Art, and how to fail at it

Before I ever started writing seriously, I read that Kafka gave instructions to his friend Max Brod that when he, Kafka, died, Brod was to burn all his work.  The Russian writer Nikolai Gogol actually did manage to creep out of his death-bed long enough to throw substantial sections of his novel Dead Souls in the fire.

At the time, I thought that to be an appalling vanity.  Your work may be your work and you may not be as happy with it as you’d like, but art belongs to the audience, not the artist.  If they won’t incinerate it — and usually they will, laughingly — you certainly cannot.  You aren’t allowed to be your own Savonarola.

But now that I’m working on my own novel, I find the option of immolation startlingly tempting.  If I had a huge fireplace and a romantically roaring fire, I might very well have already given in to the melodramatic appeal of watching foolscap turn to ash.  Fortunately — or perhaps not — the delete button on the Dropbox interface is too drab for such a grand gesture.

Here, near the halfway point of my first book, I am going through repetitions of a cycle I suppose is common among writers.  For a (sadly brief) phase, I’ll judge the manuscript “pretty good“.  When I re-read it (my almost constant pre-occupation), I find many parts I love, and I can certainly throw everything else in the “needs work” pile.

“Need work” is a very encouraging category, especially when you have other parts you admire.  It needs work, and it will get it.  At some point, I’ll work on those passages some more, and they will polish up to the fine gloss of the rest of the book.  Enough of the needed work, and the whole thing will be ready for its début as the next Great American Novel.

Reality, or something dismal enough to pass for reality, sets in soon enough.  One of two things happens.  The first possibility, someone I’ve shown a draft to makes a negative remark.  Of course, I’ve begged for negative criticism; of what use to me is praise?  I need to fix things, so I need to know what’s wrong.  Still, someone makes the slightest criticism, gives me what I’ve asked for over and over, and I feel like deleting everything I’ve written.

Lucky for me, it’s easy enough to rationalize away criticism from my peers.  They’re envious of my work; they don’t understand what I’m trying to do; if they’re such great writers, why aren’t they writing anything, huh?  That more-or-less conscious self-deception gets me back to a level where I can honestly process the criticism.  One person calls the novel “misogynistic”.  Valid criticism?  I go through the characters and decide, no, everybody is pretty bad and no one, male or female, is terrible.  Another person says the dialog is weak.  Valid criticism?  I go through the scenes and decide, yes, in several spots, the characters’ conversation is clunky or restricted to advancing the plot (instead of advancing the theme or the characterization); so much so, I even have characters deciding to not discuss their own motivations with other characters!  Fine, throw it on the “needs work” pile.  I’ll get to it, I’ll fix it.

There’s a more dangerous way I get myself into that downhearted phase: reading.  I read the work of other, better writers — lately it’s been Graham Greene, George Orwell, Victor Hugo — and think, wow, they are obviously much, much better than me.  And they are, really.  Read Orwell’s first paragraph from Shooting an Elephant:

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress.

And then compare it to my own exertions, literally in the same area.  I just don’t understand it.  It isn’t like watching a gymnast or a contortionist.  That guy has muscles and balance and reflexes that he was born with that I never had, and he’s practiced 8 hours a day since he was a toddler to perfect them.  Of course he’s better than I am.

But Orwell doesn’t have any natural advantages over me.  He has the same language, the same vocabulary, the same 26 letters, the same punctuation that I use.  I have electronic editors and email and Wikipedia and an ergonomic keyboard and a dozen other gizmos to ease the busy-work, so I can focus on the real work of writing.  Orwell didn’t have any of that.  He had to find spelling errors on his own, and then laboriously retype whole chapters.  If he forgot the name of a village in Catalonia, he’d have to take a bus across town to the British Museum and consult their library.  He went to a better high school than I did, but goddamit, I went to college!  Where I studied writing!

How did he do it? How did he do magic tricks with words while making it look like he was clearing the dirty dishes?

Someone once made the mistake of claiming, within earshot of the essayist Charles Lamb, “I could write like Shakespeare, if I had a mind to.”  The savage Lamb replied, “Yes, all that’s missing is the mind.”  I could type exactly what Orwell typed, “In Moulmein, in lower Burma…”, and now that he typed it, I can appreciate just how brilliant, how pellucid the writing is, how simple, and it enrages me I cannot do it myself.  What is missing, what is wrong with my mind?  Why can’t I do this?

Obviously, I know I am being ludicrously hard on myself here.  These are some of the best writers, ever. I read and enjoy C.S.Forester, for example, even though he isn’t in a class with Orwell and Greene.  But I’m not even as good as Forester.  I’m not even to Forester as he is to Greene!  I’m being hard on myself but even when I scale it back to being fair, the truth is, I’m not nearly as good as I need to be.

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