Friday, April 27, 2018

Literature Isn't an Innocent Flower

I once said to a friend of mine, musing on where my work fell short, “I want to write an iconic setting; something you’d recognize out of context. Like you can see a scarf from Harry Potter and know exactly what it is without a label in sight.”

“But she didn’t set out to do that…” my friend said.

I felt my blood pressure spike. The conversation that had started as an intellectual catharsis had turned sour, and I couldn't pick my finger on why. “It doesn’t matter what she set out to do. It’s a limitation I have and that I don’t want. It’s there. I can’t just ignore it and think I’ll improve magically.”

My friend was right in a way; try too hard to do something and it will come off as… trying too hard. Plus, like many things, sometimes doing something successfully is more about chilling out and not thinking too much about it, tapping into what’s natural.

However, many people are far too dependent on the idea that authors are just naturally gifted and capable. They think that any conscious attempts to improve your skills are some form of ingenuine trickery. It’s fine enough for readers to believe this—in fact, don’t think of the work as fiction at all, if you would—but for new writers, this mindset creates a huge obstacle and causes most demoralization. People who think they’re supposed to be inherently good storytellers slow down their growth and take negative feedback more to heart than they necessarily should. Too many times I’ve heard people respond to rejection with, “I don’t know why I thought I deserved to do this!”

To be clear, how effective logical analysis is depends on the individual and context. For some, having an idea of any sort of formula or strategy is going to inhibit their ability to provide a genuine and natural experience, while for others it clears out the clutter of their overworking mind and helps them focus in on exactly what they’re missing. Most people need a good balance of both conscientious study as well as winging it.

But the point is, if you aren’t very good at a part of writing (or all of it even), at the very least don’t just write yourself off. It’s not ‘YOU’ or permanent. People’s abilities grow and change all of the time. Humans have an immense ability to learn. It’s rare to be immediately good at something, and with all the different skill sets that go into telling a good story, you’re probably going to have some blind spots and weaknesses.

Writing is more complicated and not as pure as we’d like to think. Showmanship and professionalism is key, especially when it comes to works of “genius.” Ironically, those who want so badly to believe that there are extraordinary people separate from ordinary people are fast drawn in by seamless showmanship. Readers who see the authors as gods put more pressure on the writers to conceal the fact they bleed, investing in those who are best at faking it.

I see a lot of writers acting like literature is this pure thing. “I only write for the love of fiction!” they claim. “I write for myself!” “If the book is good then typos shouldn’t matter!”

Yet it’s not as innocent as you think. Successful works don’t come from this immaculate conception in which God inspired the writer’s genius and people immediately recognized its greatness. No piece of fiction is free of reputation, and no good reputation is created without denying our biological compulsions.

‘Beauty’ isn’t always shallow, and a little bit of play and flamboyance is often what makes reading better than a perfunctory summary. In a lot of cases, those artsy, underground poets have a lot of flash with varying degrees of actual substance. Considering the needs of your readers is a big part of holding your work to higher standards, and being honest about what is lacking will help you fix it. Thinking critically about how to enhance your skills has nothing to do with admitting you’re a fraud.

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