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The Art of Letting Go.

There's a moment in art when you have to let go.

That moment is different for everyone, of course, but speaking in generalities, and in general relation to a specific work, to career, to anything where you create, there is a moment when you have to stand up and walk out. Physically, metaphorically, whatever. If you don't, you end up obsessed, continually reworking the piece or body of your work, second guessing yourself, hating everything old, everything new, twisting until you're tying yourself into knots. I'm sure you've all got examples that spring to your mind.

It is, however, hard to teach that moment. Kind of impossible, actually, though you can find examples of artists who are there that allow you to say, "There's someone who can't let go of their work. Don't become like him/her."

But you can't teach the moment.

It's a little internal mechanism, and it can get fucked up pretty easy, because you're never happy with your work. Well, I'm never happy. There's something terribly unsatisfying about it once it's published. I don't mean that I hate it, because I don't much have any kind of feeling for my work. No hate, no love, nothing. It's a dead thing. It's stopped squirming inside me, stopped being this slippery thought that pushed into my mind, that stopped me from having thoughts about life, and that thought has been dissected and laid across a page. Hate and love just aren't in that. I can, however, manage a craft level interest in which I look at how a good editor has changed a few sentences to make them stronger, or a bad editor weaker, and so forth, but usually I just see all the things I would do differently. And somewhere in that gaze is the realisation that nothing I've done is exact, nothing is perfect, and never will be.

I imagine, should I listen to that voice entirely, I'd be continually rewriting, cutting, shaving, jumping, until it became a smooth and barren piece. Somewhere during the week I read that style can be considered the assembly of your imperfections and, in a way, I think there's something in that. Of course, that kind of reasoning is a dangerous thing, since it can push you down a path where you're thinking every stupid choice and mistake you do is justified under the heading of style. Likewise, you can let go of a piece too early, let into the world as a half born thing, snot danging from its nose, bones brittle, maybe nothing but liquid, and you've got this ugly thing you can't justify in print. I've had that happen. So what I'm saying is that it's no easy thing to figure.

I go on feel, myself. Sometimes it's really easy to tell when you're done, because you can't stand the sight of it, and you just want to pull out the lemon coloured Bic lighter and set it on fire. I find that's the case if it's a particularly emotional kind of creation--which sounds like incredible wank, I know, but this entire post is a bit of that. But it's also true that at times a piece will be more work, will struggle to come out right, will twist, slither, and resist your vision. Just as there is that, there are the times when it rushes out in one long stretch, clean and pure. It's with this kind that it's more difficult to figure if you're done. When you have to listen to that internal mechanism, when you've got to trust what you have. Sometimes you'll be wrong, but that's not so bad. Being wrong about letting go is better than being wrong about holding on. You hold onto a piece of work and you'll reach a point where you broke it.

And broken things reassemble badly, leaving all the cracks and glue for everyone to see.

Comments

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lonewolf23
Oct. 21st, 2005 12:55 am (UTC)
Synchronicity (unless you're reading it too), Neil Gaiman has just posted about the same thing. Only he sums it up in two sentences.

Always good to remember when you're making art. You don't have to like it, just be ready to do the next thing.

You need to work on that verbosity, mate. ;)
benpeek
Oct. 21st, 2005 01:05 am (UTC)
You need to work on that verbosity, mate. ;)

i'm a chatty guy. can't you tell?

anyhow, i hadn't seen the gaiman stuff. obviously he's invading my headspace. i hope he's taking pictures.
knowing_carrion
Oct. 21st, 2005 01:40 am (UTC)
Any author, I think, who doesn't experience this is either a) lying to themselves in order to feel better about their work, or b) not really an author at all and is simply a writer, a person who writes down things that may not really be very good at all. Ever. No matter how much s/he works upon them.

Of course I have examples come to mind the moment you speak on the subject, and I'm sure every other author does, too. And I agree with you that it's on feel, and that feel is generally reaching a point where I just can't do it anymore. To read it another time through and work on it anymore would push me past the brink and I'd be more likely to want to just trunk the thing instead of send it out. So I send it out. And I use those two weeks or six months, whatever the case may be, to let it settle in my mind, and sometimes when I get it back I'm ready to work on it again. Sometimes to no real betterment, more just the rearranging of words for the sake of doing it, but sometimes I am able to make improvements no matter how much I may have worked on it the first go-round.

But you can't tell a young author that that's when you know you're done, when you can't bear to look at it any longer, because there have certainly been times, too, that I'm so engrossed in a story or its emotion or its character(s) that I could work on it for a year straight, make changes over and over, and essentially whittle it down to a thin twig of wood with no discernable features at all, and when I drop it in the pile of twigs from every other author around the globe in Ye Olde Editor's mailbox, there's nothing left to distinguish it.

It's something every author has to find in himself, and not only that, but it's different for every different body of work (or at least it is for me).

