There are some things that I find it impossible to do if I think about the fact that I’m doing them.
Usually they’re things that involve some kind of muscle memory. When I was skiing all the time there were days where I felt transformed, like I was flying and I was completely present and in the moment, in that zone – unless I started to think about what I was physically doing.
Getting to the point where skiing was fun meant that I had to endure a few seasons where I was awkward, frequently frustrated and often terrified. I had to get past that learning curve so I could finally enjoy the sensation of that controlled fall through space.
Writing feels that way: reason #8,752 for writing often, even when the writing sucks.
A couple of things that flitted into my consciousness over the last couple of days scared me a little. I read some blog posts that focused on specific craft ideas. It wasn’t new information. It was the kind stuff I’ve read about many times and yet when I thought about how or if I was using these techniques, I came up blank.
I don’t know.
The reason I was scared was because I realized that the snippets of work I might feel bold enough to think have the potential to be good are the snippets that come to me when I’m in the zone. As soon as I become conscious of using words to a certain effect, it becomes obvious and the work feels contrived.When I revise, I become more aware of sharpening certain images or ideas to reinforce what I’m trying to convey. I know that when others critique my work, they sometimes point out the effectiveness (or not) of something I’ve done and I’ll realize they’re right even though I didn’t consciously include that word or that image or that description. Oh yeah, I meant to do that.
I have a theory that the reason that Scott’s new abstract work feels so powerful is because a good abstract painting requires that the painter have a mastery of all the skills needed to do a traditional, representational painting, only he has to intuit his way through the abstract. He knows if the color harmonies are correct and if the composition is balanced because he has an innate understanding of those concepts.
If we have an underlying appreciation of the visual arts, we know the painting works when we look at it, but we don’t know why.
Books on writing craft don’t talk much about the importance of years of experience in writing, but perhaps there’s a reason for that. We want things that give us results now and there’s no shortcut to practice and experience. Perhaps it would help us to set more realistic expectations and motivate us to write more and work harder to get good at what we do if we thought of writing as a long apprenticeship. Actually, that's helpful to me, but I know it's not the path for everyone.
There are plenty of people who can write well enough to get a book published, and if that’s the writer’s goal, there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’m talking about writing well. I’m talking about my vain wish to have a reader touched by my words or to have a reader thinking about my characters even when he’s not reading the book. I’m talking about a reader losing himself in the work and entering John Gardner’s fictive dream. I keep remembering a scene from the movie, Amadeus and a monologue that the Salieri character delivers:
“While my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of: Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen.”
My aspirations aren’t quite so grand, but I can confess to a fantasy where someone, somewhere writes a review of something I’ve written and confers some kind of literary approval on it.
When I attended Carleen Brice’s book launch party for her debut novel, Orange Mint and Honey she talked about writing the book over a period of six years and she talked about completely rewriting it multiple times. I was truly comforted to learn this. I had a secret fear that good books might come pouring out of other writers at a speed and a rate that I know myself quite incapable of.
While blogging has far more advantages than disadvantages in the form of creating community, the public nature of our efforts creates a small disadvantage.
When will you finish it? When will it be published? I sense from well meaning friends a certain impatience and maybe even disappointment that I don’t move more quickly. I think about The Foundling Wheel, my Dickens Challenge work in progress and I know that my goal is to finish it. For now, that’s my only goal. I don’t know if I’ll want to rewrite and revise and edit it once I come to the end. I don’t know if that’s its purpose. I know the project is teaching me a lot about writing, but I don’t know if it’s my first book.When I say that my eventual goal is to publish a novel, I mean it. Eventually. I don't know when. I don’t know which novel that might be. I don’t know if it’s the one I’m working on, one of the two I’ve set aside or one I don’t know about yet. I just know I’ll know it when it comes to me. Maybe I’m too idealistic. Maybe this means I’m not a real writer, whatever that is.
Sometimes the lack of validation feeds the self-doubt that I and all of us have from time to time – but I also suspect that self-doubt never goes away no matter how much external validation we get about our writing. The blogging community gives me enormous validation about my emotions and about the process. For that reason, I keep coming back. I think that eventually, the only true validation about the worth of our own writing has to come from ourselves.
I once read an interview with Frank Conroy about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The interviewer asked him if he could tell which of the writers would go on to be published and which would be successful. He said he couldn’t. Talent and potential have very little bearing on whether or not a writer can go on to finish and publish a successful book.
As time goes on, I am learning to trust myself. I feel a huge learning curve still ahead of me and I’m at peace with that. It’s my path and no one else’s. It doesn’t frustrate me. I’m in no hurry. I’ll write what I’m meant to write and learn as I’m meant to learn.
Does my lack of a sense of urgency reflect a lack of drive or of passion? I don’t think so. In the seventies, Paul Masson’s famous advertisement coined the phrase, “We’ll sell no wine before its time”.
I feel that way about my writing. It’s not time. I’ve often heard writers talk about how much bad fiction is published and how often they’ve read books and known they could write better. All true, but that’s not what drives me. I confess, I want to write something good and only time and more and still more writing will tell me if I can.
But that’s just me. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe my expectations are too high.
For those of you both published and unpublished, how important is it to you that your work be perceived as good? Is it enough to provide your readers with escape and entertainment? Can you recognize your own shortcomings due to inexperience, or trace a path from inexperience to a gradual or sudden improvement?
Why are you writing that book?