🏛 The Muse is My Client
I thought architecture was hard . . . until I tried writing.
Widening circles I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it. I circle around God, around the primordial tower. I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song? ~ Rainer Maria Rilke; translation Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows from Book of Hours, I 2
This poem rescued me recently from a bout of frustration. Over the years, I’ve made many runs at pinning down what I do, who it’s for, and what they need that I provide.1 This was straightforward enough for my architecture practice. Clients need specific things—additions, renovations, new buildings, master plans, feasibility studies. I have a definable skill set to meet those needs.
Being restless, I’ve always sought broader contexts and other forms of expression. About ten years ago, I decided to write a novel. I can joke that my ideal reader is me, but that feels lazy. My particular way of seeing the world isn’t for everyone, since my curiosity takes me to some odd places. I never know who is going to come along or who I’ll find there—which is, of course, part of the fun.
Rilke reminds me that I don’t need to know anything, especially the outcome of my explorations. My job is to follow my heart, even when doing so takes me in circles. His poem reminds me to “give myself to it.”
I’m fascinated right along with you all by the creative process. Different mediums make different demands on us, like cross-training. I have learned that it, for me, it’s taking longer to write a novel than to design and build a good-sized building. Something like a church might take three or four years, start to finish. Apartments or university classroom buildings are in the two to three range. A house is more like a novella in size, but can take just as long, depending on complexity and how decisive or demanding the client is. A kitchen addition is a short story. It can be done in eight or ten months, give or take. Maybe a tub refit like flash fiction. Definitely not poetry.
Sean Coyne, author of The Story Grid and host of the Substack STORY LAB, puts it this way:
“Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.”
A building shelters thousands of people for decades, if not generations. It touches lives. It affects people. Even a bad building—say, a Target or a WalMart—serves a purpose. The literary equivalent might be a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is maybe why you see racks of them at stores like that. A few great buildings rise above, delighting us with their artfulness and lasting for hundreds of years. These are lovingly restored from time to time, and contain deep cultural, social and political histories.
Last week, I wrote that architect Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris was over twelve years in the making, from design through construction. And Labrouste was there, every step of the way. His constancy paid off. The library is one of the world’s great buildings.
What’s the time equivalent in literature? Balzac’s Lost Illusions, one of my personal favorites, took only six years. Donna Tartt worked on The Goldfinch for ten years. While I did enjoy it, I’m tempted to say it’s not in the same league as the Bibliothèque, Pulitzer Prize and all. If I was being purely rational about it, I’d also say that being an architect is a more efficient use of my time than trying to write fiction. But hang on. Creativity isn’t a rational enterprise.
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” ~ Thomas Mann
Donna Tartt said that writing a novel is like painting a mural with a brush the size of an eyelash. I can attest to that. By that measure, her book is no less an accomplishment than a good, even a great, building. She did what it took to put something that didn’t exist into the world for our enjoyment. What generosity!
“I don’t like writing. I like having written.” ~ Dorothy Parker
Mostly, I do like writing. I even enjoy revising, which is a good thing, since that’s the far greater part of the effort. Publishing is mostly unknown to me so far, other than the honor of some essays in the Dark Mountain Journal and one story in Immanence. I imagine publishing as the construction phase of a building. Practical people with deep technical knowledge step in and take over. They know the market, the budget, the specs, all the steps required to make it to Opening Day.
Thanks for reading. If you like what you see here, please keep in touch.
My decision to write a novel is the equivalent of a DIY amateur deciding to design and build a high-rise building. Seemed like a good idea at the time! It is beyond humbling to think of what I’ve gotten myself into. The Muse tricked me, and now I am in too deep to stop. In the debrief after I passed my Fiction MFA, my mentor suggested writing short stories for a while. I needed to rediscover my love of writing, which, thankfully, I have.
"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand." ~ George Orwell
I thought I could somehow bypass the dues-paying phase of writing—Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours. Certainly, my experience with the creative process in general has served me well. I know what it’s like to start from scratch with an idea, with only the barest intuition teasing me along. I must trust and follow to see where it leads. I must show up, every day, knowing that Resistance is waiting at every turn to snare me.2 On days when it all feels like crap, I write anyway. And I enjoy the golden days when the work flows effortlessly, appreciating them for the rarities they are. No matter what the result, when I rise from the writing desk, I feel amazing.
Architecture is nothing if not collaborative. You cannot build anything without a diverse team of people with various skillsets and personalities.3 After years of solo toil at writing, I finally understand that writing is a different kind of collaboration. Heidi Durrow’s Bellwether Prize winning novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, was over twelve years in the making. The acknowledgements in the back list dozens of people—teachers, mentors, friends, fellow writers—and many residencies and grants that nurtured the author as she developed her story.
I love how similar story craft is to architecture. There is at least as long a history, so all that precedent to ingest. There are principles, structure, metaphors, nesting hierarchies, parts that stand on their own and also add up to a whole. Rules that must be known and understood before breaking them, ideally never out of ignorance. Expectations of genre conventions are the equivalent of typologies in architecture. Back in the day, no self-respecting architect would use a library typology to design a hospital. Now we have people like Frank Gehry and Bjork Engels. Whatever they’re up to is not informed by precedent.
"The act of writing is an act of optimism. You would not take the trouble to do it if you felt it didn't matter." ~ Edward Albee
As with any great building, you can enter a well-told story and be swept away by it. You can travel in your imagination to worlds beyond worlds. You can close a book a changed person. Writing itself does that to me. It allows me to discover what I know and think. And to imagine scenarios and personalities I ordinarily wouldn’t spend time with, but that are all inside of me nonetheless. It is endlessly fascinating.
Writing is also far more personal and revealing than designing a building. In architecture, the client’s wishes and needs drive the agenda, so it’s possible to disappear into the background. A great architect like Henri Labrouste brings his whole being to it, but firstly it is in response to the client’s patronage.
I could say that the Muse is my client. Or, as one of the characters in my novel says, “Even bosses have bosses.”
What creative ventures have you been circling lately?
My About page here on Substack is About to undergo yet another revision.
A reference to Steven Pressfield’s marvelous The War of Art.
I’ve been known to joke around in meetings and have yet to crack the sense of humor of civil engineers. They just give you an awkward stare and resume talking about impervious surfaces and stormwater structures.