Thursday, April 18, 2013

Afraid to Start

The internet and blogosphere are passing around a recent animation by Blank on Blank, a “multimedia nonprofit with a simple mission: curate and transform unexpected interviews with icons and everyday Americans.” The animation features a 1996 interview of David Foster Wallace, the late American writer whose reputation has, in the last decade, quickly climbed to a position of great esteem. The interview handles matters including perfectionism and smugness; Wallace points to perfectionism as something that “is very dangerous because, of course, if your fidelity to perfection is too high, you never do anything, because doing anything results in—it’s actually pretty tragic, because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.” Tangentially, the interview later turns to an issue that Wallace perceives in students, himself not excluded, which is, in effect, a self-inhibiting cycle in which aspiring writers simply produce text “where the point, whether it’s stated or not, is basically that they’re clever,” which Wallace describes as an “empty and frustrating” thing for an audience to read.

These two matters relate intimately to a writer’s simultaneous fears of not saying enough and having too much to say. Concision is paramount in effective writing. Tautological arguments are a great way for a writer to be ignored. Consider the constructions of some key poems like William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow or Ezra Pounds’ In a Station of the Metro. Their success depends specifically on being concise and understated. The contrast, of course, is a work that takes too long to make its statement, thereby insulting its audience’s intelligence via the inference that the ideas contained must be delicately spelled out to be comprehended.

What drew me to poetry initially, years ago, was that it was a great way for me to say exactly what I wanted to say without feeling a pressure to produce a minimum quantity of words. In academic essays and fiction, a great deal of emphasis was often placed on total word count or page length as a qualifier for success, despite this is not necessarily the truth in a post-academe life. As a student who often wanted to summarize my ideas in a few, strong symbols, I gravitated toward writing poetry. In poetry, I found no one to dictate the length of my writing, and I flourished for it.

None of that is to say that quantity as quality is not an effective method of training writers to write, but what I would like to point out as the important lesson to take away from this is that writers living in a world with editors in it should never be afraid to write exactly what they want to write. We editors work with writers in all manner of contexts. In order for writers to get their ideas out into the world, they must write. The perfectionism can be built up to. The smugness can be toned down later. The content can be revised, trimmed, fattened, rearranged, and manipulated a thousand times over to say a thousand different things. In an age with auto mechanics, drivers aren’t afraid to drive their cars—they know someone can do the repairs. In an age with grocery stores, cooks aren’t afraid to use up their pantries—they know there’s a place to restock. In an age with so many editors, it’s absurd that writers might be afraid to write—knowing full well that someone can polish and shine those words into the best possible form.

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