Marc Laidlaw recently shared a link on Facebook to a post on “Good Writing vs. Talented Writing”over on Brainpickings featuring some ideas by Samuel Delany. Essentially, Delany draws a line between “good writing” and superior “talented writing”:
The talented writer often uses specifics and avoids generalities — generalities that his or her specifics suggest. Because they are suggested, rather than stated, they may register with the reader far more forcefully than if they were articulated. Using specifics to imply generalities — whether they are general emotions we all know or ideas we have all vaguely sensed —is dramatic writing. A trickier proposition that takes just as much talent requires the writer carefully to arrange generalities for a page or five pages, followed by a specific that makes the generalities open up and take on new resonance. … Indeed, it might be called the opposite of “dramatic” writing, but it can be just as strong — if not, sometimes, stronger.
As I noted on Facebook myself,
Also, one reason the Clarion workshops stopped inviting Delany to teach, IIRC. This message runs counter to the conception of becoming a writer central to the business of Creative Writing programs, workshops, etc.
And in the comments, I added:
Note, he does teach at Clarion Workshops these days (he’s teaching in San Diego this year, in fact), but I’d be very curious to know whether he talks about such things while there. I’ve heard in the old days, he would actually go around the room, saying to each writer whether he thought they would “make it” or not. Which, well… I can think of cases where such a thing might be a mercy, but as a general practice, I dunno. Certainly it was mentioned in the context of why he hadn’t taught a Clarion workshop in a while, at the time I heard the story.
The “more” than I alluded to, as in more thoughts, are as follows:
I’m not sure what I think of Delany’s ideas as presented in that post. I suspect there is something to it, though. Most people agree that excellent writing (or other creative work) is 5% inspiration (talent, etc.) and 95% perspiration. But most people seem to say this and then want to talk about the 95%, and leave the 5% alone. Because, of course, it would seem apparent that writing programs can do nothing to address that.
Hmmm. Then again, I also think that there’s a certain tendency among some creatives to say these kinds of discouraging things as a way of romanticizing their own work and their identities as creators. They may not be wrong… but they may be emphasizing it for reasons other than describing how human creativity works.
What I’ve read about creativity (I did what research I could on the subject a few summers ago, while working on an academic paper), though, suggests that the difference between great artists and the rest of the population seems to boil down to quantitative differences in motivation, rather than qualitative differences in thought processes… that so-called geniuses in one or another creative field are not (a) more genius in all fields, and (b) are not performing their acts of genius by performing qualitatively different sorts of mental processes. They’re doing what we all do in problem solving, they’re just way more interested in the ride, and explore different solutions to problems that most of us are happy to solve in the quickest, easiest way possible.
But that leaves open the question why so many of the greatest jazz musicians were so eccentric, as driven home by a truly hilarious blindfold test with Thelonious Monk I read earlier this week. (I found the link over at Ethan Iverson’s wonderful jazz blog Do the Math.) The anecdotes about Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman… and that’s to say nothing of people like Sun Ra and Albert Ayler. So many of the foundational, Grandmaster-level jazz musicians were really, really odd people, in ways that were immediately apparent in interaction off the bandstand. Wonderful people, too, some of them… but so many were ever so slightly (or ever so much) odd, by the terms of mainstream culture in their time, and arguably by the standards of our time, too.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if part of the hostility towards arts education–on the part of plenty of people who still show up to teach workshops–isn’t in part a reaction to having depended on educational work as a day job at one point or another… a resentment of their complicity with the system. Delany was a creative writing instructor for decades, so he obviously believes that writing can (and should) to some degree be taught. Is he talking about the students who excelled in his classes? Or the ones who had failed to excel by the end of those classes?
I suppose it would help to read the essay the pull-quote was taken from. If only I had a copy of the book… or, rather, if only I didn’t have a ton of other books already paid-for and loaded on my Kindle (and some paperbacks of actual novels by Delany, too) waiting to be read.
But at the moment? I’m still digging my way through Defoe’s Moll Flanders…
I was listening to Jah Wobble’s album of William Blake-inspired music, which starts with this track:
Doing a little more investigation, I found a neat interview with Wobble from around the time he put that out. He talks a lot about the struggle to balance anger and integrity with the mental, emotional refreshment and grounding that one needs in order to be creative:
He’s right: a certain degree of anger and honesty is energizing, but too much of it will just embitter you, and I know I’m certainly on the unbalanced side of it — and I know how it can poison your creativity. When Wobble needed time off, he went and drove tube trains on the London Underground. For me, at one point, the change of scenery that came with moving to Korea was the refreshment I needed.
