The Order of Things


Apparently, Maurice Sendak couldn’t draw horses. That, at least, according to the beloved artist and children’s book author himself. He was trying to write a book he wanted to call Where the Wild Horses Are, but he couldn’t get the horses right. It was very frustrating, for him. So frustrating, he eventually gave up trying to draw them and instead wrote a book called Where the Wild Things Are.

I learned about this in a short documentary about the evolution of the book for which he is most well-known. Sendak had saved his aborted horse illustrations and grudgingly shared them with the filmmaker. They were beautiful. They were also strangely realistic. Unlike his drawings for Little Bear, and Wild Things, and In the Night Kitchen, the horses looked like they could have been drawn by any highly skilled illustrator.

I thought of Sendak’s horses when I reread the first hundred pages of the last novel I tried to write. The first draft of that fantasy epic wound on for 700 pages through kingdoms and caves and magic castles. And it was good, in a first draft kind of way. The narrator had a lively and interesting voice, the story moved at a brisk pace, and there were genuine relationships between the characters.

But right about page 700 those characters kept asking each other, “Why are we are on this journey again?” None of them knew, and neither did I. What was missing in this book wasn’t skill – I had plenty of that. I’d been writing in earnest since I was a teenager, learning in my own way with every sentence how to tell a story on the page. Instead, what was missing was my interest, my deep, unique, inherent interest – and not, it turns out, in that story, but in novels themselves.

Do not mistake a lack of interest for a lack of capability. Sometimes when I’m struggling with a project, when I can’t bring it together, can’t find its heart, I begin thinking, “I can’t do it.” Sometimes I’m right. No amount of skill can surmount my disinterest. My craft is meant to be in service to that greater creative power, a vision in need of a voice. To misunderstand the order of things, to believe craft alone can tell a story, is to forget how unique you are. After all, thousands and thousands of people know how to tell stories. Only you know how to tell yours.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.