Writing teachers often tell their students to “write what you know” because writers must learn to write clearly and authentically, and the best way to do that is to write about what they know. It’s a place to begin. It’s a place to grow from. It’s a place where we start to hone our facility with craft and voice. But I don’t think it’s a place we want to remain. I think writers have a duty to expand beyond the boundaries of what we know and stretch beyond the familiar.
To do that, we have to get uncomfortable and unbalanced. We have to climb out to the bendy branches, where we think fear and failure reside, but it is only a new point of equilibrium in our craft and in our stories.
Failure As Safety Net
I am staring at my newborn daughter lying outside of me for the very first time. She is crying. I hesitate to pick her up. Some phrase from some parenting book drifts through my postpartum brain: “You must let them cry it out.”
“Really?” I say to the phrase. “Even if they are a minute old?”
I look at my daughter. For 42 weeks, she’d been this round belly in front of me. I want to examine the dark stick-outy hairs on her head. I want to press her hand against my lips. I want to smell her. I want to hold her.
For about two and half seconds, I waver in the face of this sage advice. Then I take my own fledgling parenting authority and pick her up.
Kathi Appelt receives a National Book Award nomination for The Underneath. I read a Cynsations interview with her. In it, she says that Tobin Anderson called her up one day in the middle of writing the book and said, “Write what you think you can’t.” When I asked Kathi what that meant to her, she said, “What it did was basically give me permission to completely and utterly fail. If I couldn’t do it anyways, then what did I have to lose, right? That was very freeing.”
Anderson’s advice suggests that writing is not supposed to be an exercise in safety. In order to write well, we have to go beyond what we know and camp out in the hearts of our characters and write their stories.
Often we don’t know what we are doing when we sit down with a story in our head and face the blank screen or page. That’s okay. At least we have an idea or a voice or a character. We begin. As Stephen King says in his craft book On Writing, “We tell ourselves the story. That’s the first draft.”
David Bayles and Ted Orland say it well in their 1979 book Art & Fear: “Vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is our contact with reality and uncertainty is a virtue.”
Think about that: “Vision is ahead of execution.” That means the idea, the character, the thought, whatever brings us to the paper or blank screen probably won’t be perfect on the first go-round. Does that mean we quit? No. It means we write. We take authority for our vision, however fledgling, however new, and begin. We pick up the two-minute-old child and hold her.
“Knowledge of our materials is our contact with reality.” As writers, our materials are the books. This means reading. This means reading like a writer. This means reading and, as Eudora Welty says, “writing consciously with the subconscious voices of the writers who came before us.”
“Uncertainty is a virtue.” We are explorers. This means we will always be slightly off-balance. This means we will write from a place of discovery. This means we will always be caught in what I have come to know as the growth spiral.
Disequilibrium is Normal
I am now the mother of a two-year-old. She is wailing on the floor in front of me. I have just given her the pink clown cup. She wanted the pink elephant cup. To me, this difference is minuscule. To her, it is huge. I am frustrated. She is inconsolable. It doesn’t help when I reach over and pick her up. It doesn’t help when I pour the water into the pink elephant cup. Nothing helps. I am usually the source of happiness and breast milk. Now I am the source of frustration. How did this happen?
I turn to my friend and parent educator Gail Allen. She draws me a picture of a Louise Bates Ames’ growth spiral. “From the moment children are born,” says Gail, “they move round and round this spiral. On one side of the spiral is chaos and disequilibrium. On the other side is integration, order and equilibrium.”
When something is new to a child, whether it is a new skill or bodily function or even a new location, there is turbulence and chaos. It takes them time to integrate that new skill or get used to the new surroundings. Until they do, they are in disequilibrium. Meltdowns are symptoms of disequilibrium. Once they process that new information or function, watch out: All of sudden the tumblers can all fall into place and full sentences, walking, a two inch growth spurt, even potty training can magically happen overnight.
I think about this growth spiral a lot. I notice it everywhere. In my personal awareness. In my relationships. In my writing. I may not move at the same lightning speed as an infant, who can go from the chaos side of the spiral to the integrated side in a matter of hours. But I do move. I swing from one side to the other.
