(Todd’s life and work are certainly well known by Anderson Valley Advertiser readers through his weekly columns. He’s a prolific author, singer, musician (piano, guitar, drums), performer, teacher, and artist who makes some of his creative output — books, cds, paintings, notecards — available on his fascinating website underthetablebooks.com. He lives in Mendocino with his wife, Marcia Sloane, also a musician.
I asked Todd about his creative process… -DS)
One of my pet peeves is that millions of people today think they should be able to write novels without first learning how to write short stories, or even good paragraphs before they attempt to write their novels. Imagine someone who has never written a measure of music or a satisfactory song deciding to compose a symphony. We would all agree they were daft. So why do we think someone who has never written a lucid paragraph should be able to write a readable novel?
I started writing stories when I was six. My first stories were essentially transcriptions of stories I had invented and told to my friends and classmates. I knew from the get go I would have to practice writing, just as one practices a musical instrument, in order to get good at writing stories. By the time I was ten, writing had taken a backseat to sports. I was a total jock until I was fifteen and severely crippled by a disease called ankylosing spondylitis.
It was then I resumed my writing practice, got into Drama, and started writing scenes and one-act plays. I also began ravenously reading short stories and the biographies and autobiographies of writers and artists I admired. Without exception my favorite writers emphasized that practice practice and more practice was the essential process by which mastery might be achieved.
By my senior year of high school I was sure I wanted to be a professional writer. I knew I was a good storyteller, though still a primitive writer, and so I made a conscious decision to practice writing every day. I began by writing descriptions of what I saw, writing down overheard dialogue, and trying to express my thoughts and feelings clearly and concisely in complete sentences.
I read hundreds of short stories and hundreds of novels, learning through osmosis and by writing every day under the influence of what I was reading. I marveled at how much Isaac Bashevis Singer could convey in a few quietly brilliant sentences. And when I read The Complete Sherlock Holmes, I was awed by Conan Doyle’s ability to paint a vivid scene and capture the appearance and temperament and voice of a character in a single paragraph.
I agree with Buckminster Fuller that every human is born a genius and that our upbringing and education determine whether our genius flowers or gets squished, diverted, inhibited. I was very lucky to have two older sisters and a mother who doted on me for the first five years of my life and encouraged me to scribble and draw and paint and sing and dance and express myself without inhibition.
In kindergarten and First and Second Grade I was further fortunate to have teachers who recognized my gift for entertaining my peers, and they often had me get up in front of the class to tell funny stories my classmates loved. Which is to say, I got a tremendous amount of encouragement for my creativity when I was young, encouragement that sustained me through the epoch of Great Negativity that followed.
For some years after I was a published writer, I gave writing workshops in my various living rooms and I ran a creative writing program for teenagers. Every single one of the hundreds of writers I worked with, young and old, told tales of being ridiculed and shamed by teachers or parents or both for their creative efforts. We are a punitive, anti-creative society. Everything in our culture is hierarchal, which is antithetical to uninhibited creativity and death to collaborative creativity, the result being that our mainstream art is entirely imitative.
Despite my lack of commercial success as a writer and musician over the last thirty years, I have enjoyed the ongoing flowering of my writing and music and art, and I have no doubt my recent fiction and music are the best things I’ve ever done. I carry on with my work because I love the process and because I am devoted to the belief that we can never know what the universe intends to do with our creations.
Buckminster Fuller introduced me to the idea that precessional effects—what most people would call side effects—are far more important than the intended effects of a particular action. The honeybee’s intention is to get nectar from the flower, but the precessional effect is that the flower gets pollinated. I trust that the precessional effects of my art are what Nature is really after, though I may never know what those effects are.
[Coming up: Mark Scaramella — Managing Editor of The Anderson Valley Advertiser; Terry d'Selkie — Teacher, Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetables, Mendocino School Gardens, Mendocino Food Action Plan.]