I was watching a PBS documentary about the painter Mark Rothko earlier this week, and about halfway through the film hit upon a letter he co-wrote with Adolph Gottlieb in 1943 after The New York Times gave an exhibition of their work an unenthusiastic review. The letter includes a manifesto for the type of art they were setting out to create that felt relevant as a new National Novel Writing Month begins.
“To us,” Rothko and Gottlieb wrote:
“…art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.”
It’s no small task to write a novel, even a short one, especially if you’re attempting to do it in just thirty days. You may, most likely, have only a hint of a story idea from which to start—and even if you’ve plotted the storyline out meticulously in your head before you begin, you will still surprise yourself many times over as you write. What you think you know about your characters when you begin a book—what you think you know about yourself—is not what you will know when you’re done.
The idea that this process of discovery can only be undertaken “by those willing to take the risks” may seem elitist—but, as I’ve come to understand it over the years, any of us are capable of taking that risk. We only have to make the affirmative decision to do so. Now, it’s true that the world works in such a way as to persuade many of us that we don’t have the power to make that decision: We have too many responsibilities; we don’t have enough time; we probably wouldn’t be any good at it… you’ve heard these rationalizations before. You’ve probably laid them upon yourself at some point.
But you’re here, reading this newsletter, getting ready to launch yourself into #NaNoWriMo, or maybe still just considering it, because there’s voice inside you that believes there’s another option, a better option. Let’s listen to that voice for a while.
“This world of the imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.”
I look at this statement in two ways. First, I recognize that the decision to dedicate yourself to a creative practice, whether it’s painting or writing or something else, is almost never a “common sense” decision. Like I said above, the world offers plenty of “sensible” reasons not to pursue a creative practice, to just slot yourself into the system and do the normal, expected, safe thing. Even after you make the decision, you might find yourself fighting off doubt, whether it’s your own internal misgivings or people around you convinced that you're not going to make it, so you shouldn’t bother trying.
But you’re going to try anyway, you’re going to embark on this reckless adventure, and with any luck it’s going to be a liberating process. (And, honestly, even if you “fail,” it’s still likely to be liberating in certain ways, but we’ve got all month to talk about that.)
Second, let’s look at this statement within our creative practice. Are we looking to tell ourselves what we already know? Of course not. We’re looking to learn new things, and that means we need to be willing to look in new places, to make unexpected choices.
Even if you’re writing the realest of realist fiction you possibly could, at some point you’ll need to stop thinking about what should happen in your story and open yourself up to what could happen. Take chances, make guesses, follow instincts. If you write yourself into a corner, work your way back and try a different path!
“It is our functions as artists to make the spectator see the world our way — not his way.”
Just as you didn’t start writing to tell yourself what you already know, you aren’t writing to tell other readers what they already know, either. After all, where’s the fun in simply conforming to someone else’s worldview? If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you know that one of my core themes is that our writing practices are an opportunity to discover what matters most to us and lean into it. What is it that you’re most compelled to share with the rest of the world? What is the thing that gives your writing purpose? What’s the story you need to tell?
Satisfy those demands, and readers will ultimately follow.
Now, some people might object, and say that you need to play to readers’ expectations if you expect to keep their attention. And there’s an extent to which that’s true. As an obvious example, if you’re writing a romance novel, it had better end with two people in love or you will catch hell from readers. But that doesn’t mean that you have to slavishly follow convention from start to finish. It doesn’t mean you have to populate your story with stock characters; it doesn’t mean you have to stick to an outline of conventional scenes that take your lovers from first meeting to final clinch.
Now, if conventional scenes are meaningful to you, go ahead and write those scenes. But if you find your characters making unconventional choices, run with them. Write a story that convinces you with its emotional authenticity, that says something you believe to be true about the world, and the force of your belief will carry the story. If the characters feel real to you, if they aren’t just going through the motions, they will feel real to readers. (And I’m not just talking about romance anymore.)
Your writing—whether we’re talking about a #NaNoWriMo project or about a lifetime’s practice—is an opportunity to make a statement. Be sure that what you’re saying means something to you.
(There’s actually a bit more to the manifesto, but the final two points are slightly more formalist in their concerns. If you’re interested, the full text of the Rothko/Gottlieb letter is online; as the headline notes, Barnett Newman played a part in the letter’s composition as well.)
If you’re doing #NaNoWriMo, I hope you have a great start this weekend! More soon.