In writing, in particular, I notice that disequilibrium side when I am getting words on the paper, when they are all coming from that that right-brain, intuitive side—what Henriette A. Klauser in Writing on Both Sides of the Brain calls Ariel after Shakespeare’s magical spirit from “The Tempest.” For me, right-brain writing feels a bit like being lost. I’m listening to voices, following characters down unfamiliar paths. I am turning over rocks, describing the milky white curl of a worm and the dank moist smell of the hard-pressed dirt. I am doing what Robert Olen Butler describes in his craft book, From Where You Dream, “giving voice to the deep inchoate vision of the world that resides dynamically in the unconscious.” I am in disequilibrium. I feel slightly out of my body and off balance. This is normal.
“After Ariel has sprung from inspiration,” says Klauser, “…invite the left brain, Caliban, the critic, back in to help you shape and deepen the story.” This is when author Tim Wynne-Jones suggests that we “look for what might have washed up on the shores of [our] stories.” After the inchoate ideas and images are on the page, we bring equilibrium to our work. We need both: the initial mess of words on the page and the integrated order the editor imposes.
Knowing that we are continually circling this growth spiral is important. It means we are growing. If we are doing our jobs as writers and stretching beyond what we know, then it will feel uncomfortable. It will feel precarious. But if we don’t step beyond what we know, if we don’t try to reach for that vision which is beyond execution, if we aren’t just a little bit uncertain, then we aren’t inching further out on the bendy branches.
Alexander Calder: An Unlikely Writing Mentor
When we begin a new work, it is a leap of faith. We listen to a new character’s voice. We tell ourselves a story. We scribble notes to ourselves after washing dishes or getting out of the shower. We are creeping out on the bendy branches. We don’t do this alone. We have critique groups or agents or writing partners. I was lucky enough to have poet Julie Larios as my advisor for one semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. When I showed her my newest work, I said, “Right now, it’s lumps of clay. I just keep piling them up. I have no idea what it is. Short story. Middle grade.” I didn’t even have a title for it. Just the name of the main character: Natalie Jean.
Julie Larios told me not to worry. “I would hate to see Natalie Jean in any other format than the lumps of clay. Only they aren’t lumps of clay. I would say they are more like pieces of a mobile—light enough to catch a current of air, but well-balanced, forming a whole structure. I want you to go look at some mobiles by Alexander Calder—that’s what Natalie Jean is like. Playful, artful, throwing a lovely shadow on the wall, moving together gracefully.”
So I did what I was told. I looked at Calder’s mobiles.
As I looked at his creations, I thought about Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and An Na’s A Step From Heaven. I thought about how much these writers leave off the page—but what they do leave on the page shows us enough that the world is created and the heart of the story beats. I started to see a correlation between scenes dancing on a fulcrum, balanced, telling a story, casting shadows, catching light, moving, resting and moving again. The pieces and shapes of a mobile have to be perfectly balanced as they move in concert and opposition, suspended at varying lengths from the spine, the arc of the story. “Not all art needs to be solid,” says Julie Larios. “It can play with air, movement and time.”
Think about this idea: The overall arc is there. The voice. The characters. Even the back-stories are there. But there isn’t a lot of connective tissue. There isn’t a lot of telling. The reader supplies it. The reader actually holds the story as a whole. Each scene makes sense on its own and within the context of the whole but it allows the reader to make leaps. Readers easily make point-of-view shifts in Norma Fox Mazer’s The Missing Girl. The same with the time shifts in Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable. If we choose the pieces of our mobile carefully, the reader can see the whole shape without our having to tell it.
I was so intrigued by this link between writing and mobiles that I wondered if Calder’s own life and how he came to create mobiles could teach me something about my craft.
Born in 1898, Alexander Calder grew up in a house full of artists. His mother was a painter. His father and grandfather were sculptors. Perhaps because it was familiar, making art didn’t call to Calder. What did call to him was making things work. He wanted wire and tools, not brushes or clay.
