Monday, July 21, 2008

Progress Not Perfection

A few months ago I acquired a new neighbor at work --- an impossibly cordial faculty member who moved into the office down the hall upon his return from Ethiopia, where he spent twelve years completing a multi-million dollar project in public financial management. Thanks in part to the water cooler in my office, we've become friendly, and after learning about my exploits as a novelist, he astonished and humbled me with a gift: a copy of the book he was reading called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark.

I require no tools or strategies, of course, having finished a novel (and that's if I ever required them). But I started reading, mostly out of politeness, and found that Clark himself writes with a fun yet practical zest that holds my interest. Also, the "tools" in question are very digestible, no more than 4-5 pages each. So I read one every few days.

Much to my surprise, I've already found ample use for all six of the tools I've read about thus far. Right now, for instance, I'm giving my last chapter a quick clean up so that I can read it to my therapist later this week (I have to read it to somebody). Within seconds of opening the document I found a paragraph that seemed poised for revision according to the "Fear not the Long Sentence" tool I had just finished reading about minutes before.

I have an aversion to long sentences. Nothing drives my flaky attention battier than some pompous author lacing his critically renowned and dry as hell novel with sentences that linger for dozens of words before approaching their point, leaving me stumbling through all their intellectual or subtly sarcastic asides, which seem intended to build some kind of micro-, sentence-level anticipation, but serve only to send me back to the beginning again and again, desperate to wrap my short-term memory around the whole of the blasted thing.

Thus, I'm only too happy to break up my prose into little candy bits. Probably to a fault. One of my friends and trusted editors politely observed that my writing was a bit "punchy," which at the time I took as a clear cut compliment.

Looking now at this paragraph in my last chapter, which consists of three blunt sentences screaming in chorus their desire to exist as one, I am reminded, yet again, that perfection in writing --- even perfection of your own subjective style --- is unobtainable. And isn't it a frustrating gift? Sometimes, as now, my evolution as a writer is so tangible I can be at once encouraged by the proof of progress and disappointed over my prior inadequacy.

No matter which of these emotions dominate, one thing is certain, which is that revision of my novel will benefit from a concurrent perusal of Writing Tools. I must again offer my gratitude to those who critique, even if indirectly, my writing, as Roy Peter Clark, and my neighbor at work who introduced us, have. My gratitude may start off bitter, but leaves, I hope, a pleasant aftertaste.


Amanda said...

That is so sad. I can think of no one I would rather not read to than a person I was paying to be interested in me. Are you Billy no-mates or are you just shy?

jim cooney said...

Billy No-mates? That's funny! I'm going to have to use that one at some point.

I just meant that I don't want to read my final chapter to friends/family and spoil the ending for them, when I'd rather have them read the whole, finished thing. But I have a strong urge to share the last chapter with somebody, and my therapist and I have a long and wonderful relationship (and sure, I pay her, but she does truly care about me, and understands me). I talk about my book often in sessions, how the writing process affects me emotionally, how the events and characters reflect my true life experiences and feelings, etc. She's in the perfect position to understand how finishing this story is affecting me, and can probably help me see a few things I wouldn't have on my own! Here's to emotional health.

And yes, I used to be very shy, but I've come a long way over the years. I'm planning to read in front of a few dozen people next week, after all.

Amanda said...

I guess this is a cultural thing - we're not so into the therapy thing over here. As for spoiling the end for your friends - that's what my best friend would be for! She and I have stood by each other from school days through first love, marriage divorce and childbirth and everything in between. We are each other's therapist I think is where I'm going with this and all it costs is mutual love and respect.

Good luck with the reading

Amanda said...

In anticipation of you going public on your blog I have posted you under my "other cool stuff" at Highlandmadness

J. Rosemary Moss said...

Hey Jim,

Hehe--as a long, long, long-term friend, I can honestly say that I don't ever remember you being shy! Or friendless, lol.

I'm guessing this is a cultural thing as therapists are so common here...

But, um, if you'd like an old pal (hint, hint) to read that last chapter, just let me know...

[Oooh! Ooooh! Pick me, pick me!...ahem.]