Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Perfection in a Subjective Writing World?

The great thing about writing Thursdays is that I follow brilliant people. This week, Rick’s and Hannah’s excellent posts hit home, so I’m going to continue the thread.

The pursuit of perfection in the arts is not new, yet I do believe it can be dangerous. Writing is the equivalent to the dog that chases its own tail: you can’t master it. In fact, that’s why most of us get hooked.

Short fiction writer and winner of the 1990 Literature Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Rick DeMarinis once said, “The thing about writing is you have to be crazy enough to believe your stuff is good to even try.” I have worked in academia for close to twenty years. I know many brilliant people who have started novels, consciously or subconsciously compared their work to classics, and tossed the unfinished pages in a desk drawer never to be revisited. These people weren’t “crazy enough” to finish their novels. I have always believed Rick was right. His comment came on the heels of a discussion we were having about writing, editing, and the publishing industry. Aside from all the intangibles, you need two things to succeed in this business: a sense of defiance and an ego.

I can’t say I enjoy the editing process as much as Rick or Hannah. I love writing that first draft, being the first reader of my story. But there is no question that my work, like everyone’s, gets better during the revision stage. However, I also know that I, like most writers, could continually revise one novel for the rest of my life, never being satisfied with it, always tweaking. Is that a good thing? I had my chance to revise a “finished” work this past summer, editing “Cut Shot” when it became available in the e-book format. I’m glad I did it; there were changes I had always wanted to make. Yet, in the end, it’s the same story, the same plot. Is it a better book? Sure. But is it the same book? Essentially. I find solace knowing that it was the best I could do when I wrote it, some twelve years ago.

I believe “perfection” is a scary word and for a writer—particularly a crime writer—a potentially dangerous one. Best-selling mystery author and professor of creative writing at Florida International University James Hall said this about the challenges facing crime-fiction writers: "Writing a novel of suspense, I've discovered, is a far greater challenge than writing a mainstream, 'respectable' novel, in which nothing much needs to happen for a lot of pages. I think this genre has attracted some of the best novelists of our era, mainly because it's a form that demands great discipline and forces good writers to stretch themselves in all sorts of ways."

“Stretching” one’s self is a lot like Hannah’s “pursuit.” It’s what we all try to do when we strive for perfection, but the mystery novel will never be the haiku, which, of course, depends on fourteen perfect syllables. Any police officer will be the first to say that solving a crime—this side of Agatha Christie—is far from a perfect science and that most investigations, even those that are eventually closed, have loose ends. I love the story about Raymond Chandler being asked who killed a character in one of his novels. “I forgot about that guy,” Chandler said. Or his writing philosophy: when the book gets slow, has someone walk in with a gun. I will be the first to say that the crime-fiction reader expects more from a novel than he or she did when “The Big Sleep” was published in 1939—much more, in fact—but I also think there is something in the subtext to what Chandler is saying: a writer shouldn’t take himself too seriously; writing like reading, after all, is fun.

Last week, an unpublished writer told me he has started several novels and “always gets stuck at page fifty.” I told him to go back, reread his pages, and look for a potential storyline that he missed. Maybe I should have said what the great poet William Stafford always told his students, “Lower your standards.”


Rick Blechta said...

You're right, John, the search for perfection is dangerous, especially in an art as subjective as writing. What's perfect for me, might not be perfect for anyone else.

However, if I'd stated my case choosing better words, I would have said something like, "I don't want to read one of my novels in two or three years and cringe once a chapter because I left a paragraph or a phrase or even a word that obviously could have been done better if I'd just spent more time on it."

Another case where I just wasn't perfect or even good enough...

And no, I don't get down on myself. Being a musician I'm well aware that perfection is some very elusory and seldom captured. For some perverted reason, I enjoy doing this.

John R Corrigan said...

Rick, I've had that experience--going back, rereading my first novel, and spotting a line that you know you would write so much better now.

Rick Blechta said...

I'm not talking about looking at something several novels back, but in the novel you were just frigging working on! Seeing something that just doesn't cut it because your mind was elsewhere or you were working too fast or whatever is just so disappointing — especially if you're seeing it in your just-printed novel.

I'm on a mission to crush that in my work!