving forward in a kind of dead-serious way. Thank for sharing your thoughts and wisdom, Mason.
I really enjoyed this newsletter. Thank you. Mason’s book on the daily rituals of creative women was wonderful, his newsletter is similarly fascinating, and his advice, as expected, was spot on. I am going to try to memorise all of this.
Great advice, Mason. I will stick with it because I enjoy the process of writing - and posting to my Substack weekly - so much that I can't imagine my life without it. I am doing the best that I can with the tools that I have!
Ha Ha, YES—trust the process! It's true!
And as for turning your attention elsewhere and the solution suddenly materializing, I was reminded of something that happened while I was learning French in my mid-twenties. I had moved to Québec City to live with my boyfriend, and was enrolled in French Immersion classes. The entire first term of classes was an exercise in frustration, and often embarrassment before my boyfriend's family and friends. Many tears were shed. I went home to British Columbia for Christmas for two weeks—not thinking once about the French language—and when I got back to Québec I was suddenly speaking French. Not perfectly of course, but it was coming with ease! It felt crazy and shocking at the time.
The difference between a person who wants to write and a writer s is the act of writing itself.
It takes practice and constant, consistent effort. Close reading, thinking, iteration. All those things.
As for staying motivated, I find when I am not actively writing I get increasingly crazy in different ways. Sometimes it's irritation, sometimes despondency, sometimes a mix of these and other emotions. I see the need to write as a force that can either flow through me or pin me to the canvas. It is the act of writing that makes the difference.
Patrick O'Brian wrote:
‘What is this that Farquhar tells us about Fortune being bald behind? Is she supposed to have the mange?’
‘I conceive he was referring to the old tag – his meaning was, that she must be seized by the forelock, since once she is passed there is no clapping on to her hair, at all. In the figure she ships none abaft the ears, if you follow me.’
‘Oh, I see. Rather well put: though I doubt those heavy-sided lobsters will smoke the simile.’ He paused, considering, and said, ‘It don’t sound very eligible, bald behind; but, however, it is all figurative, all figurative . . .’
Writing, like fortune, is bald behind.
This was fantastically written
This was a very timely read for me as I was just sitting here considering giving up. Thank you!
"It’s the condition of being stuck—that fosters growth, though you might not know it at the time," is another way of saying that failure is a great teacher, and there is a lot of inspiration to be gained from learning about others who have struggled greatly, and then found success. Here are some examples from: There Is No Bad News; There Are Only Blessings In Disguise
5 Movies On Success After Failure
"Gradually, then suddenly" Only those in the depths of that process can relate to the glacial pace and breakthrough moments when one's work becomes relevant in the search for the truth that is greater than the sum of our parts.
Thanks for this. Really useful way to think of things, and for me, full of hope.
Thanks for this. So many elements here resonated with me. Some of these can be applied to not just writing but thinking and creating in general. Really liked the Hemingway example of Gradually ----> then Suddenly.
A younger me, once thought, if you can get writing perfect the first time, isn't that great? But as I get older, I discovered writing is all about rewriting. That's the process. Naive old me recently discovered others, all the great writers rewrite their first draft multiple times; along the way polishing it into a masterpiece. I tend to agree with you, if you only write when you feel inspired, nothing much get done. If you forced yourself doing it - the pieced turn out - forced; unpolished, uninteresting - even you wish you were not the one creating it.
This is so well-written, this message that's as perfect for me right now as is the perfection of the human heart's walls' spiral/conch shape. I'm trying to tear myself away from Arundhati Roy's novel "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" to accomplish some things - both domestic and creative - yet I dare not hope to create something as arrestingly meaningful, creative, and beautiful as Roy's prose.
I am tempted to try to be fulfilled just waterproofing my hiking boots instead of stepping into the endeavor of my longtime yearning to write and draw. But ignoring the desire to create has an insidious dulling effect.
Mason, thank you for springing me from the habit of ignoring! My desire to create is like an orangutan who's been rattling her cage bars and, ignored, is beginning to slouch into the corner. Today, she will pry the bars apart with her strength and patience and leap out! Your message was spot-on. It's time to go monkey with creation and eat a banana at day's end as a reward.
I think this is a lesson that we almost have to learn over and over again, each time we get closer to embedding it into our lives, but it seems inevitable that we will face the challenge repeatedly. I can think of so many moments in life, whether study related, work related, life related, where I have struggled with the goal in mind, to only find myself pop up successfully somewhere else, surprised and kind of relieved that this was the end result. Mason, you have put so succinctly my experience of striving for growth/success, thank you.
This is beautiful and sound and so flexible in a way - freeing I guess - but also psychologically insightful. We are enough.