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.