I graduated high school in the early 1980s with an odd fellow called Robert Montgomery. We shared a first period interior design class. Here’s how I remember him: effeminate, floppy haired and overly eager to include me in his movie. The aviator glasses he wore, popular at that time, were tinted amber.
Before class began, he’d amble back to my workstation and ask me in an enthusiastic voice to show up after school to film a scene in which he felt I just had to be in. His sci-fi thrillers didn’t interest me, and I always politely declined. Undeterred, he’d somersault down the aisle back to his own desk, causing our classmates to giggle at his antics. This happened every single morning that spring of 1981.
I never participated in any of his movies, but I’ve often thought about him over the years. When a film I’ve watched concludes, I search for his name scrolling by among the long list of credits. Surely someone so determined must have made his dreams a reality. I hope so.
But more than his antics and dogged cheerfulness, what struck me was his fierce determination to create, despite what others might say. (Many teased him or mocked him, rolling down those aisles.) He loved creating, and went after what he wanted, no matter the cost to his teenage reputation.
When I sit down to write, Robert Montgomery often comes to mind, challenging me. Am I pushing myself, or playing it safe? Is that adverb necessary or just propping up a weak verb? Am I afraid of what others might think? One of my mentors, Joshua Mohr, would urge me, “Be savage on the page.”
John Dufresne wrote in The Lie That Tells A Truth that we must challenge each aspect of our work. Challenge the first paragraph. The last paragraph. Each word choice. Search out pet phrases, or passive voice. Karate chop clichés. Make adjectives stand trial. As Isaac Babel wrote in his “Guy de Maupassant” essay, published in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2009 issue, “You have to keep your eye on the job because the words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out…Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun.” Now, each time I write a sentence containing two adjectives, I hear a voice in my head, whispering, “So you think you’re a genius?” Then I cut one of them. Sometimes.
If you’re like me, you might be feeling discouraged at this point. Don’t be. Think of that shitty first — or seventh — draft as a lump of clay or hunk of marble. You need the raw materials from which to carve or sculpt a — ahem — masterpiece. Just as important as where to place your chisel and how hard to tap the mallet are your word choice, point of view, character arc, pacing and plot. These tools, used with precision, yield your art.
You can’t give up. Neil Gaiman says, “When things get tough, make good art.” (For inspiration, watch Neil’s 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts.) Just like I’d like to believe Robert Montgomery never stopped asking, or creating, you and I must show up, do strong work and keep at it until it’s right. Search out mentors, read craft books, and find encouragement.
Because it’s far harder to be an artist who can’t create than one who will. Just ask Robert Montgomery, the guy who daily somersaulted away, rejected, but not dejected. He held onto a dream that one day the answer would be, “Yes.”
Online Editor’s Note: Three additional favorite craft books are Jane Burroway’s “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” Stephen King‘s “On Writing,” and Anne Lamott‘s “Bird by Bird.” What is your favorite go-to craft book or source of inspiration?