I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a book publishable. A friend once described me, during my years in the wilderness, as “the man who has written more words for less money” than anybody he knew. I know I’m not the only one about whom such an observation has been made.
Why was that early stuff so bad?
How did it get better?
What’s the difference between work that editors sling into the trash and work that they proudly put their names on?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but there’s one factor that played a huge part in my own getting over that hump.
I call it Artistic Distance.
Not to be confused with Aesthetic Distance.
Artistic distance, as I define it, is the ability of the writer (or painter or filmmaker or entrepreneur) to stand in her mind at one remove from her work.
Artistic distance is the capacity of the artist to view her work objectively.
An amateur works with no artistic distance. A pro works with artistic distance in abundance.
Have you ever read someone’s private journal (or your own?) That’s “no artistic distance.”
I used to write like that. I wrote three full-length novels, six years’ work, exactly like that.
In those manuscripts the protagonist was me. I mean really me. In the worst sense. The protagonist was me in the sense that I was not really writing a novel, I was crafting a wannabe work that I, as myself, could star in. So that I could think of myself as a real human being instead of the worthless, no-talent bum that I secretly believed myself to be.
In other words, the stuff I was writing was therapy. Self-therapy. It was narcissistic. It was navel-bound. It was excruciating.
Have you seen that clip of Sarah Silverman, where the two young aspiring comics are asking her, with desperation in their eyes, for advice on their going-nowhere careers? Her reply, delivered without even glancing up: “Get funnier.”
But how do you get funnier?
Achieving artistic distance is like attaining enlightenment (or at least what I’ve read about attaining enlightenment.) The change is so subtle it’s invisible. Yet the alteration is epochal.
When we possess artistic distance, we can zoom back from our work. We can see it from 30,000 feet. With artistic distance, we can read our manuscript or watch our film through the eyes of the audience, or, more accurately, through the eyes of a single individual in the audience.
When it goes wrong, we know it. We can fix it.
Robert Cohn was once middleweight champion of Princeton. Do not think I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.
Those are the first two sentences of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. On the surface they look like a straight statement, in the first person, from a character who feels a lot like a stand-in for Hemingway himself.
They’re not. Embedded in those twenty-nine words are the theme of the story, the climactic scene between Cohn and Pedro Romero, the tone of calculated and not-so-calculated world-weariness of the characters, and the ultimate despair of these individuals (whom we have not yet met, but whose existence is already implied) who represent the American post-World War I “Lost Generation.”
Those two sentences are the work of an artist in full control of his medium. They are painstakingly and exquisitely crafted for the reader. Hemingway’s aim in the novel is to give the reader a profound moral and aesthetic experience. He greets the reader at the door, invites him in, sets the tone, establishes the ground rules, and initiates the E-ticket ride.
The narrator, Jake Barnes, sounds a lot like Hemingway—or who we imagine Hemingway to be. But he is not. Just as “Henry Miller” in Tropic of Capricorn is not Henry Miller.
These writers are employing artistic distance. Even though their narrators are alter egos of their real selves, neither writer believes even for a moment that the two coincide.
What helped me achieve artistic distance was I stopped writing about myself. I made a conscious decision that I would never again write anything that was “true.” I would work from the imagination only and from universes that had nothing to do with “mine.”
I also, though it took me years to realize this, made the decision to write for the reader, not for myself. I learned how to bounce back and forth in the working process between the right brain and the left, between the stuff that was coming unfiltered from the Muse and the stuff that I would ultimately put on the page.
I stopped caring what the reader thought of “me.” I took “me” out of the equation entirely.
When you are working with artistic distance, you not only see the fundamental artifice behind and within every work of art, you embrace it. You understand that that’s what storytelling is. It’s what painting is, it’s what architecture is, it’s what every form of aesthetic expression is.
This is a deep subject, worthy of a lot more than a single short blog post. Let me wrap it up, however incompletely, with this:
The achievement of artistic distance is not the only thing that elevates the unpublishable to the publishable. But certainly that elevation can never happen without it.
This is another “childhood disease” from which we have to recover fast. And perhaps the only way to make it is to realize artistic distance by covering miles of writing experience.
Great stuff! I struggle with this everyday. When you’re 25 and still so keenly aware of what others think of you it can be terrifying to try to write songs. “I can’t write that because then they’ll think this about ME” comes out instead of what should “I can’t write that because that wouldn’t make sense to the LISTENER” -etc
Keep it up Steven.
This is very painful. Thank you!
That’s funny, Ryan. I thought the same thing. “Oh, look, I’m the star of all my stuff!”
Also, does anyone have any recommendations for how one can go about achieving artistic distance?
Create a character.
That’s a great way. Even if it’s a character that’s “you.”
If you want to push yourself out a ways artificially, write a first person character you don’t like. Someone who believes things you don’t, likes foods you hate, has different political views and a different age and work habits.
Make them believable, just not you. At all.
I really like this Joel. Thanks so much for sharing that!
Thank you Steve, for this post and the countless inspirational others. You mention distancing yourself from writing anything “true” to yourself. Hemingway is quoted saying that “true” sentences were essential to his writing. How do you believe Hemingway separated himself while basing much of his work on his own experiences? Did he embrace “artistic distance” or was he just a brilliant communicator of his own ideologies? I am interested to hear your thoughts. Thank you again for your time and words.
