Wednesday, February 5, 2014


I had one of the less pleasant experiences of life as a writer and scholar yesterday: setting aside a project as unworkable.  While at work on one of the many essays that lie before me, I realized that I was, in effect, doing nothing more than offering confirmation of a critical theory voiced decades ago.  While there is some value in establishing that a given theory is valid and can therefore be used as an interpretive and evaluative model (which is what literary theory tends to do, rather than providing predictive power as scientific theories tend to do), it was not the project I needed to be writing, particularly not for the venue for which I was writing it.  So I have set it aside.  (I am happily already making progress on another, better project for the venue, one I hope will be taken up for publication--if not there, elsewhere.)

Experience suggests that this will come as a surprise to a number of people.  There is a prevailing concept of writing as an inspired act the flows freely without effort; while there is some truth to inspiration, the impetus itself never suffices.  (I have discussed this before.)  Much effort is involved in making the thing inspired a thing worth reading, and even then, there is no assurance that what is thought to be worth reading actually is (in no small part because the definition of that is is frustrated, Clintonesquely).  Sometimes those efforts lead down false trails--and the trails have to be walked for a while to be known as false.

There is also an idea floating around that pieces of writing, once begun, must be carried out.   A thought, once had, must be developed fully and either let out into the world or shut away--but the idea with which a writer begins has to be that which the writer continues and concludes.  This is not the case.  Essays are trials, by definition, and sometimes that which is tried fails in the testing.  There is no shame in rejecting unsuitable materials or the results of faulty production.  "Creative" writing (as though essays are not themselves creative) works much the same way.  There are times when the story is bad or the lines are, and at such times (absent a personal blog on which to post them) they ought to be discarded.  And this is right and proper; the bad should not be allowed to impede the good.

None of this is to say that it is not annoying to have to set aside work done as work done badly.  Few enjoy the realization of insufficiency even among those who accept the necessity of the realization; that a medical procedure is necessary does not mean that it is not painful or that recovery therefrom is not difficult.  And it is not pleasant to think that time was wasted that could have been sent to better effect on other ideas.  But for that last, there is some comfort; knowing what paths lead to no good end helps to eliminate them from selection, and learning what does not work helps lead to finding what does work, so that the time is not wasted.  The lesson of humility, which seems to need repetition, is also of value, and the experience of putting aside a project as unworkable helps to teach it.

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