A couple of weeks ago I had an opportunity to listen to author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) talk about the creative process at the Vancouver Writers Fest. It was just as good as I thought it would be. Mitchell was funny, endearing, and incredibly humble.
There were three takeaways from this talk that I’d like to share.
1. Your First, Second, and Third Novel: The Differences
It’s funny, but I never really thought about the distinction before. I think that’s probably because writing that first novel feels so intimidating. I know I have a story that I’ve been keeping in my back pocket since Middle school. I don’t think I’m alone in having this preciousness toward one idea.
Here’s what Mitchell had to say about the differences:
Your First Novel
“You really spend all your life writing different versions of your first novel.” So, when you finally actually write it, it’s a huge accomplishment. Suddenly a weight has been lifted off of you, and you’re free to write your second.
Your Second Novel
“The writing of your second novel sort of takes place in the twilight zone.” You’re sort of between having an idea about craft, and yet still having no idea what you’re doing. When a member of the audience asked Mitchell about a particular construct they observed in “Cloud Atlas,” (this was actually his third novel, but perhaps there’s some overlap?) he responded by admitting that he didn’t really remember writing that novel in a lot of ways, and that he honestly couldn’t answer the question because he couldn’t remember his thought process.
Your Third Novel
“It’s when you get to your third novel that you actually start using your craft. You know what you’re doing a little more than you did before.”
2. The Value of Rereading
Observe the Craft at Work
“It’s a sign that it’s a true piece of work when you can reread it” says Mitchell. He explains that’s it’s during the rereading process that you can start to appreciate how an artist uses the craft in their work. I, personally, have never been a huge fan of rereading something (there are just so many books that I haven’t even read yet that I want to read for the first time), but this logic makes a lot of sense.
Raise the Bar!
Mitchell shared that he rereads Chekhov’s short stories at least once every five or six years. He does this to remind himself of how high the bar should be set.
You Change with Every Read
You change as you grow older, and so what you notice and appreciate in a story will change too. Mitchell says that fiction exists in three places:
1) There’s the writer’s mind
2) There’s the text/ the physical book and the story.
3) and then there’s your mind
How these three components interact will change every time you read something.
3. A Meditative State: The Writer’s Process
I’ve heard it over and over again: Turn off the internet when you’re writing. Eliminate distractions. I always thought that this was just to improve your focus so that you could get more done. After listening to Mitchell talk, I think there’s more to this piece of advice than I originally thought.
Mitchell says that when he’s ready to work, he goes into a meditative state.
“When I open my laptop, I’m in the present state of writing. All the rubbish is gone. It’s all ‘now.’ There is no past and no future.” Sounds like the perfect headspace for creating for me.
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