Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Humility as Growth

Lately I've found that when I read a novel I have a deeper understanding of what the author's doing, at least on a technical level. I might also claim to have a greater understanding of themes, but theme is a slippery slope where we often bring an idea to a book that the author hasn't put into it so let's just stick with the idea that nowadays I think I have a better understanding of the craftsmanship of the novels I read. When I read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway I was able to see right off what she was doing with perceptions and narrative-through-character rather than narrative-through-plot-action. I saw how she used that particular device to highlight the dramatic ironies of her story. When I read Graham Swift's Waterland I saw that he was coming from a postmodernist angle, where history is not linear and the narrative was a looping thing with the river Ouse as a metaphor for the circularity of history. I also saw--on a more practical level--how Swift was able to incorporate long stretches of history (nearly non-fiction writing in these chapters) into his narrative to create the larger structure against which the "modern" actions took place. I saw lots of other cool stuff in these books, but that's not the point of this post.

What I'm noticing in me as a writer (because, as Mighty Reader is happy to remind me, I'm never so happy as when I discuss myself) is that all of a sudden I seem to have a greater awareness of the really tricky things authors are doing, and I'm aware of just how difficult these tricks are to pull off. Which must point up something in the way of growth in my personal writing ability, but frankly the immediate result is that I see now just how damned much work there is to do in order to write at the same level as a Booker Prize-winning author.

I admit that I was feeling pretty cocky for a while. "I'm as good as anyone else out there," I told myself. "My books are just as deep, mature and well-written as the best books." And then a month or so back I read The Great Gatsby and saw how this short novel is better than anything I've ever written. Happily, I also saw why it's better, and I'm seeing why Woolf's book and Swift's book are better than the books I've written, so there remains hope for this egotistical author.

This reminds me, in a way, of learning to play in tune on the violin. First one has to become aware that one plays out of tune, and by how much. You do that by practicing scales (a lot) and one day you suddenly hear how poor your intonation is, and for the longest time your playing sounds absolutely dreadful to you. It's awful and humbling but it's a necessary step to playing in tune. Because it's only when you can hear the out-of-tune notes that you can tell them from the in-tune notes and so manage to hit the in-tune ones more often (it's not that simple, but that's close enough). So possibly my awareness of how much better the best books are than what I write is a form of my suddenly being able to hear how out-of-tune my writing is. I am actually listening to myself for the first time, maybe (to continue this lousy violin analogy). Anyway, as I say, on the one hand it's cool to be able to really understand a great novel in a deeper way, but it's damned humbling to see the gulf which separates my work from those great novels. On the other hand, it's nice to have concrete ideas for technical growth because that will give me something to do.


  1. Very insightful post, I love the analogy to the violin. Knowing what not to do can be just as important as knowing what you should do.

  2. Wow, wonderful post. I'm a bit jealous of this new ability you find yourself with, but it's given me some things to think about while I read. I have learned things - both what to do and what not to do - while reading, but I'm not so sure I can see all that deeply, at least, not all the time.

  3. I think your violin analogy is very accurate. I'm in a similar place at the moment, due to different pieces of my own writing. I'm realizing that as time goes on, I'm getting better at some things and neglecting other things. As I read my older work I appreciate stuff I'm no longer doing, and I wonder why I'm no longer doing them.

  4. I think I've reached this point in some areas of my writing and reading, as well, and it's very eye-opening. For instance, I couldn't fix anything on The Breakaway until I'd written three books after it - and read a lot of book in between all that. It's the learning curve - and that can be very high. I've seen it as a reaching the top of a peak and finally being able to see the valley below in all its detail, but then turning around to see about 20 more peaks to climb - and 20 more valleys to see. It's good to know there's not just one to reach because a lot of why I love writing is the growing aspect of it. That's part of what makes it so exciting and fulfilling for me.

  5. I see this most clearly as a teacher. When a student goes from thinking he's done well without being able to understand the ways in which he's not yet mastered, to realizing where he stands in relation to a new standard he has discovered: that's always a big moment.

    Unfortunately, many students don't get there. And some who do, become so discouraged they give up.

    This is where true interest and the resulting self-motivation comes in. If someone is truly interested in pursuing something, she fights through these obstacles and despair to get to excellence.

  6. Mr. Bailey

    I've had the draft of a post very similar to this sitting on my blog for several weeks now.

    I dont think i need that post now because you've captured what I wanted to say very well.

    More than ever, my favorite books are the ones that humble me. Sometimes, they humble me because I can't spot the machinery behind the words, other times because the machinery is visible and glorious.

    Cloud Atlas, The Brief Wonderous Life of Junot Diaz, And Then We Came to an End. These books have humbled me tremendously and I think thats a good thing too.

    Great post.

  7. I've been struggling with a nonfiction paper about the nature of narrative, and why certain things "work", how some elements cross cultures and other elements require the reader to arrived at the page with certain cultural artifacts already packed in their mind luggage. It's giving me a better appreciation for genres and writers who attempt daring and difficult things in their work. However, I still feel like I'm studying it from the "outside," not from "inside" where I could confidently replicate such techniques in my own writing.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate

  8. Tara Maya, Your writing is better than you think it is. :) Your paper sounds really interesting too. Can I read it when you're done?

  9. @ Domey. Ok, now I'm blushing. But sure, I'll shoot a copy of the paper over to you when it's done, if you're interested.

  10. This is one of the reasons I like reading the Lit Lab. While I don't always agree with you Scott, I learn tons from you all the time.

    On the subject at hand though, sometimes I wonder why I don't see the things you mention right away. If someone points it out to me, I might recognize it. But more often than not, I don't yet have that innate ability to spot things. I suppose it will just come with time and practice, but I envy you a bit. Congrats on achieving that skill level in your reading AND writing.

  11. Eric: I don't always agree with me (I'm a complex character that way). What I like about this gig is that I also learn a lot from everyone here (often by arguing and seeing how my ideas are merely unquestioned prejudices).

  12. @ Scott. Do you think *noticing* a technique is enough to use it? Or is there some other mystery step in between?

  13. Tara: Well, if you can't see it in the first place, you don't know it's there to use. I would guess that recognition is step 1, then trying the technique out is step 2, and actually using it with proficiency is step 3. Step 4 might be mastery of the technique such that you don't consciously see you're using a specific technique, and maybe you use that technique to obtain effects different from those in your original model.


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