The Habit of Art

There’s this strange nebulous space you tend to occupy as a writer, or even, perhaps, a creator or storyteller of any kind; a sort of hovering furtive interstice between here and elsewhere, wakefulness and daydream, vivid yet vague; like a mental version of twilight.

Which is why I loved stumbling across this excerpt from Jane Vandenburgh’s Architecture of the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook recently.

So. To the dreamers. Enjoy… 

You climb up into the cab of the story, and the place immediately begins to exhibit the prehensile feel you want from it, that it’s alive and it has its mitts on you. You become subject to your own story’s gravity. This is sometimes hard to escape from.

It has always been harder for me to pull myself up and out of the narrative world than it is for me to enter it. Put another way: I fall into the dream easily, and it’s hard for me to awaken.

I have learned to use this ability to write when I don’t really seem to be writing. I dream the dream of the story when I’m driving a carpool or listening to something that doesn’t really interest me.

I’m like those people who can sleep with their eyes open.

I wrote my first book sitting on the toilet with its lid down, with one then the other of my small children in the tub. This is exaggeration, of course. I exaggerate because I’m a fiction writer. But it is also true that I wrote that book folding laundry, while shopping, driving, stirring the soup, carrying on with my normal day-to-day.

I learned in writing that book how to live like a novelist, which is day-in-day-out and often surreptitiously. You write all the time, writing whether you seem to be doing it or not. It’s like prayer. It comforts you. It becomes a spiritual practice.

So it is for most writers I know: we’re the long-haul truckers, all but addicted to distances. This is a happy state of mind for us, our way of being spiritually healthy. We’ve learned that we are best integrated as individuals when we are living in the manner characterized by Flannery O’Connor as “the habit of art.”

The habit of art: This means you begin to experience the world in a entirely a different way. You begin seeing, hearing, living, breathing, thinking as a storyteller does, witnessing life with the deeply involved yet passionate detachment that allows you to think in the case of almost any extremity, stopping the car to ask: I wonder what narrative use I can make of this?

Writing something as large as a novel requires that you get up every day and reinvent not only yourself as the person writing this novel, but also the job you’re doing, a reasonable facsimile of a fictional wheel.

Night and day, while sleeping or half awake, you now let your mind live the rhythms defined by the line on the highway driving west, those mile markers that prove this story is going somewhere. You are getting someplace: This, you think, is becoming interesting.

So it matters little that you can’t spend eight hours a day sitting at your desk—so few people have that kind of time. The story comes alive in your mind, you take it along with you where you go, you practice. It becomes your rod and your staff.

Our aim is simple: We’re trying to keep our stories alive in our minds by listening to them tell themselves every single day. You write whenever you can. You write day in, day out, for weeks, for months, on end. You do it in traffic, while half listening to some not very interesting friend complain about the very same things she’s always complaining about, knowing you’ll hear her when she comes to anything new and interesting.


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