What I meant was “true” in the literal sense, Joshua, i.e. your actual self (or some other actual person that you might be using as a “character”) and then limiting what that person said or did in your story, based on what they might really do or say in real life. Because in real life we almost never do that stuff that characters in movies and books have to do to be true to the deeper imperatives of the story and themselves. Now I’m even confusing myself!
Oh my this is heavy and bang on the buck!! Perhaps just what I should be listening to!!
Thank you Steven.
The struggle is enormous – between owning what you write (that which comes from within your soul) and then distancing yourself from it to see it objectively.
This is great stuff, Steve. I love it. And, as synchronicity might have it, I was just reading a slightly different treatment of the same topic by Neil Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer.
Amanda is reviewing her husband’s new book and talks about how different artists handle artistic distance differently, by using a blender analogy. Some artists take the raw material from their inner and outer lives and only put the blender on, say 2, which means that the raw material is artistically altered, but still recognizable. And other artists set the blender on 10, which means that, when reading that artists work, there’s no telling where that “stuff” came from. She mentions this to say that Neil typically creates with the blender on 10, but that he dialed it down in his latest book and it was really hard for him. As in, it was hard for Neil F-ing Gaiman to keep up artistic distance when he lowered the intensity of the symbolic screen he normally keeps up between his art and his life. Wow, I get it.
So… I was wondering, Steve, do you think that blender analogy is accurate, and do you also think that the lower on the blender you go, the harder it is to keep up artistic difference? Is Henrry Miller’s ability to have himself as a character a more heroic feat of artistic distance than what most artists are capable of?
Also, it’s interesting to ponder this from a reader perspective. One thing I often do is re-read favorite books to see how the writer did what he or she did. But some books are REALLY hard to do this with because I keep unwittingly slipping back into the fictive dream. The Harry Potter series comes to mind, as books which can pull me into the fictive dream even when I set out to keep enough distance between myself and the work in order to see the artifice involved. I guess the writer’s artistic distance is what helps him or her craft works which more strongly obliterate the remove between the reader and the story…
Anyway, thanks again for writing this, Steve.
First of all, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you. Every one of your Writing Wednesdays, which I have been receiving for a couple of months now, has hit home for me in profound and synchronistic ways. Just now you provided me with the necessary input to overcome what I believe to be the greatest block to creative expression. It also brought up a memory, which I hope would be appropriate to share here. As an amateur tennis player, I once had the pleasure of watching Roger Federer compete at Indian Wells (in your neck of the woods). I saw 8 world class tennis champs on the court that afternoon, but Roger stood head and shoulders above them all. He lost some balls, he won some, his technique was stellar, but so was theirs. I believe that it was his absolute focus on the game, not on himself in the game, and his skilful application of the artistic distance you speak of, that brought out the master in him and made his performance a true work of art… It was about the game, its energetic flow, its own story line, and the balance between the two individuals, that made it engaging, not the focus on the idiosyncratic attributes of “the star of the show”… Thank you for bringing up this important topic, and for illustrating how it’s done by the great masters…
Time and time again I am impressed with how spot on this blog is! I fall into a trap where I try to be too clever or too cool or whatever else, which seems to come from a concern over how the reader will perceive me instead of how they will relate to the characters. The stories that I have been most pleased with have always been the ones where I have achieved a fair amount of distance from the characters and situations. I think there is a tendency to be too gentle with characters who share too many simular traits with the author, and it can turn into a boring or unrelatable read.
Thank you Steven! You’ve given me something to think about and work on, and not for the first time.
The challenge for those of us who are memoirists is to find that place where we are telling the tale with enough distance to recognize when we are falling into the navel-gazing, narcissistic arena. I find this particularly difficult when writing blog posts, for which I do not have an objective editor. It is always my hope that by writing from the heart that the “universality” of the experience will come through even if there are some spots along the way that are in need of some delete-key treatment. For a longer work, I believe hiring a good editor is the only way to go to avoid these pitfalls and I can’t help but notice that this seems to be lost on many a self-published memoirist.
In military circles, ‘Don’t fall in love with a plan.’
Thanks, this was such a helpful post.
Did you ever feel those couple of years of “therapy” ware necessary? I’m not an experienced man, both because of my age and lifestyle, but when I look back at some of the things I done, I too feel they were futile or even emberassing, but they were necessary, in a route of evolution to learn not to that anymore. It’s a natural way of “human upgrade”.
Besides: Game of Thrones for example is “only” a collection of bitter experience and conclusions, cynical world views most definitely based on the authors personal experience and look at the success the books and movies enjoy.
Thanks, Steve, for another brilliant and pithy post. A few years ago things clicked for me in my novels when I realized that my job as a storyteller was to serve the story, not the writing (oh, those precious words!), and certainly not “me”.
I use that as a sort of mantra now, especially when I’m editing: “Serve the story above all else.”
In that way, I guess I’m keeping the reader in mind, as you suggest.
Ha! You just refuted “Write What You Know” (or at least taking that on face value)
I’m going to share this post. I think it’s an excellent one that writers should consider. How to separate “self” from the “piece.”
Jackson Browne, Nella from France, butt in chair, principal and profile, training a horse, artistic distance: Steven, Shawn and Callie, there is Resonance.
What unmet needs garble the message of our Muse, turn our music into noise? Ego? Narcissism, childishness? That we see so clearly when it’s pointed out, when we break through, when we use the tools we were given to create something not for ourselves, but for its own sake? When we make Art?
Thanks for the koan, Mr. Pressfield.
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