On Chuck Close and Finding Inspiration

We all know (of) the writer’s greatest fear:  the blank page.  And my blank page was beating the crap out of me the last few days.  A week ago, Book One of the Felicity Street Annals was launched, and suddenly, I found myself with precious little to do.  And while I actually have a wee bit of actual income-generating work to do, not to mention a ton of marketing, I am still at the heart a creative, a story-teller, and the blank page told me, “So, you think you’re ever going to tell another story again?  Ha!”

That blank page sat there, mocking me, intimidating me to the point of paralysis.

Enter one Chuck Close.  Chuck – or, as he should be called, Mister Close – was an American painter born in Washington State in 1940, and died in New York at the age of 81 in 2021.  His genre was hyper-realism, and never before has a name been such a nominative determinist:  his work is massive, and, up close, close!  He is worth checking out.  But I remember, vaguely, a quote from Close where he said:

“Amateurs wait for inspiration; professionals just get to work.”

So, I looked it up, and the full quote is as follows:

Chuck Close - Self Portrait“Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.  And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will – through work – bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art’.”

So, you’re telling me I should write even though I have nothing to say?

Inspirational, but still a bit, how shall we say, intimidating.  So I decided to engage with the masterful art of procrastinating and go take a look at the man of Chuck Close himself.  I am pretty familiar with his work, having studied him during my semi-disastrous art school daze (sic) back in 93/94, but I knew nothing about the man himself.  So Wikipedia, here I come!

It turns out this man had the deck stacked against him like a few others.  As a kid, he was sick with neuromuscular conditions.  He had kidney infections that saw him lose out on a lot of school, and he had dyslexia.  He also had prosopagnosia, a cognitive condition that prevents facial recognition.  Despite all that, he still graduated with a Master of Fine arts from Yale.  No mean feat!

In 1988, he underwent massive spinal collapse, something that he calls “the event”, and left him paralysed from the neck down.  But he busted his ass in rehab and started getting movement back again.  He started painting again with a brush strapped to his wrist.  And Ol’ Chuck just carried on.  Got to work.  Well, okay then.  I’ll consider myself chastised!

So, I wondered, if Mr Close has any other gems of advice for us creative types.  Turn out he has tons!  A few relevant, selected quotes:

“I work every day out there, every single day.”

“Ease is the enemy of the artist.  When things get too easy, you’re in trouble.”

“If the bottom dropped out of the market and the artist was not going to sell anything, he or she will keep working.”

And one of my personal favourites:

“Photography is the easiest medium with which to be merely competent.  Almost anybody can be competent.  It’s the hardest medium in which to have some sort of personal vision and to have a signature style.”

Eep… that is damning.  It is as true for writing as it is for photography.  Anyone who has read White and Strunk can be a competent writer.  Anyone who spent years at uni studying ‘writing’ can be a competent writer.  In the age of indie publishing, anyone can be a writer, competent or otherwise.  Ouch!  What did that mean for me, with my blank page and anxiety attack?

It meant that I had to believe in the gospel of Chuck Close:  Do not wait for inspiration; just show up and get to work.  And that’s what I did.

I took that empty page and started exploring the back story of one of my walk-on characters, a walk-on character so unimportant to my stories she does not even have a name.  615 words later, I had a plot outline.  A plot outline I never would have had if I had waited for inspiration to strike.  Is it a good plot outline?  I have no idea.  It is still too fresh in my mind to look at it objectively.  It could be the next Pulitzer, or it could make less sense than the crap I wrote in the first six weeks of high school.  But the quality of the plot outline does not matter – the point is, by sitting down and getting to work, I have one!  And, by having a plot outline, I can examine it, refine it, write it, or even discard it and try again.  An idea can be reworked if required and discarded if needs be.  But you cannot do that to a blank page.

There ain’t no such thing as writer’s block.

Just laziness.

Hail Close!