Saturday, November 3, 2012

LITERARY CONSTIPATION



There are writers who approach what they do with furrowed brow and gritted teeth. They are afraid to start, and make excuses not to. I met many of them in my creative writing classes, and their stories were pretty much always the same.

Painting: Cottage Garden Mix

They developed bad old ways long ago, when they were children, perhaps in primary school, perhaps in secondary. Some teacher, determined that this child will learn how to read and write no matter how long it took, squeezed the joy out of the process of story-telling or essay-writing. That child could build up a mighty, lifelong dread, not just about reading and writing but sometimes about education as a whole. Repeat after me, the teacher said: I am going to write a story. I must work out what I want to say before I pick up the pencil. I must not make a mistake. I must sit here until I have written three sentences perfectly.

When those children became adults and turned up in a creative writing class, they said they wanted to write. When asked why don't they then, they said they didn't know how to start. So, what was the problem? How about putting one word down, then another, and another? But no – that wasn't allowed at school. They were told what to write about. They had to decide what they wanted to say first.

Well, that's not usually the way it works. I suspect that perfection – or rather the striving for perfection – can drain the life out of what we do as writers. It causes literary constipation. That's the problem.

Perfection is all very well, but it begins with mistakes and mis-steps. Perfection is what you aim for, not what you start with, and it comes, not with luck but with perseverance and many attempts, at the end of the process, not at the beginning. You can't make something perfect if you haven't anything to make perfect. It is too much to ask of anyone, but especially a child, to get it perfect before they even begin.

You start with something hesitant and messy and scrambled and awkward and dull and misjudged, and you make it as perfect as possible. Or as perfect as the finished piece warrants. The degree of perfect-ness (you can't have degrees in perfection) is up to us, and also depends on the purpose of the final version. An email requires very little and you're allowed to be sloppy. An essay for a university paper requires a lot.

And The Great New Zealand Novel? Heaps. As long as it doesn't lose the vigour and spark of life.

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