Monday, April 29, 2013

The Writers' Wars

A form of civil war wages within most writers, those who've gone head-to-head with doubts and frustrations, and one too many sessions where nothing keepable came forth.


An emerging writer has revised and polished a new story to a fare-the-well, hands it over to a literary agent or editor with an attitude resembling a chef who has set a specialty dish down before a customer.  The emerging writer is daring the agent or editor to find something she has missed.  The emerging writer believes she's captured the material at its most resonant state, caught the moments and moods and intensity of the story, set the implications, innuendo, and subtext well in place.


The advanced writer has revised and polished a new story to a point where it has begun to reflect surfaces and textures she'd not seen at the outset of the project.  Pleased with her work, she turns it in to her agent or editor.  "Here,"  she says.  "Here it is."  The agent or editor reads the material with care, then says, "Wonderful.  A nice piece of work."

"That's it?"  the writer says.  "That's all you've got to say?  You have no notes, no heads-ups at flaws?"

The advanced writer is satisfied with the work, but has come to suspect a few undiscovered glitches, a few things unaccounted for, some occasion of unintended mischief or even self-parody.

In many ways, the advanced writer has recognized an entire dimension beyond the emerging writer's vision, recognizing how supportive suggestions add to the strength of the narrative voice and the story itself.

True enough, the emerging writer has demonstrated a keen competence, one developed through hard work.  But the advanced writer has seen the full extent of the process at work, knows how important support and trust become as the process continues to build, evolve, strengthen.

The difference is profound.

This is not to say the advanced writer will always remain advanced and suspicious of compliments.  You know of one writer with enormous popularity whose dialogue has begun to sound clunky, whose prose has begun to exhibit the squeaks and groans of the beginning and emerging writers, whose audience has begun to look the other way, instead marveling at the intricacies of his plots.

Yesterday, at the birthday of a publishing pal you've known for more than forty years, he said things of your editing abilities that were the equivalent of "A nice piece of work," and you were immediate in your suspicion.  This was reflex, not modesty.

Today, your primary care doctor, for the second time in a month, pronounced you fit and ready to go.  You paused for a moment at the news and you were reassured when he seemed to read your concern.  You were there to get his equivalent of a go-ahead for the second time in a month, as requested by the opthamologist who, this Thursday, will replace the lens in your right eye, as he'd done with your left on the 21st of March.  "You're good to go for the surgery,"  he said.  "Knowing you, I'm sure you'll make your six o'clock class that day.  But do treat yourself to a nap before hand."

You could live with that.

You can also relate to the youthful, emerging writer you were in your twenties, the suspicion growing when there was too much praise, the irritation rising in an almost reflexive surge at a suggestion that a word, a gesture, a sentence were not clear.  Not clear.  What do you mean, not clear?  But even then, suspicion overrode the irritation.  "Show me.  Where?  Where was it unclear?"

And check your comments of irritation in these blog pages regarding some suggestions your sentences are too long.

The civil war still wages within, but you've long passed the time and places where shots were fired.  Writers' wars are every bit as gory and horrendous in their way as the likes of Korea and Viet Nam and Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Your strategy for some time has been the one of negotiation, to the extent that your definition of what a story is now includes the phrase, "a negotiated settlement."

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