Janet Malcolm is a writer’s writer. If you’re a practitioner of any kind of nonfiction, Malcolm is a must-read for her rigor, her style, and her wisdom on the subject of journalism. Her most famous quote, from the bestseller The Journalist and the Murderer—“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”—is a good reminder to remain self-critical.
Malcolm’s latest collection, Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, is full of such reminders, not just for writers, but for any creative person who hopes to have an output anywhere near as impressive and deep as Malcolm’s. In the intro to Forty-one False Starts, the New Yorker writer Ian Frazier describes Malcolm’s work thusly: “For a work of nonfiction to be really good, it must compete in the ‘open’ category; that is, it can’t justify itself merely by fulfilling its important journalistic task of informing the reader; it has to aspire to be art, whatever that is and however one aspires to it,” which is an excellent lesson to remember: No matter what you’re doing creatively, you can and should set lofty expectations for yourself, as Malcolm does.
But there is more to be gleaned from Forty-one False Starts than just creative tools from Janet Malcolm’s work style. She also reveals fascinating tidbits on creativity from her subjects—a diverse group that includes the painter David Salle, the photographer Diane Arbus, and the Gossip Girl author Cecily von Ziegesar. Herewith, a few key rules for work from the lot of them.
In an essay about the postmodern painter David Salle, Malcolm describes his working style:
"Every brushstroke is irrevocable. He doesn’t correct or repaint, ever. He works under the dire conditions of performance. Everything counts, nothing may be taken back, everything must go relentlessly forward, and a mistake may be fatal. One day, he showed me a sort of murdered painting. He had worked on it a little too long, taken a misstep, killed it."
Though Salle is extreme in his devotion to letting go of work that’s not quite right, the underlying theory behind it is a sound one: If something isn’t working in your art, don’t be precious. You should always be ready to abandon something that’s not up to snuff and be able to take it in stride if an editor or critic is telling you to let go. Malcolm herself is an excellent self-editor, according to Ian Frazier. In the intro he writes, “Will Rogers’ famous advice, ‘Never miss a good chance to shut up,’ goes unheeded nowadays, when most of us express ourselves aplenty. Against that trend, Ms. Malcolm is a writer of eloquent omission.”
In an essay about painter and designer Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf and part of the Bloomsbury set of early 20th-century English artists and thinkers, Malcolm painstakingly describes Bell’s country home, Charleston:
"I visited Charleston last December on an extremely cold, gray day and immediately felt its Chekhovian beauty and sadness. The place has been preserved in its worn and faded and stained actuality. It is an artist’s house, a house where an eye has looked into every corner and hovered over every surface, considering what will please it to look at every day."
When you’re trying to focus on your work, it’s wise to make sure your surroundings are inspirational and utilitarian without being distracting. Since Charleston was a meeting place for the Bloomsbury group, it was especially important that it was a suitable backdrop for artistic output.
Malcolm also includes a piece about Julia Cameron—a great aunt of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s—who was a brilliant photographer. Cameron started photographing at 48 in the 1860s and only began to take pictures because her daughter and son-in-law bought her a camera. She was not deterred by her own ignorance or inexperience. “I worked fruitlessly, but not hopelessly,” Cameron said. “I began with no knowledge of the art.” She would eventually master not just taking photographs, but also the arduous printing process of the time.
Diane Arbus did not initially win over John Szarkowski, the director of MoMA’s photography department. But even though he rejected her early photographic submissions because he didn’t like them, he later told Arbus’s daughter that those early photographs, “were very forceful. You really felt somebody who was just enormously ambitious, really ambitious. Not in any cheap way. In the most serious way. Someone who was going to stand for no minor successes.” Szarkowski would change his mind about Arbus’s photgraphs—he ultimately included her photographs in several influential shows at MoMA.
Though most of Malcolm’s subjects are highbrow, she has true praise for the style of Cecily von Ziegesar, the author of the Gossip Girl series of books. Though they have frequently been derided as trashy teen lit, Malcolm believes that the Gossip Girl books are clever and even transgressive. “The way von Ziegesar implicates us in her empathic examination of youth’s callousness is the Waughish achievement of these strange, complicated books.” Even if you’re writing in a genre that’s belittled—here, we’re talking about YA books—do not sell yourself short. Great art can appear in any category.
[Image: Flickr user Mollypop]