“When I’m good I’m pretty good. When I’m bad, I’m better.” — Mae West
I invented a writers group call The Writers Circle because I had read about the great salons of Paris and imagined that a small, focused, creative community based on compassion would make it easier for me to write.
Some of the members have found the Circle helpful. They’ve won awards and published books.
But it hasn’t made it any easier for me, because, fortunately or not, I care deeply about writing. I like to think that, when the author cares about the characters in a story, that affection mysteriously leaches though the prose so that readers care, too. This caring leads to that vital, pleasurable panic called suspense, when we, as readers, are more concerned with fictional beings than our own lives.
Like all cherished beliefs, caring about your characters doesn’t always work. It fails in biography, especially when the biographer manipulates facts to defend, redeem, condemn and otherwise revise his subject’s reputation, or when the biographer has a distinct philosophy about the subject and imposes it relentlessly, regardless of what the subject’s life suggests. A person’s life is not the same as a person’s history. A life can have moments of utter monotony, shameful indulgence, innocent ineptitude and the kind of silliness that doesn’t draw a smile. A written history must make sense of all this, so that the author disappears and the reader better understands herself by experiencing the text.
It can also fail in fiction. As a reviewer for Kirkus, I endured a many creaky novels whose authors were so intensely involved in their characters that the story collapsed into embarrassing wish fulfillment. This can be most obvious in scenes of revenge, consumption and sexual fulfillment. I can’t tell you how often I threw the book down (but picked it up again–reviewers MUST finish the text), irked by what the author clearly believed was his character’s perfectly justified take-down of a thinly fictionalized former boss, a great day of shopping on Rodeo Drive, or a mattress-denting tumble in bed.
Herein lies the peculiar autobiographical paradox: what can be most appealing to an individual can be a big turn-off to an audience. Though some writers may try focus groups and market research, none of us can be sure how our work will “go over” with agents, editors, critics and the vast “reading public” until the work is in the marketplace and beyond our power to improve.
Thus the biggest question in the Writers Circle–no manner how many times I try to discourage it–is “is this any good”? The most common answer is the equivalent of a “yes, but…” followed by a several recommendations (some of them coming from me!) on how the work may be improved.
Though no one in the Circle is obligated to follow any recommendations, or give them any credence, is difficulty to resist them. Why? Because we want our work to be better than good. We want it to be GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRREAT!
Why? For me, it’s the hope that, with enough polishing, I’ll come up with writing that everyone will like, or, at least, “get.” More than that, the work will NEVER suffer rejection, that it will ignite enthusiasm as it burns through every obstacle on its way to a grateful reader.
The Buddhists say that it isn’t really perfection that I want, but the urge to avoid the psychological suffering that comes from rejection, the fear of failure, going broke when things don’t sell, censure from my peers and I’m-a-bad-writer-because… vibe. I am “attached” to being good. I may have got this from my childhood, or maybe it got stuck in my DNA from so many centuries of equating the satisfaction of others to survival.
The need-to-be-good makes me strive for the better. While this is a tenet of civilized global society, and a generally decent thing to do, it can burn up the energy necessary to accomplish anything. It can inspire me to look for flaws in a work instead of strengths. It can, like so many things I write about in this blog, stop us in our tracks.
The alternative is to lighten up, or down–to either not worry about being good, or try to be a little bit bad.
And see what happens….