The Muse is my client: thoughts on writing and architecture


“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.” ~ Shawn Coyne

It takes 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 a university classroom building maybe two-and-a-half. 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.

What is the use of writing a book? 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 useful 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.

Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris was twelve years in the making, from design through construction. And Labrouste was there, every step of the way. I studied that building intensely and was amazed by this fact. (The sketches above are from that analysis, done as a grad student.) I thought, there’s no way I would have the patience and dedication for that. Twelve years is a long time.

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, only took six years. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, was ten years in the making. While I did enjoy it, I wouldn’t say it’s in the same league as the Bibliothèque, Pulitzer Prize and all. I’m guessing that Ms. Tartt might agree. It’s just a book, after all. And yet.

Donna Tartt has said that writing a novel is like painting a mural with a brush the size of an eyelash. Having been at it for five-plus years now, 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. And 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 a couple of essays in journals. I imagine publishing is like 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.

I often ask myself why I seem to have chosen writing over architecture. My profession has its charms and its dysfunction. On the surface, I have given up a high-status profession for a lower-status one. Status is relative, of course. Maybe it’s a function of the number of amateurs and wannabes hanging around the edges. Architecture does have its share of “design” programs for the computer, DIY websites, forums on, HGTV, Home Depot. As a trained, experienced architect, I tend to see all this as silly. Sure, go ahead and renovate your basement into a TV room, but untrained people cannot design a work of architecture.

There are principles, for starters, going back thousands of years. There is precedent—a whole cannon of works, monumental and ordinary, that one must know intimately as a sort of vocabulary. Rules must be studied, if one is to innovate or break them with intention, rather than in ignorance.

And here is the irony, right? 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.

“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. 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 follow it, to see where it leads. I must show up, every day, knowing that Resistance is waiting at every turn to snare me. On days when it all feels like crap, I keep at it anyway. And I enjoy the golden days when the work flows effortlessly, appreciating them for the rarities they are.

You simply cannot build anything without a team of all sorts of different kinds of people. Architecture is nothing if not collaborative. I’m finally beginning to understand that, in its way, so is writing. 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.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been studying the craft of Story intensely. Robert McKee’s Story Seminar showed me 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, nesting hierarchies, parts that add up to a whole. Rules that must be known and understood before breaking them, and never out of ignorance. Expectations of genre conventions are the equivalent of typologies in architecture. You wouldn’t use a library typology to design a hospital. Well, maybe you would, if you were Frank Gehry.

Yes, a book is just a book. You can’t walk into it as into a great library to look up in awe. Your enjoyment of a place like the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève is not contingent on knowing the first thing about the theory, thought, and craft that went into its making. But the experience is greatly enhanced by such knowledge.

“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

On the other hand—and this is the attraction for me—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. There, 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 still it is in response, firstly, to the client.

I could say that the Muse is my client. Or, as one of the characters in my novel says, “Even bosses have bosses.”

3 thoughts on “The Muse is my client: thoughts on writing and architecture

  1. “I could say that the Muse is my client” exactly so and bravo for today’s post Julie. and of what use will it be if one is not driven on by some demon (and Damon) whom one can neither resist nor understand. and, we discover with the greatest relief, it is a force, an entity, we cannot control.

    • John, how wonderful to hear from you. So glad this touched you. Though I’m not surprised – you, who live at the whim of the Muse! There is no better boss, truly.

  2. Pingback: A year of new stories, part 2 | Thriving on the Threshold

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