Saturday, 29 October 2011

Every Day in Every Way I'm Getting Better and Better: N M Browne

As anyone who knows me will testify, I love a good argument - the four minute or the ten minute variety. I don’t go in for rancour or nastiness but a fair and frank exchange of views sharpens my brain, not to mention my tongue, and adds a certain spice to life.
Lately I’ve been arguing online - surely the biggest and most pointless time sink yet discovered - about progress. No, not evolution or anything contentious like that, but the view, firmly held by many people, that the more we write the better we get.
It is partly the fault of those of us who teach creative writing; we suggest that students will improve with practise, with redrafting and rethinking, with time. This is true enough of very inexperienced writers, but I’m not sure it is true of the rest of us. Will our next book be better than our last? Well, it kind of depends what you mean by better doesn’t it?
I always want to do something different. Each book is a new departure, an experiment and by virtue of the fact that I have not written this particular book before - I am always a newbie, making new mistakes, screwing up in ways I hadn’t thought of before.
I was surprised that this view was not universally acknowledged as a self evident truth- as even well known writers don’t always produce their greatest work at the end of their lives, and how many brilliant first novels are never followed up?
Yet the response to this view was horror: ‘ I could not go on if I felt like that’,‘ Unlike you, I will keep striving to improve my craft,’ or words to that effect.
It struck me that as a society we want to believe in progress, economic, social and personal and are inclined to ignore evidence that does not fit this thesis: the idea of continuous self improvement has moved on from being a nineteenth century religious aspiration to a twenty-first century fact of secular faith.
I don’t think it is true and it doesn’t bother me in the least. I am about to publish my tenth novel and have written a couple of others that may never see the light of day, I am completely comfortable with the idea that each one is not ‘better’ than the last. I don’t feel I have yet produced my ‘ best’ ( though I might have) that isn’t really for me to judge. I just keep bashing away, taking each idea as it comes, trying to shape a good book, meet the challenges I’ve set myself and get it out there. What about you? Are you getting better?


B. R. Collins said...

This seems very sane to me! If I thought the default position was to get better and better it would be so much harder to experiment - and fail - with equanimity.

Gray Woodland said...

I think I am, irregularly and in most ways, getting better with experience. Given your outlook, I think it's as apt to be true of you, too.

I don't think improvement means each yarn I spin is very likely to be 'better' than the last, for more or less the reasons you describe. But the more stories and perspectives I try my hand at, it really seems to me that the more chances I have to succeed big by my own measure or fail big by anybody's, because there are more different things I'm equipped and moved to try.

This is not a career-oriented view of progress, though. To somebody who does (or must) consider art mostly as a craft and a regular trade, carving out a highly specialized niche and then optimizing it within an inch of its life is one reasonable definition of progress. To me, it's more like falling into a highly pleasant, and possibly genuinely productive, rut. I'm basically a sloth and I don't object to pleasant ruts, but I'm damned if I'll actively aspire to them.

And yes, I think that in the large you're right about the myth of progress, and its sheer vacuous insidiousness. If progress isn't towards something more definite than an airy-fairy general 'improvement', what does it even mean? Progress by my lights is great: the cult of 'progress' at large is just the same con as prosperity theology or fatalism, wrapped up in a brand new cloak, and I despise it almost as heartily as either.

I don't want to write 'some good books'. I want to write some particular books, and necessarily to do so as well as possible. And I do not wish to sacrifice any part of the Muse's fire or my mates' laughter for some ruddy Boy Scout Progress at Storycraft badge.

Having a wandering star and following it is a grace: here's to it!

Joan Lennon said...

"I just keep bashing away, taking each idea as it comes, trying to shape a good book, meet the challenges I’ve set myself and get it out there."

Thank you, Nicky, that is exactly what I do, and it's great to see it so vividly put!

Stroppy Author said...

I commented early yesterday on my daughter's laptop from Oxford but blogger ate my comment, so I'm doing it late from my much trustier laptop.

I'm sure YOU improve with each new book, Nicky - progress does not mean each book must be better than the last (some won't be as successful as others) but that you are more accomplished, willing to try different and perhaps harder things, have added more skills to your bag of skills... all this is progress, of course. Sometimes when we try something new it doesn't work, but we have learned something (progressed) by the trying. If I didn't think I was learning or practising something with thing I tried I would get very depressed.

Nicky said...

I don't see writing that way. I don't see writing as a bag of skills, or a box of tools -only a series of projects completed with varying degrees of success. That doesn't stop me hoping that the next book might be the one and it certainly doesn't make me depressed!

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