on caring too deeply

In response to Jenna St. Hilaire, On Writing Crap.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about crappy writing:

Crapfully Yours,

That turned out pretty good! I should maybe make some crappy Xeroxes of that thing and sell it over at Bubs’s. Or at least some snooty independent record store.

Not really. But a Strong Bad quote was inevitable at some point in this discussion, so I figured we might as well start now.

It’s  more interesting to read Jenna St. Hilaire’s eloquent defence of writing crap. She raises the intriguing point that we, who by and large share a similar writing philosophy, should have such very different reactions to the phenomenon of NaNoWriMo, the headlong race against the month to complete a 50k word novel before November ends. Jenna runs straight at NaNoWriMo every year. She’s drafted at least one novel-length manuscript that way. I think about it, and run the other way, shrieking, ‘Wolf!’

I haven’t completed a novel manuscript.

So where does that leave me? Out in the cold with the less-intrepid, the cautious, and the idle dreamers who will never get published, poor things? I’m certain Jenna doesn’t think so—we share a sincere professional and personal respect, while acknowledging the weird differences in our working styles.

But frankly, some of the NaNoWriMo rhetoric makes me feel that way. As when the official website declares that one of the joys of the month is ‘to write without having to obsess over quality’ and ‘to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work.’ Is that for a bit of a laugh? Probably, and I do chuckle. But I wince.

Tell me that joke about the Priest and the Rabbi, and I’ll wince too. Sometimes there are truths about us in our humour—truths we’d rather ignore.

As a literary critic and a creative writer, I think about literary quality incessantly. I can’t help it; it’s how my mind and imagination is wired. As a husband and father with a full time career and other responsibilities, my writing time is between 0530-0730 most mornings, give or take on either side. It would seem NaNoWriMo would be made for someone like me—but that’s forgetting the first sentence of the paragraph.

Hello, world. I think about the quality and melody of prose at 6 o’clock in the morning. I just can’t stop. To be frank, I don’t want to. That would be like turning off the Me switch.

Jenna movingly says in her article:

Attempting to write fast freed me from caring too deeply about every sentence to progress. It gave me permission to mess up and just keep going, to not care that Chapter 5 wasn’t polished before I went on to Chapter 6, to allow some plot points to remain ambiguous or to fall out of use entirely. More, it gave me a need to finish that was stronger than my need to overthink everything. I can’t express how much I needed that. Maybe I really only needed to do it once, to open my mind to the process necessary for creating a complete first draft. I hadn’t written one since I was nineteen.

I read that and wonder, do I need that kind of freedom? Is my manuscript imprisoned in misplaced perfectionism? Am I, as NaNoWriMo suggests, writing too slowly, caring ‘too deeply,’ and do I just need to have the grubby draft in hand to say I’ve done it?

There’s an inherent problem with these questions. I write fast. Fifteen hundred words a day is my normal target, not a November thing. When I am able to sit and write, I write quickly. Even while I’m trying to write well.

Maybe that’s an anomaly, and I’m OK with that. But the point is, it can be done. You can write quickly without discarding a deep concern for writing well—without giving up your desire to linger over resonant prose and listen to the overtones of emotion unfold from the words. You don’t have to face your first draft with fear and loathing and burn it with solemn vows to never speak of it again. And sometimes, your second draft will be your last.

In a comment on Jenna’s post, George cuts neatly to the heart of my concern with NaNoWriMo:

I […] think there’s an unnecessary dichotomy going on. That it either has to be scintillating prose dripping from your pen after you’ve pondered five years exactly what you should say or a stream of consciousness flowing from your pen which you plan to straighten out later. Or to put it in the vernacular, a stream of crap.

Anyway, I think NaNo may have made mistake in promulgating the idea that you’ll be churning out a lot of crap during the contest. Certainly what is churned out won’t be polished or complete. Some may be good, some may be bad. As someone said, there’s no requirement one must write crap for NaNo. And not even the greatest writer, who is an accomplished wordsmith & who cherishes craft & beauty & style and what not, comes out with a perfect first draft.

George is, I think, absolutely right. The dichotomy is simply a straw man. Speaking as a working writer, the dichotomy looks good on the screen but it just doesn’t work on the page. No one who really writes—I mean who has writing in their soul, who can’t help but write—spends five years pondering a sentence, although many writers will let ideas turn and mature for years before writing. Neither do they simply write a long string of terrible prose if there isn’t something in there that isn’t terrible—a gleam of an idea that needs to be saved from the pile of whatsit. The extremes may exist, but I think every writer finds themselves ultimately somewhere in the middle.

