If I place love above everything, it is because it is the most desperate state of affairs imaginable.
-- Andre Breton
Considering that the bulk of my own writing has to do with love gone very awry, I do have to agree with Breton here, and I think that the best written love stories have their principle characters not only fall in love but experience a new level of self-awareness through the love.
I pretty much feel the same about my love for writing. Sometimes I find writing to be a most desperate state of affairs, but the process of writing, the act of writing in itself, is where I learn the most about myself, about my personal worldview and its effect on reality as I know it. For me, writing is a psychologically and philosophically intimate process, where often I am huddled naked in a corner picking the meat off my own bones. Delivery from the illusion of one's self is not a painless process. Our best characters are created from that pain. Not everything learned through the writing is pleasant. Love isn’t always a pleasant experience, and self-affirmation is easier to proclaim than it is to actually attain. Writing is no different. Just like in love, we have to work for it, and just like in love, with writing there are obstacles at every turn to be overcome. The inner critic hammers away at every writer. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have a PHD in English literature, an MFA, or if you have studied literature and creative writing in your spare time for thirty years for the pure joy of it like myself. The level of knowledge has nothing to do with the level of innate ability one possesses or the level of passion one feels for the craft. Passion is measured by how aggressively the writer wants to learn and improve, or rather, how aggressively they want to grow and nurture the love they feel for the art. Those who are truly passionate about it seek out the knowledge, so they tend to know a bit more and they tend to be a bit more adept, but the technical knowledge itself doesn’t necessarily make one a master when it comes to ability or mass market appeal. If it did, everyone with an MFA would write a Nobel prize nominated book for their dissertation, one that would turn the heads of the literary elite and sell millions of copies to average readers. We all know that doesn’t happen.
Why doesn’t that happen and why is that relevant to the discussion? Well, there is a lot more to writing than grammar, story arcs, plotlines, relevant themes, and characters: archetypes or clichés. Writing, like most art, is also about individual interpretation, style, voice, and intent. It’s also about the subjective more so than the objective. All this takes patience, practice, and a frightening amount of self-awareness. So, yes, the love affair with writing is a masochistic affair between our artistic id, our ego, and the external editor/reader/critic super-ego. (Sorry for the metaphor but it is appropriate.) Why masochistic? Because any writer worth their salt will eventually feel the need to put their love to the test, and by that I mean, put their love out into the world for subjective and objective critique. Believe it or not, this is where the writer learns the most about himself, at the very least, how much of a beating his/her psyche is willing to take for the love.
I have taken my share of beatings and praise over the last few years, and I have come to realize a couple of universal truths when it comes to writing:
- The first draft always sucks.
- The final draft will still be flawed in some way, and someone will take issue with it.
- Your masterpiece is your own individual interpretation on a theme. Not everyone is going to agree with it, get it, or even like it. No one is a genius until history says so.
Now this doesn’t mean we should go off all half-cocked and say fuck-off to the critics. The superego serves its purpose, and that kind of attitude doesn’t do any good at all. When we open ourselves up to literary criticism, we are inviting an assault. No other way to describe it. The assault helps us grow, helps us find the strength to work through the pain. A true writer knows at some point they are going to take a beat down. A true writer welcomes it, understands how valuable it actually is. Doesn’t mean we don't feel hurt or feel humiliated. Words are powerful things and sometimes critics don't use the best words, so we do feel hurt and humiliated, but, it also helps us experience other people’s points of view. It helps us get out of our 'writing mind' for a minute, and so it helps us find a balance between artistic intent and reader expectation. It helps us understand compromise. As a writer, you will have good days and bad days, and you need to be able to take a bad day’s bludgeoning with a bit of grace. Readers, Editors, and Critics are all different. Their expectations are different, and their reading experiences are all different.
So some days the love we feel for the craft may seem unrequited. Nothing will change that. It’s just the nature of the thing -- this love we feel -- but the wounds don't have to be fatal.
Cheryl Anne Gardner