“If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the
edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then
probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you
are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some
doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell
enough.” John Irving
(Thanks to Herbie J. Pilato for the quote)
10 thoughts on “Good Advice from John Irving”
I agree with the quote, but how do you reconcile it with your disdain for “artists” who don’t provide exactly the product they’re paid for?
When have I shown disdain for writers who want to challenge themselves or actors who want to try different kinds of roles?
You haven’t, but that’s not what I’m asking about–and I am asking, not merely being rhetorical.
Doesn’t “Do exactly what you’re asked for or you’re a whiny artiste following your muse” conflict with “Always try to do what you’re not sure you can pull off?”
Okay, when have I said anything remotely like “Do exactly what you’re asked for or you’re a whiny artiste following your muse?”
There are eight months of archives available to Keith. I’d bet that he will find not one posting that expresses the views he ascribes to Lee Goldberg.
Oh wait, looking at Keith’s comments again, I think I see what he may be referring to — actors who throw out the script on the set and decide to improvise. If that’s the case, it’s entirely different. Apples and oranges.
It’s one thing for a comedic actors to try his hand at drama…it’s another for an actor on a series (like Bill Cosby on THE COSBY MYSTERIES) to throw out the script and decided it’s better to just make up the scene on-the-fly. That’s simply unprofessional, irresponsible, disrespectful, and costly.
No, I haven’t said anything about actors.
Your John Barlow post is what came first to mind. Maybe I’m reading in, but that (and, I thought, a few previous comments) is what gave me this impression.
And the John Barlow story isn’t one about an author challenging himself — it’s about an author being an idiot.
Yes, it’s great to follow your muse and challenge yourself. I heartily endorse that. HOWEVER, Barlow signed a contract with a book packaging company to write a specific kind of book for a specific audience. In other words, it was work for hire — like a carpenter being asked to build shelves in someone’s home to their specification. And he decided to “do his own thing,” resulting in his book not being published. It’s akin to me deciding to fill my next MONK novel with explicit sex. It would be stupid, unprofessional, and career suicide…because that’s not what I am being hired to write and what I have agreed to write.
I didn’t read his story that way (and still don’t), which is probably why I took away the apparently inaccurate impression of your attitude that I did. If you don’t feel the way I thought you did, my apology for saying otherwise.
Aside from that it’s still an interesting general issue to me. Personal muse-following vs. doing what you’re paid to do can coexist in theory, but in practice, how well does it work?
For me, it’s worked well. I “follow my muse” with the MONK and DIAGNOSIS MURDER books and have a great time. With the DM books, for example, I have been able to challenge myself and take some moderate risks with the franchise. The books are usually told in the third person and are set in present day. For THE PAST TENSE, I set half the book in 1962 and told it first person from the hero’s POV. That was risky for me in a lot of ways and, I think, it turned out to be the best book in the series. For MONK, I chose to write the books in first person from a woman’s POV, something I have never done before and that, at first, scared the crap out of me. But it also made the books stand out from the TV series and, in many ways, made them my own. So it’s possible to challenge yourself in a work-for-hire environment and still do the job you were contracted to do.