✍️ Alice’s Novel Problem
Or, How "Serious Fun" Is More Productive Than "Serious Writing"
We can surmise from reading several interviews that Alice never really thought she was doing “serious” writing. For her, getting serious meant writing a novel. She tried and tried – she tried for decades. At one point in the 1950s, Alice went through a bout of depression because of it.
You might think, How sad! To work so hard at being a writer without success! Except that Alice did have success as a writer. A lot of it. She won the Giller and the Governor General’s Prize for Literature in Canada. She won the O. Henry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle prize in the US. She won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. She won the Man Booker Prize.
And, in 2013, Alice won the Nobel Prize for Literature as a “master of the contemporary short story”.
That probably drops the curtain. We are of course talking about Alice Munro here, seen to be one of the best – if not the best – short story writers in English. Yet she fell short where she (apparently) thought it mattered most: writing a novel.
Munro told The Guardian once: “I went through about a year – I think when I was 29 – when I couldn't finish a sentence. It was a time of terrible depression, about what I could do measured against what I wanted to do [write a novel]. I can't do it yet. And believe me, I'm always trying. Between every book I think, well now, it's time to get down to the serious stuff. Sometimes I look at novels and see how short people can make them. If I can string a story out to 60 pages ["The Love of a Good Woman", 1998] surely it can't be too hard. It doesn't work." (Emphasis mine.)
What is “Serious Writing”?
In my last post exploring the role of self-confidence and writing, I mentioned “serious writing” and casually nota-bened, “whatever that means”.
So maybe it’s time to explore what serious writing means since so many people (including Alice Munro) put such an emphasis on it.
Once again, this is a topic I’ve been talking about with writer friends – one last week, as a matter of fact. To me, I think most writers see “serious writing” as that level of prize-winning writing (though as a Nobel Prize winner, obviously Munro had more specific ideas). More specifically, they perceive that this level of writing requires concentration and a serious demeanour. A singular focus. A careful laying down of words one after the other in perfect order to lead the reader through adversity, loss, and triumph – and maybe tear at their hearts and put a smile on their faces while they’re at it. But one wrong word – one wrong paver in the pathway, and the whole story/novel/poem comes crashing down.
What the writers who lay pavers don’t know is that they are doomed from the start. Writers do not work in Lockstone (even metaphorically). We do not carefully prepare our laptops, make sure everything is level, and connect words one after another in a pre-determined pattern. Not even the most extreme plotters write this way, ensuring that every word is put down perfectly before moving to the next.
As I’ve said before, writers are more like potters. We throw down the lump of clay onto the wheel (the jumble of words that is our first draft) and we work the clay by editing those words, pulling up and drawing in and shaping and fashioning until (finally!) our teapot of a story stands fully shaped in front of us.
Most important in this process is that we don’t throw our clay “seriously”. We need to have fun with it. Counter-intuitively, we need to basically pretend that it means absolutely nothing at all. Why? Because that’s the best way for us to tap into our creativity.
I came up with a concept that (I hope) encapsulates this idea, called Serious Fun. It is unabashedly stolen from the concept of Lego Serious Play (LSP), which I first came across about 15 years ago. LSP is a corporate team building/problem solving exercise that uses bricks to find solutions to business problems. It is simple to describe – participants discuss questions and use Lego bricks to convey possible solutions. They “think with their hands”.
Basically, the idea is that the answers are “locked” inside the people who work there, and playing with Lego to build visual representations and tell stories helps them unlock those answers. Of course, how and why this all works is the magic of it all, which is rather complex to wrap your head around. (At least, it is for me.)
But what is easy to understand is this: play helps you learn. This is clear if you’ve watched children grow up – they touch and push and pull and eat (!) the world around them, learning about the world around them. As adults, we poo-poo play – at least in the workplace. We tend to want to be more serious.
And this is true for writers, too. We may “play” with words, like writing down a fun little ditty on the back of a napkin while sitting at a bar in Santa Monica, but then we fold it into our back pockets and never think about it again. The “serious” words are when we sit down for our official writing sessions and write those prize-winning pieces.
It doesn’t work that way. We need play to be creative. We need to have fun to be creative. We are not putting down bricks within millimetres of each other on a driveway so that the rain and snow and ice stay out. We are building a world organically. We are throwing paint-filled sponges at a wall.
We are playing artist, not scientist.
So What’s the “Serious” in Serious Fun?
So what does the “serious” mean? Good question!
When we sit down to that keyboard, we need to let loose, have fun, and channel our creativity any way that we can. But we need to be serious about sitting down to the keyboard in the first place – at least if we really want to get anything done. The serious part is scheduling time, getting a writing ritual, and deciding that, yes, I want to write and finish this novel or short story or memoir or poem or CNF article or whatever it is I am working on. The serious part is the professional approach we take to committing to writing.
Doesn’t this squelch creativity though? Aren’t we better off if we write only when we’re inspired?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is that, well, sometimes when you’re first starting out. But in the long term, setting a schedule and/or ritual and/or some kind of professional approach will eventually spark your creativity. It works along the same principle as Pavlov’s dog – when you sit down enough times with the intent to be creative, eventually the creativity (usually) turn on the moment you sit down.
So, to sum up: Serious Fun means being professional in your approach to sitting down to write, but actively playing with words once we’re there.
Key Takeaway: When we try to sit down to “serious writing”, we often freeze up, become instant perfectionists, over-think what we’re doing, and constantly feel like someone is reading over our shoulder. This kills creativity! Instead, write like nobody’s watching. Be serious about sitting down to write, but once you’re there, have fun with it!
Over To You...
Are you guilty of getting too serious with your writing? What happens when you do? Are you happy with the results? Or does it usually get chucked or – worse – folded into a drawer and you get so discouraged that you stop writing altogether?
Let us know in the comments below! And if you found this post helpful, please forward or share with other writer friends of yours who might enjoy it too.
This post’s video: Alice Munro after she won her Nobel Prize for Literature.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
email me if you get lost.