Well, this afternoon Miss Jiwaku and I caught a train to go to Yongsan and watch Harry Potter in the IMAX, since my grading was all done and she had some time to kill before before a meeting tonight.
Predictably, right after writing what I consider is a pretty balanced and measured Year in Review post, a crazy bastard on the train was staring at us. Some would say I should have ignored him, but I’m tired of ignoring people staring, especially since it makes Miss Jiwaku uncomfortable. So I (very non-aggressively) shrugged and gave him a look like, “What?” or “Do I know you?”
Within about thirty seconds, he was shouting at me for being a crazy American GI spoiling for a fight, and when Miss Jiwaku told him I was Canadian, he claimed Canadians are “even rougher than Americans,” which he knew from his “travels abroad.” (Somehow I doubt he knows what he’s talking about, though the comparison was in any case nonsense.) She told him off a little, and he kept asking if I wanted to fight him or something, to which she pointed out he was bringing up fighting first. Eventually we moved to another car on the subway train, but you know what? It’snot just tiresome… it’s something that is happening with great regularity now.
And which never once happened to us in Jakarta though we spent almost every day outside for a couple of months solid. Miss Jiwaku, having lived there a year, said it’s just not the kind of thing that happened there to her, though barely a day goes by without some kind of unpleasant encounter on the subway. Me, I have found us in situations where crazy men were shouting and threatening us, for nothing, about once every two or three months, sometimes even more often.
What I am saying is what I’ve been saying over and over here, I think to make sure I don’t chicken out or something; I’m finding Korea to be less and less a place where I can enjoy my life, and these idiots who freak out on us every few months (or weeks, these days) seem to be making that even harder. Balanced is just not something one finds much of in Korea.
So, well… I’m running my one-second self-tests and checking my battery voltages:
Which reminds me, there is always room for that other kind of Countdown:
Trane went through a big break-away from how he’d lived before, too, sometime in his thirties. I guess it comes to everyone. Here change comes, with six caps in its revolve and my name is on everyone. Let’s see which direction they send me careening in this coming year.
You know better.
You know most people would rather eat what they always eat, think what they’ve always thought, drink what they’ve always drunk, read what they’ve always read. You know that so many people have no idea how interesting a world of diversity and difference is. They say “Everyone does it this way,” whether explicitly or implicitly, because they wish everyone was just as boring as they are.
So many people — is it wrong to say most? I’m not sure it is — couldn’t be bothered. They’d rather just stay in their rut. It’s comfortable, it’s easy. Sure, the rut is a little wider in some societies: some people will be willing to eat Americanized Chinese food, for example, or takeout curries or try some other mass-market watered-down tasteless beer. But wide or narrow, vast numbers of people live in that rut and aren’t really interested even in expending the energy to hop up to the edge of it and see what’s out there in the world beyond.
Rut is actually the wrong word, except insofar as it reminds us that people are indeed stuck in them. Ruts are for wagon wheels, though; ruts imply going somewhere, however routine, however mundane, however familiar. Ruts, at least, implying some sort of movement.
What were once ruts have been dug too deep, though. They have become trenches. And the people stuck in them have become unwitting soldiers in a war they don’t really understand — like soldiers in any war. There they hunker down, compelled by Sony Music Corporation (or JYP) and Microsoft Windows and Budweiser (or, for you Canadians, Labatt’s, or you Koreans, Hite and Chamiseul) and 20th Century Fox and Hyundai a million other companies, tastemakers and marketeers and profiteers of bored petulance and re-treaded crap.
And even some of those who do venture out into the No-Man’s-Land beyond the lip of the trenches, mostly don’t open themselves to it, don’t take it in. They go out there and live in a foreign land and return home without much sense of what they were immersed in for years. They insist on finding a McDonald’s in Bangkok, a KFC in Beijing, they critique the subtle differences of fast food chains in Seoul and Paris and Buenos Aires, and they bitch and whine if there is no Burger King to be found in Delhi, or if they have to go without kimchi for a day in Phnom Penh. (Sadly, such homogenoautism at least are all too easy: for the trenches stretch across so much of the world today…)
In other words, once they get out into the interstitial place, they long for the trenches. They’re used to the damp and the stink and the cold. They want it. They’d rather see dirt walls all around them than the sky.
In the face of that: expect such behaviour. Plan on it. Don’t be cynical and write everyone off, but be realistic enough to know most people — even smart, intelligent people, and to differing degrees according to social conditioning — are just too plain stubborn, or closed-minded, or lazy-assed, to ever imagine moving beyond their comfort zones. If you offer people who are trapped in the trenches a hand, don’t be shocked, angry, or bowled over when they decline aid in a chance to escape.
