Imagine vs Do)
I wonder which gymnast commentator was the first to excitedly shout “…and he sticks the landing!” It’s become a staple of the sport, used to signify that the athlete has performed some particularly difficult dismount, and still managed to land with perfect finesse. In this sport it isn’t so much about how many flips and twists you can do in the air, it’s how many you can do while still maintaining your control through to the end.
This is “theory versus execution,” and “easier said than done,” and “not just talking the talk but walking the walk.” In so many circles of life people are far less impressed with what you can imagine, and more so with what you can actually do.
And yes, this applies to writing as well. The fact is, coming up with a great idea for a story is not that hard. Go attend any writer’s group and you will meet dozens of people who all have “great ideas.” And it’s not that they’re wrong, either. Every person has a genius inside of them, and when they really set their imaginations to something the result is both exciting and awe-inspiring.
Yet very few of these would-be magnum opuses ever actually get written. It’s one of the greatest tragedies that so much creativity goes unrealized, so much potential goes squandered. And why does this happen? Well, “easier said than done.”
I’ve written about this before, the gap between imagination and execution. The talent is not in having a great idea, it is in being able to give a voice to it. We do not praise Da Vinci for having the image of the Mona Lisa in his mind, we praise him for actually getting it onto the canvas.
Failure and Fear)
I’m sure we can all think of experiences where an author has gone for something impressive and left us disappointed. Just recently I read a novel that had me cringing as the main character had a story related to him, one that was meant to be wise and profound, one that would compel him to action. And while the main character was nodding his head and expressing amazement at such “profound wisdom,” I was just rolling my eyes at such shallow kitsch.
Of course some authors may wish to avoid falling flat on their face like that. And so, if the story calls for a moment of grandeur they try cheat their way around it. They will say something impressive happened, but they don’t actually show it. I remember a film where the main character stood up to give a rousing speech at the film’s conclusion. Instead of actually coming up with something meaningful for him to say, though, the movie simply drowned out his voice with sentimental music and slowly panned past a row of people, all nodding as if they were hearing him say something very moving.
That’s hardly any better, and it’s quite possibly even worse. So what then? Well some authors will just avoid including anything meaningful at all. There’s no risk of flubbing an impressive sequence if there just aren’t any impressive sequences. Or maybe they figure out how to do one thing right, and then they just churn that out over and over with every story. It’s like that childhood friend who could draw Fred Flinstone really well…but only from this one angle and in one pose.
In my work-life these sorts of limitations are not tolerated. The software industry is ever-changing and ever-evolving. If you stand still and never stretch yourself, then you will not keep your job. Perhaps your work is poor quality, you will get feedback on that and you will be expected to improve. To improve you are expected to ask for training and put in the hard work to master that area. Once you have mastered that task, then the process starts over as you are expected to now take the next step.
Sometimes you see the moment of epiphany in a new developer’s eyes, the moment when they finally get it. Their daily work isn’t the software, it’s the improvement. We aren’t asking them to “do their task,” we’re asking them to “own their craft.”
That transformation is where the worker becomes the true professional. Steven Pressfield, a very accomplished author himself, explored this very notion in his book The War of Art. Here he explains that being professional isn’t about being paid, it is about being a master of one’s craft and not accepting any personal limitations. The professional author is a true artist of the page, one to whom creativity is both the means and the end.
If a professional writer found he couldn’t stick the landing he wouldn’t rewrite the scene to hide his weakness. He would say “well, I guess that’s what I need to learn next.” When the professional writer publishes her next book she doesn’t “play it safe” and just rehash everything she did before. No, each of her entries is a testament to how much she’s challenged herself, and how she’s grown to meet those challenges.
My Own Downs and Ups)
The second short story I published on this blog was called The Houses’s Finest Hour, and it was my attempt at doing an ambient piece. For the entire post I ignored characters and plot, and instead focused on describing a location, using all of the long and flowery sentences I could muster. I did it because I knew it was something I didn’t do very much, and I wanted to give myself a challenge. Well, I certainly succeeded in that regard.
It was one of the most difficult things I had ever written. I just wasn’t any good at it. I wrote and rewrote, and second- and triple-guessed every sentence. It took tremendous effort to post what I did, and frankly even then it still wasn’t very good. I knew it wasn’t very good, but it really was the best I could do then.
At that moment I knew I had found the next thing for me to learn. Throughout the entire year that has followed I have returned numerous times to this same task, not willing to let that freshman effort be my final word on capturing an atmosphere. Almost all of my work has involved scenery-painting in one form or another, and a few have even been built exclusively around it. Sculpting Light, Deep Forest, and The Last Grasshopper all represent milestones in my journey to improve in that regard. In fact, just two weeks ago I posted Washed Ashore, which represents my latest attempt at writing a piece that conveys a palpable mood.
I would say there is obviously still room to grow, and I still haven’t given my final word on that subject. But I have actually improved, and I am glad I didn’t try to shy away from a portion of storytelling just because I wasn’t very good at it initially.
Being able to pull off an impressive narrative sequence is, in some ways, what being an author is all about. It is a large part of what characterizes and defines all of the most celebrated writers. If you really want to make your next piece sing, you’re going to have to write that is hard.
That’s what I’m personally going to be doing with my very next post. In my current story I’ve already introduced our main character Taki, and established that he is about to engage in some sort of futuristic and dangerous racing competition. Now this particular sport is going to be central to all the rest of the story. So I really need it to be something that is exciting and original, somewhere that the reader will want to spend time. The reader needs to readily understand how this sport works, they need to be utterly captivated by it, and they need to be curious to know more!
If I fail in this ambition, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. As I said, the meat of the story is going to be taking place around the race track, so if that track isn’t an interesting place to be then the story isn’t going to be interesting to read. I’m flipping off the pommel horse and I may just fall flat on my face. But I’m all for the challenge. In fact I’m excited about it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!