Tolkien took fourteen years to write The Lord of the Rings. Sid Fleischman thought about and kept trying to write The Whipping Boy for ten years. Alan Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country in three months. Mark Twain spent years working over the first section of Huckleberry Finn, and created the great American masterpiece; he wrote the ending quickly to meet a deadline, and wrote a lot of crap.

I wrote this blog post in thirty minutes. Happy November, everyone.

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6 thoughts on “on caring too deeply

  1. Thirty minutes? Merciful goodness, Mr. Pond. Mine took me two hours. And it’s far from being the most time-consuming post I’ve ever written. Some of the article-size pieces take me around eight hours.

    …in other words: If I ever have a serious writing career–or a child, for that matter–my blog is in deadly danger. 😉

    Fifteen hundred words a day! In two hours of the morning? And you’re taking your time with the phrasing? I’m jealous. But this certainly helps explain why I felt a need for NaNoWriMo and you felt a repulsion for the very idea. You saw the program as an encouragement to produce schlock. I just saw it as encouragement to produce anything.

    I’m looking forward to reading your novel, regardless of how long it takes to finish the draft. I’m confident that it will be beautiful.

    Also, I think you helped explain why I disliked the end of Huck Finn.

  2. You know, I think you have something there, Mr. Pond and Jenna. There does come a time when one has to go through with it. Just get on with it. As a teacher – I can say that a student and I can go through one page of an aria for 3 lessons – sometimes more. We’ll dissect, analyze, mull it over, invert it, sing it with consonants and without, hum it, dance to it and just generally beat it dead with a stick. But there always is the hesitance with the student in singing the whole thing through at the end of the lesson. Their thinking is akin to – What if I screw up? All that work for nothing? And I have to tell them – Look. I want you to screw up. Please, will you just screw the whole aria up? Demolish it. That’s when we pick up the pieces and start over again. If you sing it perfect the first time – I’m out of a job and you aren’t human. Sometimes we learn by seeing what we don’t want.

    Make no mistake – there is much to be gained from mistakes. 🙂

  3. Joivre, I love what you have to say about learning an aria. Partly because I love singing arias, though I’m only partially trained and shamefully unpracticed; partly because the freedom to make mistakes is so important for us perfectionist types.

    Which reminds me of horse trainer John Lyons’ statement that “Practice doesn’t make perfect–only perfect practice makes perfect.” (Or was it Pat Parelli? Whichever it was, I guess he was quoting Vince Lombardi anyway.) Part of me agrees with both statements–you learn from mistakes in practice, you learn correctness from correct practice. But I’m not sure how to reconcile the two ideas in my head. Maybe I’m creating myself another false dichotomy.

    Hmm. 🙂

  4. One of my piano teachers in undergrad had a great saying along those lines: “Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.” (I wish I could remember exactly what he said makes perfect; probably something the lines of studying intelligently and learning from your mistakes.)

    I think there’s a good distinction to be drawn between having the freedom to make mistakes and having the expectation of making mistakes. Saying “I’m going to do this and it’s totally OK if I fall on my face in the process” is liberating; saying “I’m going to fall on my face” is a set up for face-falling. In other words, it’s not the face-plant that’s the good part of the formula; it’s the willingness to accept it as a part of learning not to.

    Theologically, of course, we can point to the idea of Liberty as the balance between the extremes of Legalism and Licentiousness. Rules that say “you must never sin” are unrealistic and thus paralyzing, but it’s still not a good idea to go out and sin on purpose. The balance is in saying “When we sin, there is grace, which keeps us from sin.”

    (Hmm. My desk chair seems to have transformed itself into a soapbox.)

  5. Good point, Eric. An “I can do it!” mentality helps a whole lot. I think my analogy is a little faulty, though. These are private lessons – one on one. Still – someone is there. Someone is observing, watching for mistakes, protecting the technique from faults that could be permanent if not caught early and dealt with swiftly. A writer doesn’t quite have that. The writer (and the composer for that matter) is their own critic, teacher, and coach. That’s actually quite daring to me. In some ways – you really do have to have that “I can do it!” attitude even more as a writer than a musician. Of course there are similarities – the artist performs in front of people the finished product and the writer sends off the manuscript for publishing. But the writer must have a good and trusty technique to complete their novel on their own. I am in awe of that.

  6. Pingback: November « The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

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