To Create is to Tinker

“Anyone who has tried to write knows it is not easy to be easy to read.” 

John Irving

 

When Kurt Vonnegut taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he would divide his students into “bashers” and “swoopers”, based on how they worked. 

Writing quickly with little revision wasn’t his way of working, no matter how much he might have liked it to be. As he explained about his approach, “You beat your head against a wall until you break through to page two and you break through to page three, and so on.”

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about studying the influences of great artists, so that you may understand that ideas are ultimately derivative — every one of us borrows and adapts from the world around us in creating our own original work.

In debunking the myth of “giftedness” or “genius”, it’s also worth inking in your head that the only real gift that great artists have had is their obsessive attention to detail. 

Their only superpower is what the famous physicist Michio Kaku calls “butt power” — the ability to stick your ass to your seat and to relentlessly keep working on a single problem for long periods of time. 

Imagine a picture of an artist working away at her desk, with an overflowing wastebasket next to her as she discards draft after draft in finding the best way to do her work. That’s the reality and the norm of doing creative work. Sometimes everything does fall into place easily, but that’s really the exception rather than the rule. 

As you study the work of great artists, form the habit of closely observing their drafts, especially those of their best-known work. Learn to see their work not merely from the perspective of a finished product, but more importantly the painstaking amount of detail, the trial and error, the time and effort that went into making it. 

A lot of artists are quite generous in sharing their drafts, as you might be able to find them on their websites, or in the alternate editions of their work, or have an understanding of them in documentaries. 

Bob Dylan is known to have released a huge collection of demoes and takes for his fans, which you can easily find on streaming services like Spotify. For example, on his darkest song, “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, you can tell by listening to the Witmark demo how much he tinkered with the song to get it to where he wanted it to be. 

On the demo, the song just isn’t dark enough. The tempo is a little too fast, the key is a little too high, and Dylan’s singing style and the lyrics aren’t quite as harrowing. All in all, he doesn’t sound enough like a careless bystander in regards to Hollis Brown’s suffering, as is achieved in the final version of the song. 

You can also notice how even a single right word makes a huge difference in the song. For instance, in the demo he sings, “Your grass is turning brown, there’s no water in your well”. But in the final version, he changes it to “Your grass is turning black, there’s no water in your well.”

Poring over Kurt Vonnegut’s drafts isn’t short of inspirational either. As shown in the documentary “Unstuck in Time”, getting the right approach for writing Slaughterhouse Five was like finding a needle in a haystack. 

He tried everything to get it right. He tinkered with different narratives — he tried writing in first person, from his point of view as the writer, and even as a dead narrator who came back to life to tell his story. 

He changed character names frequently. He changed the title again and again. At one point he gave up on writing the story as a novel and tried writing it as a play instead. Sometimes he started again from square one after writing one paragraph, sometimes he started again after having written half a novel’s amount of pages. 

Bear in mind that this was before computers. Vonnegut obviously didn’t have a copy-and-paste feature on his typewriter. Each and every new attempt was a rewrite from page one.

But he never lost heart in telling his story in the best way possible.

So remember that in creating any work of value, there simply aren’t any shortcuts. There are no hacks, no magic beans — just elbow grease. A lot of it. 

It does seem insane to obsess over tiny details in your work, and to keep tweaking it until it’s the best it could be. But it sure is worth it. Once you have the finished product in your hands, and you see the value that it brings to other people’s lives, suddenly all those extra hours and effort that you put in no longer seem agonizing at all. 

2 Comments

  1. I actually love this view of creative work. Even though writing may not seem like something you tinker with, like a piece of code, it IS exactly that sometimes. And how surprising to see Michio Kaku with a loose variation of the advice ‘butt in chair, hands on keyboard’. Great stuff, Izzat. Keep em coming!

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    1. Izzat Zailan says:

      Thanks Stuart! I think at the end of the day, we all need a good balance between playful spontaneity and also the realism to make our work the best it could be. Oh and that Michio Kaku term is from his Impact Theory interview if you’d like to hear more, haha

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