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Sunday, April 22, 2007


When your efforts don't please you

Here's an extract from Old School by Tobias Wolff, describing early attempts at poetry:

I'd written fragment beneath most of the poems in the notebooks, and this description was in every case accurate. Each of them had been composed in some fever of ardor or philosophy that deserted me before I could bring it to the point of significance. The few poems that I had finished seemed, in the hard circle of light thrown by the gooseneck lamp, even more disappointing. The beauty of a fragment is that it supports the hope of brilliant completeness. I thought of stitching several of them together into a sequence, a la 'The Waste Land', but that they would thereby become meaningful seemed too much to hope for.

This sense of frustration and discontent is familiar to many if not most of us, and it would be easy to read the description as the struggles of someone inadequate (if you can overlook the crisp, vivid excellence of the writing style, that is). But that sense of inadequacy and struggle is not actually a sign of incompetence.

I've quoted George Eliot's Silly Novels by Lady Novelists before, but there's a phrase in it that's relevant to this question:

In [silly novels] you see that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard; that fertility in imbecile combination or feeble imitation which a little self-criticism would check and reduce to barrenness; just as with a total want of musical ear people will sing out of tune, while a degree more melodic sensibility would suffice to render them silent.

It's the high standard that's the issue. The young hero describes himself as producing substandard work, but that's because he has standards. He can tell the difference between good and bad. He's uncomfortably aware that his efforts so far have been on the wrong side of that divide - but that's a good sign. Read enough slush piles and you'll know that many people simply can't tell the difference between good and bad writing, don't know that there is a difference. Naturally, their work is bad: while it's not the whole picture, an essential part of ability is the being able to identify quality. Being able to identify it and being able to produce it are not the same thing, of course; many a fine critic can't write good verse - but a fine poet will also be a sound critic, if possibly an eccentric one. If you can't spot bad writing, you can't expunge it from your own work; on the other hand, discrimination shows the hero in this passage refraining from inflicting a garbled mishmash on his friends and teachers, because he knows it wouldn't be any good.

Discrimination, in short, prevents him from wasting time producing something bad - which leaves him free to carry on trying to write something good. The next sentence in the passage is 'I would have to write something new': seeing that his efforts haven't pleased him, he tries again. Sticking to bad work in the hopes you'll somehow get away with it is a pernicious habit: not only does it waste time, but it also wastes commitment. The subconscious is a rather simplistic thinker when it comes to composition: turn in a lazy work, and it's liable to conclude that you've finished the project and go back to sleep. Only by discarding stuff you know isn't going to work, by struggling to improve stuff that isn't right yet, will you keep it alert and productive.

They say that there are four stages of competence: unconsicous incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. Conscious incompetence is a stage along the way. It's no guarantee of future genius, of course, but if a beginner is struggling with a sense that what they write doesn't seem to work - or if that beginner is yourself - don't judge it too harshly. Someone who isn't happy with their efforts is almost certainly more talented that someone who's utterly content with every line they dash off. We can all take heart from this: as long as you don't cleave to it, bad work isn't the end of the world.

Bad work isn't the end of the world, but constant re-working can be a form of cowardice. I don't believe any artist is ever entirely happy with anything they produce, but there comes a point where you have to present it to the world and face the inevitable rejection or indifference, I don't think an artist is always the the best judge of his/her work. It's good to get it out there and get the feedback. It gives you a sense of humility. You can use that harsh interaction with an audience to shape a work, rather than sitting in a dark room, obsessively re-working something into some idea of perfection.
The character in Old School is young. He's just potential. He can become anything. He could be the next Hemmingway. But that can be a curse. It can stop you accepting yourself, being happy with your limitations. I remember very clearly the moment when I realized I might always produce rubbish work. I might never, even if I work for the rest of my life, have a breakthrough. That moment was good because I realized I still wanted to make stuff. I wasn't about being "great" or "masterpieces". It was a bit like accepting myself. I think my work's got better since then. It's rubbish but I love it. And, even better, a couple of other people like it too.
Fair enough. I don't think I said anything in favour of constant reworking, though; I'm in favour of realising when something is never going to work and stopping fiddling with it so you can move on to something else.
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