Friday, May 30, 2008

Labors of Love

I was talking to a friend last night about a local musician we both like. This guy started playing guitar and singing somewhat late in life, and despaired that he was never really going to be able to do either well. And in fact, when you hear his stuff, he doesn't strike you as being a hugely talented musician--his voice is rough-edged, his playing is unvirtuosic.

But man, the guy just does not sound like anybody else. What obviously happened is that, instead of cultivating "talent," he cultivated the part of himself that knew it could make music. As a result, his music lacks many of the things you expect it to have--instead it has these other things, inimitable things, stuff that comes from him, and from nowhere else. He couldn't imitate, so he made up his own rules.

I have a real fondness for people who are self-taught, who discover things in themselves that aren't visible to others. Great writers, I think, bring more than just their skills to the table--they bring something that's impossible to define, something that in fact defines them. They bring their personalities.

"Talent," I believe I've said before, is overrated. When we talk about teaching creative writing, we speak of "nurturing talent," but that's not really what we're doing. I think what we're doing is trying to help unusual people refine their peculiarities so that others can appreciate them--without, that is, accidentally refining them out of existence. This is what people are talking about when they complain about "MFA fiction"--they're referring to polished stories that are the product of de-peculiarization...or perhaps the result of attempting to refine something that was already gone.

We're all weird. Some of us, however, are more in love with our weirdness than others, and it's these people who develop reputations for distinctive work. For me, writing is often a process of wrangling my peculiarities--trying to drag them into the light, trying not to scare them off. Personally, I've always gotten off a little too much on other people's approval. I spent my teen years doing the opposite of what most cool people did--I basically tried very hard to fit in, and do what was expected of me. I got good grades and didn't get in trouble.

But the older I got, the more I felt as though I'd willingly snuffed out what was most enjoyable about being myself, and when I started writing seriously, I started trying to figure out where I put everything strange and unappealing, unpacking it, exploiting it. Everything I wrote was crap, of course--I hadn't been friendly with my quirks for some time. But eventually I managed to get some of that stuff back.

I still feel as though my writing is too predictable, too contoured. But to reach too hard for strangeness is to write something false. Nobody can really define "authenticity," but everyone can tell when it's missing--there is only so far I can push it before I sound like I'm pushing it. There's only so much oddness I can trot out before it becomes a tic.

"Be yourself." Can you think of a more exhausted cliché? Everybody knows you should be yourself. The trouble is in figuring out what that is, and then not being afraid of it. When writing's bad, that's often why.


Pale Ramón said...

You just reminded me of the singer/song writer Daniel Johnson, god love him.

But the inimitable qualities you describe are also what makes someone like Henry Green so intriguing. His personality comes through in such a way that you wouldn't think of rearranging his sentences any other way (I'm thinking of his memoir Pack My Bag.

Pale Ramón said...

s/v problem there. Sorry. I need an edit function (my life's constantly under revision).

Anonymous said...

I gotta give Pack My Bag another shot...I tried it years ago on a teacher's recommendation and didn't finish...

Daniel Johnston! Have you seen that movie?

Pale Ramón said...

What movie? What did I miss?

bigscarygiraffe said...

pure gold brilliance!

Pale Ramón said...


james said...

very, very true. don't get me wrong, i definitely appreciate a well-polished story, but there is a point where a piece can be so polished as to appear formulaic. here's the conflict, the rising action, the falling action, the denouement, etc.

i fell in love with writing after reading kerouac and although from a writing standpoint he makes a shitton of mistakes, when you read something by him you immediately know it's his.

when i first started writing i wrote because i loved it. i enjoyed tinkering with sentences, with language.

then i had a professor who was a hard-nosed minimalist. he hated flowery language, only liked or graded above average the pieces that were terse and straight forward. he talked about how much writing was a job and something he didn't enjoy at all. he attended the iowa writers' workshop and let everyone know every minute of every hour of every day.

needless to say, i'm going to attend an MFA and am a bit nervous about being forced to write in a specific style but a ton of experimental writers and writers who write nothing alike have all attended MFAs. i think of ben marcus heading the program at columbia.

anyway, i'm tired of the same old maxims expounded year after year. i get it, we get it. writing is hard work. it's a workmanlike process. but still, can't it be fun? can't we admit that at least part of it is fun?

