When I was in college, our poetry writing professor gave us this big dose of end-of-the-year wise advice on successful writing:
Go forth and read.
Well, sure. That is actually very wise. And true. But in the years that have followed, I have come to the conclusion that it is insufficient. Here’s what I wish he had said:
Go forth and read, then go forth and fail.
I think the best thing a writer – or a musician, or any artist – can do to become better at their craft is to court failure. Embrace it, love it, give it a cold wet doggie lick in the ear. Because I have learned far more from every mincing, effete, weasel-breathed sentence that failed to thrive than I have from a dozen whole pieces that worked pretty well right off the bat. It’s good to be good, but it teaches you nothing about getting better.
As a sailboat tacks back and forth to find the wind by almost losing it, and as the pitcher gets a strike across the plate by being for a heartbeat just almost misunderstood, everything finds its way forward by making mistakes.
Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” I read that and I thought about a little. She felt atoned to her vocation, and right in the hours as they passed. How nice.
Here’s mine: “God help me to keep writing until I don’t feel as though I ought to be doing something else.” In other words, I’d like to feel like Steinem does, someday. … Act as if he had faith (or talent or skill) and faith shall be added unto you. … Fake it, ’til you make it. I’d like to feel like writing is the right thing to do, and not a naive self indulgence, an avoidance of real work.
So why do I feel that way? Why does anyone who is or wants to be creative so unsure, so steeped in anxious doubt that the motley rabbit is going to appear from the hat? Maybe because the life of art is in fact a naive self indulgence, an avoidance of real work. Or so They say, and we listen to Them because they might be right, and then we make the mistake of listening to ourselves relay the prophecy.
When I was up north visiting my bro, I listened to him and others play guitars and sing, and I woke up the next day wishing I had kept playing the guitar years ago. And wishing I had a guitar now. (It’s not too late, right?) Because it looks and sounds like so much fun. And when I got back home, I opened the piano and played it, and have a few times since. It’s enjoyable, and one cool thing about it is that people expect you to need time to practice. Even if you’re pretty good, you have to practice. They don’t see that writing is the same. You have to read a lot, then you have to practice for hours and hours, and much of the result, the objective product, of that practice simply sucks. But it’s OK because out of all that insufferable suckage may someday come a song … or a book.
Everybody shut up, and that includes me. My muse has a bad habit of obsequious mumbling, and I’m trying to hear her.
Thank you for your support.