Work Over Your Head
Writers of fiction learn early that they can write characters who are smarter than they are.
How can that be? It doesn’t seem possible.
The answer lies in the Mystery.
The place that we write from (or paint from or compose from or innovate from) is far deeper than our petty personal ego. That place is beyond intellect. It’s deeper than rational thought.
If you and I cast Meryl Streep as Queen Boudica in our next Hollywood blockbuster, will we have any doubt that she can pull it off (even though she has never heard of, and knows nothing about, Queen Boudica)?
Ms. Streep will go wherever it is that she goes, read whatever books she needs to read, and she’ll come back with Queen Boudica. She will have become Queen Boudica.
You and I can do it too. We can work over our heads. Not only can we, but we must.
I’ve always wanted to ask Frank Gehry what he was thinking when he first came up with the design for the Guggenheim Bilbao. A part of him must have thought, “Frank, this is nuts. Those wavy walls … the design committee will throw you out on your butt!”
It’s good juju to work over your head. The Muse likes it. When we have the courage to work from deep places, the goddess gets her chance to shine. How bored must she get, inspiring architects with ordinary, plumb-and-level walls? What fun for her to nudge Frank Gehry’s pencil and create these whacky, dipsy-doodle walls that nobody ever saw before but that look absolutely fantastic!
When I first had the idea for The Virtues of War—a novel about Alexander the Great—the narration came to me in the first-person. In other words, the story would be told by Alexander in his own voice. I confess I was daunted momentarily. If it were possible for me to be beamed back in time so that I could meet the real Alexander the Great, I’d be so awestruck I’d be lucky to get out a “Dude! Whassup?” How, then, could I dare presume to write a 300-page book as Alexander?
It turned out it wasn’t so hard.
When we work over our head, we have no choice but to trust our instincts. Common sense no longer applies. Conventional wisdom gets us nowhere. We have to wing it. There’s no option but to swing for the seats.
There’s great freedom and power in that choice.
I’m old enough to remember when the Who first wrote “Tommy.” A rock opera? Ten years earlier, these guys where lucky to remember three different chords.
Where does music come from? It’s just as hard, Pete Townsend would tell us, to write a two-minute-ten-second ballad as it is to compose a symphony. Or just as easy.
The way we want to feel when we start a new project is petrified. If we’re not wetting our pants, something is wrong.
The idea should terrify us.
We should be thinking, “Me? Do that? No way!”
The Muse is happy when she sees us trembling. She knows we are opening ourselves to her. We’re giving her permission to do her thing through us.
The best pages I’ve ever written are pages I can’t remember writing.