Friday, December 31, 2010

Notes from the underground

Sometimes you find yourself fretting about the fact of not obsessing enough about your work.  This worry comes into particular play when an editor has been through your latest effort, thought well enough of it to offer publication, then presented you with some document of suggested improvements, eighty or ninety percent of which do in fact add clarity and nuance.

These flurries of concern on your part do not have the baggage of perfection stashed in the overhead luggage compartment.  Perfection, in such cases, is of a piece with your concerns that you do not obsess enough about your work, both perfection and enough being abstractions, arguable degrees of arguable qualities.

Nor is it a matter of applying the sophistry that were you to be more obsessive, your work would as a result move on up the food chain to more prestigious publishing venue, or even the more egregious sophistry that you must learn to accept the limits of your vision.  The matter is about the respect you need to even carry the craft to the water much less to paddle it and navigate with it once it is afloat.

The matter goes on to be about the state of caring in general, which is enough to keep you up some nights with the kinds of worry that are not occasioned by phone calls from collection agencies or the news that one or other of your proposals has been less than successful with its intended audience.

To begin, the manuscript:  You are a notoriously idiosyncratic speller, using any occasion to launch into a Lewis and Clark expedition of spelling variation on a conventional word.  Although you quite enjoyed diagramming sentences on the blackboards of various middle and high school classrooms, your sense of parts of speech and other grammatical adornments is the equivalent of having to count numbers on your fingers in maths problems, your awareness of such arcana that, for instance, the word so can be used as an adverb may account for the larger body of your knowledge of syntax, grammar, and the awareness of what a solecism is.

The manuscript is the writer's calling card; even in these days of electronic submission, the manuscript tells the editor your level of plateau in the writing society just as one's voice is often a cultural give-away, or one's school tie an index of claimed status.  As an editor, you can often "tell" on the first page if a particular manuscript has "it."  As a writer, you wish your manuscript submissions to carry the subtext to the reader, Be alert, you are reading the work of a professional.

Then there is the all-important introductory sentence, called the lede by newspaper folk.  Is it of "Call me Ishmael" intrigue?  Does it coax the reader along to the point where the reader is no longer aware of reading sentences but is rather transported to the venue of which you have written?  Does it eschew stage direction and backstory and authorial self-consciousness, moving instead with bold step into drama, where the reader is aware only of characters at accelerated risk rather than a writer of burgeoning self-importance?  Do you write to tell a story or impress yourself?  (The second response can be and has been fatal to the writer's intent.)

Is there some inherent need pushing at you to tell this particular story?  Will not telling it cause you some form of psychical harm (such as guilt, remorse, a growing sense of refusal to take on the problems a creative person must confront)?  Are you reinforcing your fear of taking risk?

Have you let fear of failure inhibit the audacity you have nourished in order to hone a writer's craft?

Have you, for fear of being misunderstood, left out the audacity in this story?

Have you moved beyond the point of fearing you will be misunderstood (for however pellucid and engaging your prose and the concepts it enlivens, individuals--some good, some despicable--will misunderstand you.  And there is nothing you can do about it except to understand yourself with the same pellucid and engaging awareness a writer needs to a higher degree than the need to identify predicates nominative or relative pronouns or indefinite antecedents.


Sarah said...

I will keep these questions in front of me as I go.

Storm Dweller said...

Perspective. When you stand too close to a painting, you miss the big picture, when you stand to far away the picture blends together and blurs. We tend to lack perspective on a piece when we are the ones who created it. But then, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.