Anonymous said...

It IS fun. It's the funnest.

Revising--that's not fun. But writing is awesome.

I think your hardcore minimalist prof is one of a dying breed, by the way...don't be nervous. Be selective in the advice you take away from workshops. Sometimes I think a desire to publish is the root cause of a lot of terrible writing...writers don't really believe in the advice they're given, but take it because they know it will please at least one person.

Just have the confidence to know when your teacher's full of crap. I say this as a teacher who has, at times, been full of crap.

And A+ on the use of the word "shitton."

rmellis said...

If you have a prof who insists on a particular style... screw her! Or him! Those profs are the lame-o profs who've figured our their tiny corner of the market and think it's the only corner. There are infinite corners.

If it weren't fun, we'd be selling real estate, that's where the money is, or was.

Anonymous said...

John, you're being too hard on yourself when it comes to the person you were twenty years ago. So you didn't rebel, whatever your values of rebel might be. There's not a damn thing wrong with wanting people to like you, with wanting approval and approbation from authority, with wanting the things that come from being safe and comfortable, especially when you are a teenager, and particularly when you are a teenager with a decent head upon his shoulders. Obviously you didn't lose your creativity, as much as you think you may have. I certainly don't perceive any formulatic patterns in your various works, and to be honest I haven't even noticed a distinctive voice yet (although I'm certainly no expert on any on this, just a lowly reader!) I just hate to see someone I admire so much be so hard on himself about a past that can't be changed. It may be a trite cliché, but there's truth in it: the experiences of our lives shape who we are and who we will become, and regret should never overwhelm hope.

With respect, Someone Who Went To High School With You.

James (not the James who posted earlier) said...

I saw Johnny Dowd at a show in Hoboken (he was opening for Scrawl, the group I came out to see) and I thought he was terrific. I did find it interesting that every promotional photo I had seen of Dowd up to that point suggested he was a brooding, somewhat menacing guy; on stage he was friendly and warm, and resembled your favorite blue-collar uncle. That's marketing for ya.

Daniel Johnston is a fascinating guy, artistically (not to mention biographically, but that's a different subject). He's a first rate songwriter with a very limited vocal range (although he's a fine pianist). And he recorded most of his best songs (almost everything from his start in the early 80's up to 1990 or so) on a simple tape recorder, or primitive four track. You can actually hear plenty of background noise (washing machines running, etc.) on those records.

As a result, his best records can be tough to listen to at first, and I had to really listen carefully to hear the greatness of those songs. Sometimes, I find myself enjoying other peoples' versions of Johnston's (pre-1990) songs over his originals. My favorite is K. McCarty's album of Johnston songs, which is absolutely beautiful (she truly captures the childlike wonder of Johnston's songs, while many interpreters don't).

Anonymous said...

Second James: Scrawl was a great band--I have most of their records. And I love that Kathy McCarty album as well...I was a big Glass Eye fan, so getting that one was a must.

anonymous, what the hell!!! Thanks for the kind words! I don't think I was a horrible suckup, or shallow or anything, back in the day...but I was pretty anxious most of the time...I think it was, in part, from a kind of suppressed desire for self-actualization. (The rest of the anxiety was just, you know, being a kid, and living in a small town.)

A friend of mine in college said something to me once that, at the time, was revelatory...I had just been the victim of a nasty verbal outburst from somebody I really wanted to be friends with...and I was trying to figure out what I'd done wrong...and my friend said, "You know, John, not everybody's going to like you."

Anyway, I think this is a liberating thing for an artist to hear. It's sent me deeper into what I think I can do, without regard for how it's going to come off. I DO hope that people come to like it eventually, but that isn't what's driving me any longer, and I think that's a good thing.

David Rochester said...

Great post, and so true. If I had the choice between reading something technically/formulaically perfect, and something that is flawed but alive, I'll take the latter every time.

It is very true that not everyone is going to like you. And it's also true that a piece of art that inspires rants and hatred is a good piece of art. Good work provokes passion. I'd much rather have someone tell me my story is a pile of steaming vomit than tell me it's "OK." That might not be the reaction I want, but love and hate are far closer kin than love and indifference will ever be.

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