Two decades ago I was chatting with a well-known and highly successful artist at a cocktail party that was being held in the salon of an art collector.
As we were getting acquainted, our eyes fell to a work of art on prominent display. It looked very cutting edge, to the point where it made no sense to me at all.
Yet, the hostess who had chosen the piece knew far more about it than I did, so I decided to keep my opinion to myself. Besides, I was not going to offer an uninformed judgment it to a world-renowned artist.
My problem solved itself when the artist turned to me and said, a propos of the piece we were examining: “He needs to work harder.”
Given that the man who uttered those words produces works that seem effortless in their grace and beauty, I understood that he was saying that it takes a lot of very hard work to make art look easy.
It’s the art world version of Dolly Parton’s line: “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.”
Great art, then, is more perspiration than inspiration. Perhaps this allows us to overcome the idea that if we destroy the Protestant work ethic we are going to give rise to a world filled with brilliant manifestations of spontaneous creativity.
Since we have already done significant damage to said work ethic, we should know that when a culture overcomes it, it produces jejune splatterings and pompous psychodramas that pretend to be art.
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an article by the superb novelist, Allegra Goodman. In it she describes a moment when, as a teenager, she came to realize, from reading Aileen Ward’s biography of John Keats, that talent and inspiration were not enough to make great poetry. It was more important to engage the hard work of editorial revision. Link here.
In her words: "Like many literary teenagers, I believed that art was a matter of instinct—that the artist's first impulse is the most authentic, that revision is something you do to essays but hardly applies to poetry or fiction. I pictured revision as drudge work, spoiling all that was fresh and original. But what if revision actually improved ideas?"
The key to good writing is the writer’s ability to edit his writing, to step back from it, and to look at it objectively with fresh eyes.
To achieve greatness, a great writer will have to know how bad initial drafts are, and will be able to overcome the chagrin he feels when he recognizes that the good feelings he had while writing the draft did not translate into supple or even interesting prose.
A great writer will go through many, many drafts. Coleridge notwithstanding, no one produces great lines of poetry without reworking them over and over again.
[FYI-- I am referring to Samuel Coleridge’s contention that he dreamt his poem “Kubla Khan” and simply wrote it down when he woke up. Whether this is true or false, the notion has surely led many young artists astray.]
This is not just about art: being able to step back from your work, and to look at it with fresh eyes, is crucial in other occupations.
If you are an executive or a professional you should try to step out of yourself to see how you look to others. Do you look like you are in charge or do you look like you are scared? Do you look like you grasp the situation or do you look like you are in over your head?
This is not introspection. It does not involve empathy. It requires a harsh objectivity, an ability to judge your work without thinking that you are judging yourself.
Perhaps you will be surprised-- I was not-- to learn that if we follow the advice that the therapy culture has been meting out, we will all become bad artists, unsuccessful executives, and probably not very good people, either.
As Goodman says: "We grow up hearing that we should just be ourselves, and listen to our inner voices. But what if your authentic self won't shut up? What if your inner voice is boring? In revision you cut excess verbiage. Revising, you can experiment with other voices."
As for those therapists who believe that artists are in closer touch with their unconscious minds, Goodman writes: "It's great to tap into your unconscious, but remember how impressionable the unconscious can be, how quick to absorb the tropes of television and romance and life-affirming or cautionary memoir. Revision means testing and questioning conventions, forging a path through the cultural clutter that we mistake for our own creativity."
It’s not just about prose stylings; it’s also about ideas. Goodman is saying that many of our most dearly held beliefs are unexamined ideas that we pick up willy-nilly from television or the movies. Once we discover that these ideas have some value as cultural currency, we adhere to them with conviction.
It is essential to test one’s beliefs, to question them, to look at them as though they might not be gospel truth, as though they might not be the perfect expression of the warm feelings we had when we thought them up.
For Goodman the process of revision is more science than alchemy, more experimental than inspirational. She concludes: “Like a scientist, I test my ideas and hone the words I use as instruments. Revision is a form of experimentation, art a method for discovery.”