I’ve been working my way through the editor’s comments on A Biased Judgement and I’ve started hearing voices. Well, one voice. It says, “This is it. This is the way the novel will look to readers. Are you sure you want to phrase it that way? Wait, did you really need to put a comma there…?”
You get the drift.
While I’m used to revising my work – the word obsessive comes to mind – I tend not to think of my revisions as the end of the road but rather a step along that path. Now, though, knowing publication is imminent, it’s hard not to see this process as pretty final. Because I haven’t looked at the manuscript for a while I’m suddenly spotting all sorts of errors. It’s mostly minor stuff, but there’s the occasional howler, too, such as a character changing his name half-way through. Don’t you hate it when characters do that? Very inconsiderate of them, really. When I write I write in sand. Sand makes it easy to wipe over the traces and start again. With sand I can remove my errors of syntax or spelling. Easy to change direction, destroy all the evidence, begin anew. There’s a freedom that comes with that approach but I’m starting to think there’s a laziness too. No, not laziness. Cowardice. If my words are temporary I don’t ever have to stand behind them. Like the woman in T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock I can say,
“That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”
Now, though, I am conscious that the words of my novel are about to achieve a permanence of sorts. They may not be carved in stone, but they will stand naked before the public for some time to come. Yikes!
I’ve learned something about myself and my work over the past few weeks. I’ve discovered that I tend to use my multiple drafts approach as a safety net. If someone points out an error in a piece I can say, “Well, it’s not done yet…” I’ve taken the advice of writing gurus to heart when they say, “You shouldn’t edit yourself while you’re still working on a draft…” Yes, those words are true, but at some point you have to own your work, acknowledge it, stand behind it.
We all face fear when we choose an artistic way of live. There’s the fear of being too vulnerable, of being mocked, of coming up short. Even if no one else ever says it, in our heads the words are clear enough: “You’re an artist? You?” Followed, naturally, by derisive laughter.
In Art and Fear (1993) authors David Bayles and Ted Orland point out that fears about making art fall into two categories: fear about yourself, which prevents you from doing your best work; and fear of the reception your work may receive by others, which keeps you from producing authentic work.
Perhaps now that I’m aware of my own fears I can become stronger, braver. Maybe my work can be finished in three or four drafts rather than thirty or forty. It’s a happy thought. OK, daunting, but happy. What about you? What are your writing fears? Have you identified them yet? If so, what are you doing about them?
Here’s what I plan to do about my own fear:
Accept that it exists but it doesn’t have to control me.
Realise that perfectionism is not a good thing, not in life and certainly not in art. I need to remember that while striving for excellence is good it shouldn’t get in the way of achieving goals or finishing a project. Imperfections exist in art as much as in nature. Or to put it in the more elegant words of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
I will try to limit the number of rewrites I allow myself. I know I’ll never be able to stop completely. If I spot a better way of constructing a sentence or a paragraph I’ll do it, but I’ll try not to be obsessive about it. After all, if you polish anything too much you’ll eventually end up with dust.
OK, I’m scared. But that’s a good thing.