This spring, Robert DeNiro addressed the graduates of the Tisch School of the Arts. His remarks were funny (“ . . . Graduates: You made it. You’re f*##*d.”), brutal (be prepared for certain failure to find meaningful employment right away), but encouraging in his admonitions to remember that, as artists, they are part of a system of collaborators. No artist is alone. Artists need to stop thinking that they always know what’s best because they often don’t. Artists need to learn to trust others. Here was one of America’s greatest dramatic artists talking about his recent lost auditions, his need to collaborate with directors—but only after he had developed a years-long rapport, his insistence on having the scriptwriter close at hand, his reluctance to simply make a decision about how to play a scene without conferring with or listening to a director. Collaborate. Trust.
This is a truth difficult for many writers to accept. We feel very protective of our work and protective of the sense of ourselves we have as we write. But with few exceptions, none of us can trust our own insights into our own writing.
For one thing—we’re blind to those grammatical mistakes we have been using throughout our short story or novel and throughout our lives. However, know that they are there, no matter how hard you try to find them. Ask someone to help find them—those odd or downright incorrect structures, those places where you used the wrong word or used the right word inaccurately.
For another, we are looking out to the world through the windows our work has constructed, and we don’t always see what’s missing: “Where is the father in all this?” “Why would someone think that?” “If you believe this is the way others see you or your character, why is that?” The worlds we build must be consistent with the world our readers know—and this holds for fantasy and some science fiction, as well—successful imagined worlds are not fabricated out of the whole cloth of our heads.
And another: You have taken the path from beginning to end of your story or novel so many times that its familiarity begins to provide its own rationale. Listen to a second and third reader and trust that she or he can sense when the narrative veers off track. Early in our writing, we need to “trust our compass,” as writer Michael Sims says. “Go where it points, even if it seems to take you off a cliff. You won’t get hurt.” Falling off that ciff might be a godsend and get you to a place more interesting and satisfying than what you had in mind. But that’s step one, not step three or four—you may have found yourself in a literary ravine you just can’t get out of without expert help.
In many ways, all of our successful creative products, from spaghetti sauce to flash fiction to longer forms like novels, are collaborations. We concoct, we share, we adjust. We share again. If we’re not getting the kind of advice we sense we need, we seek further experienced cooks or writers to weigh in. And when they do, we must trust that they will be sympathetic and constructive partners—our colleagues, our mentors, our agents, if we are fortunate enough to have one, half a dozen specialists in whatever we are writing about, the nephew in college we hired as a fact-checker and paid in pizza, that nice person at Kinko’s who caught a typo. Trust them—they want us to succeed as much as we do.
Winona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative. She has been a resident of Lancaster since 1992 and teaches writing, literature, and other humanities courses at Quinsigamond Community College. Wendth holds an MFA in literature and writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. You can read her work in a variety of literary and general interest publications.