Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mastery Is Boring

Yesterday morning I had an interesting dream about family, romance, a disturbed peace in the wee hours in a house full of people, a bell tower, a skinned rabbit, a snowy walk, and some other things. I'm hopeful that I can turn this madness into a story that's at least semi-coherent, because my first workshop is three weeks from yesterday and the only idea I had before this dream was too weird for workshop. (Maybe. We'll see after a few stories have come through the class.) Despite anxiety about not having written a standalone short story in over a year (!?!?), and the sense that I may be stuck not striking out into the experimentation I want to try because this idea doesn't suit it, I'm kind of looking forward to this story. It might be something good. I have lots of options for how to approach it, so I'm in the process of narrowing them down.

Yet I don't feel good at all about starting on something new before I've finished the last two stories of the secret project. It saved me, this project, and it was going so intriguingly and well, and I don't want to leave it behind unfinished. Even after the drafts of the last two stories are done, it won't be anywhere near finished, but right now, were the secret project a sculpture of Athena, I'd be leaving a humanish figure shaped out of rough clay with only one leg. It won't do. But I don't think I can write two stories and draft a third this week, in part because it's a short week, because I'm doing something amazing over Labor Day.

I drafted part of a post about the broad and odd concept of "favorite" in the hope of explaining my Labor Day plans, but it kept coming out dull and I'm too excited about the plans to stick them in something dull, so I'll just tell you: it's a writing and yoga retreat with my favorite living writer, Lidia Yuknavitch, and a yoga instructor named Jennifer Pastiloff. It's in Ojai, which is only about an hour north of where I live. I feel as if someone designed this workshop specifically for me, former yoga teacher and lifelong writer, and I'm still awed that I get to do it. I'll be staying in a yurt for the second time in my life, and this time, crickets of California, I will be bringing earplugs.

So. Although I wish I could spend all weekend with my head in my notebook, finishing this project to which I owe so much and getting going on the next adventure, I will either have to manage those thousands of words on the weeknights (while doing oodles of other homework), or I'll have to set the secret project aside and just work on the story that's attached to a deadline.

From Toothpaste for Dinner by Drew. This doesn't resemble my creative process much, because
I am insufferably well-prepared most of the time, but I love it all the same.

I've been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's new podcast, Magic Lessons. I suspect the whole endeavor is rigged as an advertisement for the book she's got coming out later in September, but it's also a nice short podcast that fills in the gaps on my commute. She's a thoughtful and big-hearted person, and though I don't love the podcast, each installment has given me at least one little gem, a creative tip or standby that I need to remember or use when I'm writing.

The most recent episode's gem was "Mastery is boring." Yes. True. Once you have attained mastery of a subject, you're not striving anymore, not hungry anymore, and a lot of interest and motivation to keep at the subject goes kaput. I hear this and get it and believe it is true, but there's a but. Non-mastery is a good thing, since there's always more to learn and life's about the journey and yadda yadda, but it's also kind of disheartening for a person who never feels like she moves beyond intermediacy at anything. In creativity, in general, is there ever a moment of arrival? A safe, high plateau where I can look at the view, get a drink of water, breathe, feel content?

I've thought about this with regard to The New Yorker Short Story, and/or The MFA Short Story, which, as I read more and more of them, I realize I have little interest in writing. I have tried to imitate them, and I can do so with okayish results, but I don't enjoy reading them very much and I really don't enjoy writing them. The Joycean epiphanic short story, the Carver minimalist short story - these forms are just not what I like about writing. I know I'm drawn more to the novel, or to the story cycle, than to individual stories (and I know it's part of the reason I don't write stories especially well: that my bent is to novelist rather than storyist), but even when I do want to write stories instead of novels, this overwhelmingly dominant form of story is something that I could feel fine with mastering and then leaving behind for warmer climes.

But do I even want to try to master it? Wouldn't that be boring?
Game designers have already made significant strides to solve this problem by controlling players' mastery in stages. Which is why when I started to talk to Matt about this podcast gem he went "well, yeah" and told me how he and his co-workers build levels.

I guess that brings me back around to where I started this post: the story I need to write for workshop on the 21st. At this point I think I'm going to write it straight, like The MFA Short Story, but (again) that would not be very interesting for me so it might not turn out that way. I admit I don't know what the stories look like that I want to write, but I do know they look nothing like Carver and not a lot like what generally appears in the New Yorker. I don't think I can find an undiscovered country in fiction - few can - but I hope to find a milieu where apprenticing doesn't seem quite so tedious.


Bret Hays said...

I'm not so sure mastery is boring, and I don't think you're so sure, either. Mastery of a closed, designed process like a game is not like mastery of a medium that allows you to express the infinite possibilities of your dreams. The "old masters" of the visual arts were able to express themselves in enduring ways and change the state of their arts. You're more like the game designer than the imagined player. Mastery means the sky's the limit.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I'm not so sure we're talking about the same thing.

Something I learned as I was putting this post together is the notion of mastery as an asymptote: as you get closer to mastery, the effort you put into achieving it gets greater and greater. And you never do actually get there. (Not that I understand the mathematics behind asymptotes, so please let's not extend the metaphor much further.) Lifelong perfectionism has made me understand this notion in practice before I knew the vocabulary for it.

Also, mastery of syntax is different than mastery of sentences. Mastery of Joseph Campbell is different than mastery of screenwriting. I consider myself a master grammarian (ah'rm h'rm), but that doesn't mean I have mastered sentences, which have infinite secrets. I know enough to know that I know very little. That gap, between capability at syntax and capability at sentence, keeps things spicy.

On the other hand, I don't read books for second graders anymore, because I'm pretty sure I've learned all there is to know about books at that level. They are boring. Part of why I find writing interesting is that I don't actually believe I can learn all there is to know about it in the years I have remaining on this earth. If I believed I had learned it all - mastered it - I'd probably quit.

Bret Hays said...

Well said!