Unnecessary Wear and Tear

“To me, it’s all about perceptions, perceptions about life or human nature or the way something looks or the way something sounds. Two or three of them on a page in a notebook, that’s what it’s really all about. Getting enough of them to enliven every page of a novel, like light. I mean, to call them felicities is wrong. You have to have a clumsier formulation, something like droplets of originality, things that are essentially your own, and are you. If I die tomorrow, well, at least my children, who are approaching as we speak, at least they will have a very good idea of what I was like, of what my mind was like, because they will be able to read my books. So maybe there is an immortalizing principle at work even if it’s just for your children. Even if they’ve forgotten you physically, they could never say that they didn’t know what their father was like.” Martin Amis, The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 151, Spring 1998

Did you know that poodles are hunting dogs at heart? Even the toy sort. I knew two poodles, one chocolate and one black, who together did not weigh as much as a large tomcat. Yet these two, Genevieve and Maddie, once tore to pieces a beautiful Christmas angel that was to be a gift. Because that’s what poodles do. I wish you could have seen how much fluff came from that deconstructed angel. It was scattered from here to yon across the living room rug, and in the midst of it reposed the two pudelhunds, heads high, proud and satisfied with the work they’d done. As far as those two were concerned, the angel was just another chew toy, and not a very sturdy one at that.

To write well is to revise. To revise well is to dissect, analyze, cull and rearrange, then stitch it all together again, hopefully without too many seams and in a prettier form than it was before. This is necessary, and it is good, but it’s hard on the writer. There’s a wear and tear to the process and a recovery from it. Like surgery. Because of this, writers ought to be darned selective about critique. Our work is not a chew toy, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Critique belongs to those whose aesthetics we admire and those whom we trust. How else will the work be elevated? But emerging writers, and those who are yet to emerge, are given to showing off what they’ve done. They present it to anyone and everyone who’ll hold still long enough to give an opinion. And…well…you know what they say about opinions.

The Paris Review Art of Fiction No. 151  is a delight, and I recommend reading all of it. When asked how important ego and self-confidence are to the writer, Martin Amis had this to say,

“Novelists have two ways of talking about themselves. One in which they do a very good job of pretending to be reasonably modest individuals with fairly realistic opinions of their own powers and not atrociously ungenerous in their assessments of their contemporaries. The second train of thought is that of the inner egomaniac; your immediate contemporaries are just blind worms in a ditch, slithering pointlessly around, getting nowhere. You bestride the whole generation with your formidability. The only thing your contemporaries are doing—even the most eminent of them—is devaluing literary eminence. Basically they’re just stinking up the place. You open the book pages and you can’t understand why it isn’t all about you. Or, indeed, why the whole paper isn’t all about you. I think without this kind of feeling you couldn’t operate at all. The ego has to be roughly this size. I’m not sure it’s true, but I was told by a poet friend that even William Golding can come into a literary party at six-thirty and do a good imitation of a self-effacing man of letters, but at nine o’clock the whole room may be brought to silence by his cry of I’m a genius! Just give him a bullhorn. They may have their little smiles and demurrals and seem twinkly and manageable characters but really . . . Is there anything you’d like to add? Yes. I’m a genius! End of interview. There’s also the flip side, of course—terrific vulnerability, crying jags, the seeking of the fetal position after a bad review and all that kind of stuff.”

I suppose once you’ve written something that unveils human nature as unflinchingly as Lord of the Flies, you deserve to unleash your inner egomaniac. The fetal position is much more familiar to the rest of us. God knows—no matter how formidable our genius—once our work is public, there’ll be no shortage of critics. But in the mean time, during the revision process, we ought to find a safe place among our writerly colleagues.

The moral is this: Guard your confidence. It’s the portal to that beautiful wellspring whence creativity flows. As Mr. Amis wisely observed, “…you trust entirely to instinct. It’s all you’ve got. Writer’s block, disintegration of the writer, that’s all to do with failing confidence.”

Not only that, guard the confidence of others. If other writers trust us enough to give us access to their work—in a group or one on one—we must take care to grasp what they’re trying to do, lest we boorishly trample their pearls of originality.

© M K Simonds

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