Book Review – Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces (By: David Biespiel)

Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces is another one of those short essay-style books based on a lecture given by the author, David Biespiel, (a name I shall never spell right the first time) in 2009. The book, published in 2010, outlines and reiterates for various forms Biespiel’s personal process of creating things that require creativity (in his case poetry). In short it is “fail” again and again (ostensibly to learn) and put off doing a “first draft” until you fail into one where you can revise. And he does a much better job (albeit in many more words) explaining that in his book than I just did. But is his method clear and really “different” or just a case of semantics and psychology?

The structure of the book is a rising set of anecdotes of Biespiel’s early(er) writing career that lead to the creation of his current writing “system” and a set of falling anecdotes about other creative people Biespiel has met who share similar creative “procedures”, sandwiched with an introduction/thesis, solidification of the theory, and a conclusion. All of this done in a rather brief amount of text but with ample explanation of the various parts of this “theory” of creating that is one of those things that is simple to understand but difficult to put into words.

Before getting quite into the explanation of the “theory” for creating presented in the book, I must reveal my bias. I’m not a poetry person. I don’t like it; I don’t get it. Biespiel is a poet, and while he does take time to showcase (with other creative persons) his system’s ability to be adapted to other creative mediums, he never quite captures it. Just like I never quite “get” the poems presented during examples of his method. I have tired many times in various ways to “get” poetry and I am just unable to. But I will try my best to examine the system in the book in the way it was intended to be used: for all creative endeavors, and not let my bias against the main examples given affect my overall reading too much, as Biespiel does when he demonstrates the similarities of his system and those used by a sculptor, a sketcher, and a novelist.

Biespiel’s method, created after years of using the more “standard” “draft-and-revise” method, is one of continuous “failure” where a creator has goals less along the lines of “create something that is good or that can at least can be fixed to be good” and more like “continue creating and exploring until something is arrived at that satisfies you (and then maybe can be fixed into something publishable)”. How this actually differs from our more standard terms of “practice” and “imagination” is more psychological than actual. Biespiel’s real goal seems more to be semantically twisting the definition of failure in such a way that it can be justified to the brain. Failure is no longer something to dread or fix-away as you move from a first draft, but a tool of learning and examining that allows one to grow in their endeavor (again: practice). I don’t know if it’s because Biespiel is mainly a writer, a form of creativity often linked to revision instead of simply throwing the “practice” out, or just that the linking of terms never occurred to him before (as I suppose it doesn’t in most people), but I can’t help but think when reading “isn’t that just what everyone does?” I mean, it’s ridiculous to expect and an artist with ink to create something store-worthy every time they lay it down. So they practice, and create tens to hundreds (maybe even thousands) of drawings that will never see the light of day in order to get good enough to create something “releasable” (or sell-able). In Biespiel’s language “they fail many times to learn more about themselves and their medium”.

As I read I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I wasn’t on board with the book. My recurring thought was essentially “doesn’t everyone already do this? At least, those serious about their creative endeavor?” I draw and write every day, and most of it doesn’t see the light of the outside world, but I need the “exercise”. It’s almost like the book is “art-ifying” the creation of art. That is, creating a layer of “complication” on top that must be “understood” in order to “get” it. You need to trick your brain in order to understand it. In reality Biespiel isn’t nearly so pretentious (in this book; I haven’t read his other work) but always seems to be teetering on the cusp, waiting to take the plunge into the vocabulary and processes that expel the outsider. I grasped what he was trying to say but it never felt solid, it almost seemed like he was making it too simple for me (someone one the outside).

That’s a bit of a trait with many books outlining a process or some from of “self-help” (as well as not getting to a real “point”) and I tried not to harp on it too much (fat lot of good that did me). But once I made the connection in my head it became impossible to ignore and consumed my thoughts about the book. The system presented is different than simply practice, but not enough that I feel it warrants the vocabulary change.

Still, with that taken into account, does the book succeed in doing what it set out to do? provide a system for the creation of works of “art” that can be applied to many different mediums and has been successful for the author (and hopefully you)? Yes, quite well, and it gets better toward the end. It is an understandable and viable method of creating that has been implemented by its creator and can be implemented fairly easily by others. The explanation of using the system and variations on it are enlightening and probably do more to actually explain what the author means better than his straight explanations. From Biespiel’s “word-pallets” to Jun Kaneko’s dangos, or Phil Sylvester’s many sketches (from which the book derives its name) you get a good sense of what is going on and how the different ideas presented can be applied differently to different media. It’s all conveyed rather smartly with some repetition to drill it into your head (which I don’t care for but I admit is necessary in many process books).

So would I recommend it? Yes, to creative people. But it isn’t essential reading. I’m personally a bit ho-hum about it. I’m glad I read it for its interesting perspective and it was quite brief. But I don’t think it adds enough to or solidifies the argument well enough to be of too much note. It isn’t a book for everyone, in fact it’s quite targeted and even to that target audience I won’t go around handing out copies. If you’re already interested in it or are a fan of the author’s other works I’d say go for it, otherwise I’d only get it second-hand.

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