Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Precision v. Grace, Classical v. Jazz (or The Great Oz Has Spoken)

Last week I sort of unintentionally reread some feedback a professor gave me about a year ago.
While this piece feels done, it’s felt done from the beginning, and done in a way that, as impressive as the writing is, feels like there’s a cap on, holding everything together deliberately and tightly. I know this is what most writers aspire to, at least for a while. And then there’s the next stage, which involves letting go of all that tight control to dig deeper, to burrow, to be surprised. I think I already said this, and if not, shame on me. But really, if you can write this well, Katharine, imagine how well you might write if you were really writing. And by that I mean working the language intransitively, not acting upon but acting – not writing about (the self), but writing (the self). You clearly have all the craft skills you need to stop thinking so clearly in meaning. 
This feedback confused me. Even after I achieved some distance and met with the professor, the way forward did not come clearer. (I still didn't understand it particularly well in rereading last week.) But I set it up in the back of my mind, kind of like a canvas backdrop, while I went on and wrote to the best of my ability.

I blogged last fall about how much despair ensued when another professor unknowingly echoed what the first one had said. The backdrop rippled a little, starting to appear more realistic and less like scenery, but I still didn't know what to do with it.

This blog post does not tidily conclude with me figuring it out.

When I was immersed in yoga - first as a student, then as a teacher - I discovered, from watching myself do asanas in the mirror, that I would never be graceful. I am not a dancer, and no amount of effort will make me one. It's just not in my body to move with liquidity. So instead of attempting to be willowy when I practiced yoga, I went for precision. I strove for excellent alignment, for the closest thing to a textbook pose that my body could manage. I found contentment in the knowledge that even if I wasn't the most flexible teacher out there, at least I was demonstrating the poses with accuracy, that my hands and feet were in just the right places.

Part of the reason the feedback above confused me so much is that at the time I got it, I felt certain I was moving forward as a writer. The writing that earned this feedback was part of a then-new phase wherein I was looking at my work in a much more craftsmanlike manner - less like jazz, more like concert piano. I worked like a dog on it. I revised it back and forth and sideways, as if it was a task I was copy-editing. I invested effort, instead of letting the prose appear on the page the way I imagined it and revising it only to the extent that it needed to be comprehensible by others.

Subsequently, I got better responses - more frequent personal rejections, a handful of acceptances, different kinds of compliments from beta readers. I looked at the work more like work, less like art, and by all available evidence, the work improved in consequence.

But then this happened. The more I talked with my professor to try and figure out what she meant, the more she seemed to be telling me that the work had gone cerebral, and that was a bad thing. She seemed to be saying that it needed to be more like jazz and less like concert piano. I brought her a piece I'd written before the new phase, something more jazzlike, something which had been rejected I think 15 times and which pretty much no readers liked except me. She said she understood why I thought I'd moved forward from there, but - I remember this so well - she said "Don't you see how, even from the first line, there's this sense of relaxation? There's air in the sentences. Everything from the other piece, it's like you have to hold your breath while you read."

But isn't that the nature of precision? A sniper has to hold his breath before he fires, right? So the gun doesn't jiggle and hit the dictator's second-in-command instead?

Okay, that's probably just resentment. I can't argue with "There's air in the sentences," I really can't. What I've assumed, since then, is that the no-longer-new phase is just that - a phase. A period where my work is more invested in precision than in artistic expansion. Perhaps there'll come a time when I'm "really writing" per my professor, when I'll be able to let go of all that tight control and dig deeper in a way that's good and doesn't suck.


What if precision and control and airlessness is just the way I write? What if grace is not my jam? I was a much happier yoga practitioner and, I'm pretty sure, a much better teacher once I accepted that never shall I be a dancer, that my fate and my body are better suited to good alignment than fluidity. There's no shoving my hammertoes into ballet slippers, and I save a lot of pain in letting go of that endeavor.

So I'm too cerebral. So what? Right? Aren't there too-cerebral writers out there who find an audience?

Aren't there?

I still can't really find my way to understanding my professor's feedback unless 1) she just doesn't like the way I write or 2) it's a phase. If it's 1), well, okay, that's a row I can hoe. If it's 2), [wailing, crying, rending of garments]. It makes me sad and furious to think that I'm just continuing to go through phases, continuing to hit rest stops instead of reaching an actual destination.

Not that I think there's a point where you're done learning, done developing as a writer, that you've made it to Emerald City and you can just settle in the beauty shop and let them dye your eyes to match your gown, happily ever after, the end. No, you've still got to go and climb the steps and see the Wizard and hope he'll be merciful, and that's a journey I make every damn time I sit down to the notebook. But shouldn't there be some kind of peaceful place to spend the night? A place with a nice view, where it's not so obvious that there's still three-quarters of the mountain left to climb?

Like I said, this post is not the story of me figuring it out. And I'm sorry about the mixed-up analogies and the resentment and the confusion. These past several weeks have been unglamorous and inglorious, and unintentionally rereading my professor's feedback from last spring didn't help. In my mind, it's about time for summer, for a horse of a different color.

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