Cusk is a writer, but what she has to say here about her creative process and her growth along the path of it can apply broadly.
My first year in college, I signed up as a creative writing major. I thought that was what I wanted to do more than anything. I’m still not sure that’s not true, but I have vacillated, all my life, between wanting to write, to draw & paint, and to play music (it’s interesting that the act of making images and words have their own singular verbs, “draw/paint” and “write,” likewise “dance,” and “photograph,” but music doesn’t, somehow).
One of the best things I found when I was devouring “how to write” books, soon after I left my university, on academic probation and disillusioned, was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. In it, Goldberg lays out a daily ritualistic method for getting going, called writing practice. It’s meant to be a time of non-judgment, where the only goal is to keep your hand moving and words flowing. Content is irrelevant. It’s freeing and helpful for the more specific writing you’d otherwise do, and it doesn’t necessarily stay separate from that. I did it for a long time, before I changed creative course.
It’s been very hard to stick to any path for long, though I’ve made a steady go with visual art the longest. But often, I still have trouble starting, and with keeping a sustained habit. I don’t have an easy answer or advice to fix that. I do that often enough, here. The idea that there’s a secret or trick to making art has too much traction, I think. Sometimes you should just ponder and try things out.
What’s bad writing? It came up after I saw quite a lot of comments about the upcoming Ready Player One movie. I said at the time to a couple other Generation X geek friends that I was liking the book, but also that I felt it impossible to separate my assessment of its quality from the onslaught of nostalgia porn. Every reference didn’t resonate with good memories, but enough of them did that the rest just helped keep me in the time period. Which, as those who lived through it (specifically, the 1980s) can attest, was often a scary, chaotic whirl, musically, fashion-wise, and politically. I was at least half-sure we’d immolated in a fiery holocaust of hastily-lobbed ICBMs at any moment. My feeling didn’t change after I’d finished, either—I liked it, but was it good, or just pushing my vanished adolescent buttons?
And it’s very, very hard to define “bad writing” objectively, without using specific works upon which one has ground one’s axe in the definition. As a friend said, “maybe it’s like obscenity.” You just know it when you see it. It’s necessarily vague and subjective, because we like such different things about various mediums. Beyond the obvious, like grammar and typos/spelling, there’s a lot of room for style and being idiosyncratic. Analysis ranges widely. Some think abstract painting is abominable trash, others think it’s more essentially artistic than any other style.
Applied to our own work, sometimes we worry about people trashing it, dismissing it. If we’ve worked honestly, with a goal of being our most essential selves, I believe it’s our truest expression, and what we should strive for. If what you’re offering is different than most or all others, there’s an audience for it who likes the thing you’re doing and possibly you, as well. It’s just a matter of finding the right means of exposure, having persistence, and some luck after that. Or, sometimes if you’re doing a thing lots of others are, if you’re a different enough personality, you draw them by being who you are.
What do you get out of the artists, writers, and musicians you follow? How much is really cool evaluation of its worth and how much because you just like the way their things are made? Or, simply, the people doing it?