Permission, Pressure, and The Creative Process (3)

John, you talk about the creative process in detail, but how does a writer get started on the next epic novel? Is there a correct way?


Our very own “Literary Lion”Donald Richie is occasionally asked by people with aspirations how to start writing . He always gives the same answer. “First, you pick up your pencil.” He says he’s not being factious at all, that if one waits for inspiration before starting, one will never get started. Though it may not come in the big flashy Technicolor ways we’d like, inspiration does come. But it comes to those already involved with the work.


As I mentioned earlier, Bill Keith’s insight into the problems of banjo-playing came to a banjo player with a problem, not to the person who baked the chocolate chip cookies. An outsider or newcomer in a field can certainly bring fresh insight to a problem, but he or she has to be in some way connected, be involved.


I see. So, if you are connected to project and you begin working on it, inspiration will arrive. Why, then, do so many writers feel apprehension at starting projects?


Many of us feel self-conscious rather than self-confident when starting new or original work, or when putting work out for others to see. This is simple fear, but we mask it when we tell ourselves it isn’t polite or seemly to promote ourselves or our work. After all, if our work has merit, won’t the world somehow find out? The short answer here is, “No.” In the twenty years I’ve been writing for publication I’ve had an editor come to my door wanting work exactly once. And he was both a friend and lived nearby. On occasion I’m invited to submit work but it’s because people know I write and publish. And except for my friend, just that one time, they don’t come to my door asking.


So, you’re saying it’s not actually a lack of confidence but more a fear of being seen as too proud or ambitious, that keeps us hiding our work in the desk drawer. Is that it?


Yes. We’re afraid of other peoples’ opinions of both our work and of us. We don’t want to appear “too forward” or “pushy” or “nakedly ambitious.” We don’t want to be accused of chutzpah.




Yes, chutzpah. Isn’t that a great word? Whoever came up with the spelling was a creative wonder. The word is Yiddish, comes from Late Hebrew. My little dictionary says it means “supreme self confidence.” That’s good so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. It doesn’t have the taste of it for me. We all know someone who has chutzpah. Maybe it’s a know-it-all boss or supervisor, or a strong, dominating family member. It’s somebody who’s always calling the shots and acting on his or her own, irregardless of the opinions or wishes of others. It is the super salesman who believes, or appears to believe, that he can sell anything to anybody and acts on that belief.


Okay, so we need “supreme confidence” or chutzpah to write and promote our work. Is that all?


Let’s back up a little first. I’m not completely happy with that short definition of chutzpah. But if we go to my bigger dictionary, The American Heritage, to find something more expansive and less generic than “supremely self confident,” we get “utter nerve.” We get “effrontery.” The phrase “You’ve got a lot of nerve” comes to mind, full of anger and condemnation. “Effrontery” means “brazen boldness, presumptuousness.” It comes from the French word for shameless. Presumptuous is defined as “going beyond what is right or proper, excessively forward.”


American Heritage, indeed.


Yes, indeed. So we need to defy social mores to write and put our work our there? Is that what you mean by the necessity of chutzpah?


A phrase I heard a lot growing up was that somebody (like me) was “getting too big for his britches,” that discomfort, embarrassment, comeuppance, or a whack on the butt was on its way as a direct result of youthful chutzpah. The “Pride goeth before a Fall” thing. Americans aren’t the only ones with these kinds of dire warnings. The Japanese are more direct―“The nail sticking up is the one that gets hit.”


One of the best film examples of chutzpah I know is Mask. I haven’t seen the sequel, but the original is brilliant. Unmasked, the Tim Carrey character is Everyman, the “us” we don’t like but hope everybody else does. He’s meek, passive, a “nice guy.” He’s also a victim. He’s neurotic because of the conflict between his desires on one hand and his lack of confidence and fear of the world’s opinions on the other. But once he’s got the mask on, look out! He’s a Warner Brothers cartoon character, but on some serious stimulants. He lives by his own rules. He is mostly in control, but brings chaos to every situation. And he’s having a great time to boot. Don’t you just hate him?


And envy him? I think this is at the core of my own complex reaction to someone with chutzpah. I may be offended by the guy, but I’m also attracted, entertained by the show and I envy his nerve. I wish I could be the one to ask out the prettiest girl in the class, or take the “dream job” which would mean big scary changes in my life, or work up the gumption to see a big idea move past the dream stage, into development, and finally to completion.


I know what you mean. I also feel a certain amount of admiration for the guy who has the nerve to go for the top rung.


Right. But you know, there’s another element to my reaction to chutzpah― I don’t always believe it. It strikes me as being an act, a mask. I suspect things aren’t what they appear to be. Oddly, I don’t mind much anymore. I’m willing to wait, to see what plays out.


I don’t know if the story is true, but one I’ve heard about Bill Gates is that he got his real start in business by selling IBM an operating system he didn’t have. Now that’s chutzpah!


I want to go back to the American Heritage dictionary.



Permission, Pressure, and The Creative Process (3)