“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little,” said Agnes de Mille, the great American choreographer. “The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”
Yet oftentimes we find a way to compensate by journeying into the dark with a crutch. When facing down a blank screen, a looming deadline, a vacillating client, a creative person will likely turn to something for support. I’m not talking about coffee or other performance enhancers, or a team of interns. The crutch is the thing that jump-starts the creative process, ushers one through the entry-point of excitement.
We often get into trouble when we forget to remove it from the final product. It may have helped us brainstorm and kept us company in the dark. But to the audience that will consume the work, the crutch sticks out, an unnecessary distraction. Don’t forget to thank your crutch and put it away. You may never see it again, and that’s the point.
How do you identify the crutch in your work? It’s the noisy thing that’s giving you the most trouble in the editing process, and raising questions again and again from those tasked with reviewing your work. It’s the “quietest parts” of our stories–the elements that don’t receive extensive feedback from others–that we should listen to and eventually let lead us. If that doesn’t work, the final warning sign is the number of head-banged-against-the-wall attempts to make the crutch fit with the vital whole. The whole is healthy, and doesn’t need the crutch; take it away.
Last night, I discussed the topic of a crutch outlasting its purpose with an accomplished illustrator working on a graphic novel. He’s having a rough time getting his latest project off the ground and ran the story by me. Right away I could tell which elements of the story were there for me—the audience—and which were there for him, keeping him company in the dark as he worked. I told him to cut the meandering overcomplicated bits, streamline his story, and kill off what is not essential yet fun, to him.
The novelist Zadie Smith gave a now famous lecture at Columbia University about her process for writing novels that includes advice on this same issue. She calls “the crutch” scaffolding. (One could even call it following the White Rabbit—it’s the adventures and singing flowers and mad Red Queen that make the story; the White Rabbit just gets us there. (As much as we love the White Rabbit, Alice’s story would be the same if she simply fell down a rabbit hole. (Yes, I know the White Rabbit is awesome, but thinking about him is my crutch for remembering not to take my crutches so seriously and to eventually remove them from my work. (Well then, shall we continue?)))) Here is Smith’s brilliant plea to remove the scaffolding/crutch/White Rabbit from your work, once it’s no longer needed:
When building a novel you will use a lot of scaffolding. Some of this is necessary to hold the thing up, but most isn’t. The majority of it is only there to make you feel secure, and in fact the building will stand without it. Each time I’ve written a long piece of fiction I’ve felt the need for an enormous amount of scaffolding. With me, scaffolding comes in many forms. The only way to write this novel is to divide it into three sections of ten chapters each. Or five sections of seven chapters. Or the answer is to read the Old Testament and model each chapter on the books of the prophets. Or the divisions of the Bhagavad Gita. Or the Psalms. Or Ulysses. Or the songs of Public Enemy. Or the films of Grace Kelly. Or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Or the liner notes to The White Album. Or the 27 speeches Donald Rumsfeld gave to the press corps during his tenure.
Scaffolding holds up confidence when you have none, reduces the despair, creates a goal—however artificial—an end point. Use it to divide what seems like an endless, unmarked journey, though by doing this, like Zeno, you infinitely extend the distance you need to go.
Later, when the book is printed and old and dog-eared, it occurs to me that I really didn’t need any of that scaffolding. The book would have been far better off without it. But when I was putting it up, it felt vital, and once it was there, I’d worked so hard to get it there I was loath to take it down. If you are writing a novel at the moment and putting up scaffolding, well, I hope it helps you, but don’t forget to dismantle it later. Or if you’re determined to leave it out there for all to see, at least hang a nice façade over it, as the Romans do when they fix up their palazzi.
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