And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good –
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
Indeed, what is good and what is not good? As quoted above (one of my absolute favourite quotes, from Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, who pilfered it from the Dialogues of Plato – which will be included in the sidebar sometime soon …), the question of quality is a fundamental that underpins every aspect of life. While I’ll set out to avoid a profound philosophical discourse, I do wish to discuss the subject of Quality, and its affect on writing.
I am the first to admit that while I have held a lifelong affinity for writing, my professional immersion in the craft has been strictly a recent event. It has been in writing Harbinger, and discussing editing changes with Ange, that I developed certain ‘conventions’ in my writing. Like any number of successful authors or musicians, I am aware I now have a ‘style’. A concern I am intellectualising is whether this makes me a less of a legitimate ‘artist’ because I have readily identified my quirks and conventions.
One of my earliest was using ‘ands’ frequently to join/emphasise descriptive phrases. I still do this on instinct, but tend to tone it down. Anyone who reads my work knows I am a huge user of commas, to the point of madness (- weak punctuation pun in that sentence). Other things I notice (and these are often transitory things that sweep me up in phases) include short, staccato sentences (Harbinger & Hear No Evil are good examples of this), always putting the spoken dialogue before the speaker (except in joined, fragmentary sentences), starting sentences with ‘ing’ words (walking, looking, throwing etc. – I forget the technical name – lack of sleep), and using many unnecessarily verbose words (yes, I am aware that the hallmark of a novice writer is ‘overwriting’ a story with many complicated words – a habit I am also trying to minimise). I also notice I use far too many brackets when blogging (have you noticed?).
I have also forayed into cliched territory with my stories. It is an unfortunate reality that there are only a few basic plot/story lines to draw on – that every story ever written will simply be a variation on one of these universal archtypes. I acknowledge that. I am not widely read enough to know what has been done before, and what is being done elsewhere in the world. Billions of people are coming up with trillions of ideas, ensuring very little is truly new. I can only hope that my variations are sufficiently unique to attract attention. Even when I stumble on a cliche I recognise (Bump in the night is one), at least I’m having fun with it. You can’t ask for much more than that – except for editors to publish them.
Okay, back to the philosophy …
Does this self analysis mean my work is destined for a life of ridicule by supposedly literary critics who label my work as ‘same ole same ole’, placing me in the same category as familiar, predictable, authors/bands who grind out variations on the same, unending theme? Sure these people have followings and are often commercially successful because people come to like their ‘formula’, but does that mean they are quality practitioners of their craft? I won’t buy into the arguments here, but part of me worries about going down this line.
The other part of me thinks the opposite. I am settling into a comfortable style, one which allows me to express my story ideas in a format that I consider literate and entertaining. Having a vehicle for the story to readily take shape allows me to highlight the idea. This, in many ways, is the heart of the matter as far as I’m concerned. People can quibble over style and the use of words for words sake, but ultimately it is stories that sell. Stories are ideas. In that sense, I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.
It is the entertainers, the storytellers, that rule this world. Many of the highest paid people in the world are story tellers – the actors, movie makers, musicians and authors. These said same people, regardless of their relative paycheques, are culture-bearers. The culture of the western world (the entire world for that matter) is propogated by the culture-bearers – the storytellers, the prophets and the historians. There can be no greater glory, or responsibility, than furthering the world’s culture. The world’s collective imagination is where I lurk, planting little seeds that bear my name. My life’s wish is to plant enough seeds that bear fruit. Perhaps one day, long after I am dust and the world is a very different place, the legacy of my work – of my mind – will linger on. That is true immortality.
‘If you can’t define Quality, there’s no way you can subordinate it to any intellectual rule.’ ZATAOMM, p 216. was originally used as a condemnation by Robert Pirsig of the Esthetics philosophical movement, it its attempt to classify Quality, which he kept undefined by definition (as the basis for his deeply profound philosophical insights). It is my personal belief that quality should remained undefined. This very notion has spawned a number of sayings (‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ for one). My favourite (also from ZATAOMM and the catchcry of the ancient Greek Sophist philosophy) is ‘Man is the measure of all things’.
Quality in writing is such a subjective thing that my reasoning above ultimately remains academic masturbation. Editors have their own prejudices. Many are exposed to the cliches and writing styles that I characterise. Many are not. Do I deserve success if I unwittingly plunder well-worn paths? Time will tell. The problem with unwittingly doing anything is that you don’t realise a dozen people (or a hundred) have been there before. With my eyes closed, I confidently stride forward into personally unexplored territory. Let Quality be my guide, for without that one sacred ingredient, even the path less travelled will end up looking like a spray-on driveway in Balga (Perth people will understand the reference – vaguely).
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