Be surprised (and pleased) when it is not exhibited, though. There are people in the trenches who want out, who want to see an enjoy more. They want to hear songs they’ve never heard before. They want to taste foods they’ve never heard of before. They want to wear something other than the clothes they wore yesterday, something other than whatever everyone else around them happens to be wearing. Not just because they want to be nonconformists — for nonconformists often make a great effort to conform with other supposed nonconformists — but because they crave alternatives to the rut, to the trenches. Because they know they were born for more than the same junk everyone else is endlessly, inattentively filling their lives with.
These people are like you. These people are previous. Appreciate these people who do dare to follow their noses instead of the crowd. Save your energy for encouraging them, nurturing their healthy tendency, and helping them to broaden their own horizons as they see fit — and letting them, likewise, direct you to orchards of unknown fruits, fresh and ripe for the sampling.
Don’t expend your time and energy putting pearls on pretty velvet cloths when you know they’re just going to be stomped on by hooves, to the music of snorting. Set out slops for the herd, put the pearls in a corner, and see who wanders over with the telltale sign of interest on their faces.
Meet those people. Make an effort to meet those people. Make an effort to connect them to one another, for they need one another desperately, and you need them too. Open up your time to them when you can, for you will learn from them as they do from you. Invite them to events that the herd would never consider attending. Suggest new experiences, media, foods, and so on… and listen to them when they suggest things to you. Build or join an underground of interesting people. Fortify it, strengthen it.
Grow. Don’t build an alternative trench and settle down in there. This trench warfare crap doesn’t get better just because you’ve built a new trench. Trash your music collection every once in a while. Give away your paintings and start over sometimes. Burn (or box up) your DVDs and books, and reboot your tastes sometimes.
Build. Network. Grow. Build tunnels, a network of them, an underground railroad for thinking, growing people. A network that is almost — but not quite — hidden from the view of the stunted. Take risks with those people. Mount a live music series for free. Paint on the sides of buildings, or people’s faces. Make a photo exhibit online, or find some other way to get your creativity to other people.
And yes, you need to be creative. It’s you, or corporate rock, corporate art, corporate fast food, corporate TV and film, mass-market corporate fictions. We can only bludgeon the Big Mac, Harry Potter, and Britney Spears off the stage by presenting something as interesting, delicious, or exciting in its place.
This will confuse the swine. They think anything on a stage is good. For them, the stage, rather than taste, is the defining factor.
Once we have the stage, we can take over the culture, or build a significant subculture. Make the things you love cool, insist on it, and gape in shock at the gauche dorks who are so not with it, who are still listening to yesterday’s crappy pop song and wearing the same sorts of threads their predecessors wore ten years ago. It’s been done before. The Beats did it. African American musicians did it. A small core of black American musicians sent American music in a completely different course, several times in its history. The Impressionists did it to French art. The significant, active core of American modernist poets could probably fit into a modern classroom, and they changed poetry.
What we need is a Rebirth of the Cool, but not as formulated by companies, by brainless bureaucrats and crack salesmen (for corporate pop music, fashion, food culture, and everything else is like nothing as much as it is like crack — addictive, mind-rotting, worthless, and a black hole for culture). What we need is Cool as formulated by people who are interesting, intelligent, and mentally equipped with the ability to be different.
As for the others? Why waste time trying to help them see? They don’t want to see, any more than swine want to have brain modifications and chat about philosophy and architecture. Let ’em scramble to catch up. They’re not the point of this world, they’re shitty leaders, they’re awful decision-makers, and they’re mostly just not worth the trouble en masse. They crave leaders… why not let them follow people with their brains switched on for a change?
Corporate Everything is in collapse. Thank you, Internet. What will take the place of Corporate Everything?
We have to. It’s not job, it’s not duty. It’s the only hope we have of not being bored to bloody tears by whatever crap the masses, in their infinite boredom, deem bland and tasteless and familiar enough to adore. For our own sakes, much more than for theirs, we need to take the dangling reins, and move the hell forward.
And when our creation has become the New Corporate Everything — when the companies have zombified it, done a Herbert West on it, then it’s time to grab the gas can, douse our creations, and burn them… and start again.
Cultures are supposed to grow, change, develop, branch off, and variegate. If someone has installed a braking system on our popular culture — and most certainly, someone has, because that facilitates factory production, replicability, and more — then we need not only remove the brake pads. We need to saw off the braking system completely, so that the brakes cannot be repaired, put back into place, or used again.
It’s time for the interesting people to step up to bat. Some have. Have you?