This mechanical sensibility led Calder to engineering school, but as he said later, “Engineering did not allow enough play of ingenuity on my part.” So he went to art school and took a job sketching the circus, which led to his first exhibition in 1926 and this notice in the New Yorker: “A. Calder is a good bet.”
After that exhibition, Calder went to Paris. There, he met a Serb who claimed he was in the business of toys and said there was a living to be made from inventing mechanical toys. Using wire as his principal material, Calder added string, leather, fabric, and wood and made his first circus performers. When Calder went to find his Serbian toy collector, the man was gone, but by then, Calder decided to design an entire circus.
Remember Bayles and Orland: “Vision is ahead of execution.” Calder knew his material: wire. All he had to do was stretch into the uncertainty of execution. Could he do a trapeze artist? A horse? He knew what they looked like but could he recreate it with wire and cranks and levers?
Calder soon became known as the King of Wire. It brought him his first great personal success as an original sculptor. The artists in Paris loved his playfulness. It was through this community that Calder walked into Piet Mondrian’s studio, which looked like a spatial translation of one of his paintings.
Calder said that when he walked into the studio, “I thought at the time how fine it would be if everything moved. I went home and tried to paint. But wire, or something to twist or tear, or bend is an easier medium for me to think in.” There it is again: the vision ahead of execution, the knowledge of his materials and the uncertainty.
These first sculptures didn’t move, but the lines suggested movement. At an exhibit at the Galerie Percier, they were given the name stabiles.
This new work was a big departure for Calder. He had a reputation and a following as a humorist. But the representational work in wire was beginning to have limitations. He wanted to explore the unknown world of the abstract composition. To do so, he would have to leave the circus and character drawings behind. Can’t you hear M.T. Anderson advising him as he had advised Kathi Appelt, “Create what you think you can’t”?
What Calder pursued next was movement. He had not achieved the full effect of what sparked his imagination in Mondrian’s studio. At first he limited himself to a slight rhythmic movement in a single object fixed to a base. Then the idea struck him of making two or more objects find actual relations in space.
At an exhibit of his work in 1932, Calder asked Marcel Duchamp to name this new work that moved. Without hesitation, Duchamp said if the work at Percier was stabiles, then these were mobiles.
That was the beginning. The motor-driven and hand-cranked mobiles gradually lost their appeal because the movement patterns were always the same. Calder began to look for ways to give his mobile a free and more natural movement. If Chinese wind-bells could please the ear, why couldn’t the wind be enlisted to please the eye with rhythmically swinging sculptural forms? The result was Calder’s first wind mobile.
Calder had taken the traditional form of abstract painting and sculpture and opened it up to movement and wind. Writers crack open genres when we write what we think we can’t. We veer into the unknown, experimenting with form, and then attach names like flash fiction or prose poetry after the vision has been created.
Once Calder had achieved the kind of movement he wanted, he plunged into his materials and played with different ways to execute his mobiles, always trusting his materials, his vision and his execution. Calder’s sense of play, his expertise in engineering, and his artistic abilities with color and light danced and spun like pieces of his mobiles.
Even after Calder had achieved a kind of equilibrium with these mobiles, he was still plagued, like all of us, with his own doubts and worries about his artistic abilities. After a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943, he spoke of becoming ingrown, habit-bound and uninventive. He realized that he had developed an ease in the handling of his materials, which he made him distrustful. He was afraid this facility would weaken his expression.
All artists have anxieties about their work. As we continue to explore our craft, we stumble and wobble. You can find disequilibrium in that notion, or you can find comfort in knowing you are exactly where you need to be.
Bayles and Orland counsel that the fears artists have about their work are answered in the work itself. “What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. Put simply, your work is your guide.” Writing is not meant to be an exercise in safety. We must get comfortable with the uncertainty of what is next. This is certainly true for Calder as well as for the authors I’ve mentioned.
Each new work asks us to crawl out on the bendy branches and tell that story with increasing refinement and complexity. We use what came before as guideposts for what worked well. But we still have to climb out there. If we have the vision, we have to try to execute it. One word after another. One page after another. Knowing all the while that it is in the stretching, we will find a new place of equilibrium in our stories and our craft.