And yet, all that said -- I really wish some authors/writers would whittle a little more...
benpeek
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:09 am (UTC)
yeah, being done with something yourself doesn't necessarily mean it'll sell. but that--that there is an entirely different world, and i figure you just got to write what you want to get it there. trying to write for editors is a mugs game, i think.

and yes, i agree it's different for every body of work.

i think i could stand a little less whittling with prose. i see so much of that stripped back style that i could do with something a bit more colourful. though i could see other things stripped back, it must be added.
knowing_carrion
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:13 am (UTC)
No, writing for editors is a writer's foe. I think I tried to do it once upon a time but I gave up on it long ago.

As for whittling in prose, when I say whittling I certainly don't mean as to style, I don't like the stripped back style of writing. Hell, I'm perfect testament to that as an author as I often try too hard to be conscious of style and just create a muddled mess... less so now than three years ago, but nevertheless. When I said I'd like to see more whittling taking place amongst some authors, I'm thinking on some of the story submissions I receive and the rather obvious hint that an author has put very little time into revisions, they've simply written out a draft and let it fly. And I can't understand that mentality.
benpeek
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:20 am (UTC)
i reckon, when you're starting out, and you hear the cries of 'buy my magazine to see what i like' it translate a little into that mentality of writing for a certain editor. early authors are ever so keen to get into publication, after all.

i think i'm a bit too conscious of style. i can certainly get too caught up in it--can have, even, a story that is an excuse to try out a style. heh. the no revision send out stuff... that i can understand from the point of having students who come in not wanting to touch anything, to ruin their perfection, you know?
underdogautopsy
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:27 am (UTC)
I think those stories where you write to try out a style are maybe where you mature as an author the most -- if simply because you're flexing your writerly muscles, trying on new things, and even if the style doesn't work for you and you think you've left it behind, there's a fair chance you've taken something from it and it's crept into the rest of your work. I find that happens with me. I've been experimenting a lot over the past year. I hit this rhythm where suddenly everything I wrote was in present tense first person, which isn't exactly a favorite of most literary authors, and yet it was what was working for me and what I was able to do with the most emotion and the most success, and now that I've decided, "Okay, I've run that course," I find that ducking back out into traditional past tense third person, I'm taking with me some of the ... meters and stylings I adopted while writing in present tense first person and I think it's going to make me a much better writer over the coming seasons.

As for the ruining of perfection, maybe I've closed my mind off to it, maybe I was that way once, too, but no, I don't really understand it. But maybe that's why you're teaching writing and I'm not (well, one of the many reasons).
underdogautopsy
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:28 am (UTC)
Grr, I wish they had an EDIT feature... I meant to say present tense first person isn't exactly the favorite of most literary EDITORS, not authors. Although that holds true, too, it wasn't my point.
benpeek
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:37 am (UTC)
you know, i once got a rejection back that said that the editor didn't like first person stories because that meant, obviously, the narrator survives. i remember being somewhat shocked, because it was for a high paying place. wish i could remember it.
benpeek
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:36 am (UTC)
As for the ruining of perfection, maybe I've closed my mind off to it, maybe I was that way once, too, but no, I don't really understand it. But maybe that's why you're teaching writing and I'm not (well, one of the many reasons).

the only reason i understand it is so i can destroy it, really. the whole idea of ruining perfect is relly quite ridiculous, and the mistake of students who are pretentious and new to the writing. but when i understand that this is where they're coming from, i can dig into it, expose it for the lie it is, and so forth.

i have found the experimenting has been good for later stories. produced some that i've just been able to let see the light of day more than once, though. but with short fiction, i kind of just accept that this is going to happen.
underdogautopsy
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:49 am (UTC)
So, just out of curiosity, what percentage of your students would you say come into your class under the impression that their writing is perfect or near to it and that they're going to inevitably be head of the class, the envy of every other student, etc.? And, in the end, are those the ones that actually have the most work to do to get better, or no?
benpeek
Oct. 21st, 2005 02:57 am (UTC)
So, just out of curiosity, what percentage of your students would you say come into your class under the impression that their writing is perfect or near to it and that they're going to inevitably be head of the class, the envy of every other student, etc.?

one percent, maybe less. it's a very small number.

there's more chance i'll get a student who is just confident. thinks that he/she can write, will do well, and so forth. it's sort of two steps below the other kind, but much more palatible. mostly they remain open minded to ideas, and hit the 'very keen' description as well.

And, in the end, are those the ones that actually have the most work to do to get better, or no?

if they're the perfection student, then they have a whole lot of issues to improve upon, but won't do it when i'm round, most likely. you only get them for fourteen weeks in a semester, and it's not enough time, in a class of fifteen to twenty, each with their own pieces, to break, remake, and see a difference. and since they're such a small percentage, i don't much care if they do or don't. there are always plenty of others who want to improve, change, learn new techniques, and who're open for feedback.

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