Writing better. I think about it every day although I only work at it when I have "time." Meaning, so much time on either side of a perfectly crisp, picturesque day where I can unload the dishwasher and keep up on Facebook and "write." I'm afraid this "time" and this "writing" makes writing seem like something precious. And while time might be precious, writing probably shouldn't be. As Karen Craigo said on Facebook said (see, Facebook is helpful!) and on her blog, there is no writer's block, there's just brilliance block. I don't have a brilliance block, I'll write anything. But, as I told my students on the last day of class last semester and to someone on Facebook today, that I really do wonder where writing and writing better intersect. I know I can write some drivel but can it be expected that I write less drivel now that I've studied writing (called "reading), and taught writing, and wrote so many words that they must go together in a better order somewhat more easily than they did when it felt like wrestled every word like I had to do in the olden times? Maybe a little. At least I have a sense of what I do, even if I don't quite know what I do well. I think I know what I do badly and I'm getting better at re-reading my words without cringing. Or rather, when I cringe, I don't just keep reading and pretend it's just me that's cringing. I stay and fix it. Is that getting better?
But what is this getting better? I had an agent once who really wanted the Salmon book to work and she had many hopes about my ability to make clearer what the book was about and how to make the book funnier and how to make the book more emotional but these were just abstract words laid across the very object-ridden words. I smushed the words to the left. I smushed the words to the right but it didn't make the book better, and, although we both wanted it to, it didn't make the book more marketable. Worse, I lost my voice for awhile, meaning, I wrote like someone else on Tuesday and yet someone else on Thursday.
When I teach workshop, I try very much to guide the students toward making their kind of essay or poem more of their kind of essay--a more nuanced, vivid, mind-blowing version of what they are doing and saying and imaging. But the reader (who they would like to be an agent or editor) does have an opinion. A "yes, it's working" or a "no, it's not." Their fellow-students think "better." They think whatever they want to think. There are fewer rules for thinking than for writing. They guide and over-correct and take it back and rethink. Everyone is rethinking together, which is my goal and my dream. True collaboration? I'd like it to seem at least somewhat that way. But when the students get home, they have to decide, which better is better? Is Joe's desire for more scene better or Jane's desire for more thoughtfulness? Is Jake right that the free-associating just isn't working here or does Jill's (I have no J-named students this year!) understanding that the free-associating mirrors the fracturing between two people who hoped to talk but couldn't the true reading of the piece?
What does better mean for someone who teaches workshop but doesn't partake in them? What does it mean when you're home, writing for days on end and wondering, is this better than yesterday, the last thing I wrote, the first thing I published, better than that book I just read, or at least approximating as-good-as? If it's as good as, is it just approximating someone else's voice? If the Paris Review says almost but not quite, if the essays and poems get liked, even if they don't go viral, if the essays get rejection after rejection, is that better? I try to live by the Samuel Beckett quotation, "Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." I try to fail better. But "I try" always sounds so weak. I get sweet rejections that say things like a little more focus or good but maybe trying to do too many things or I love your writing but it's not right for us. That seems like failing better but maybe it's failing worse.
My main goal for writing is to be as wild as I can possibly be while still writing a scene or cohesive image, evoking emotion (character, in fiction), and being clear (no lost antecedents!). It is also important to me to have something to say. My main goals for revising are not to cringe when I re-read the sentence. To move the sentences around in better order. To make sure the thread travels all the way through the essay or poem (which is harder to do in whole books but there I try too).
Should I have loftier goals? Besides the two I have which are ridiculous and true: save the planet and revolutionize what we mean by narrative?
Medium-sized goals are trying to write whole books from start to finish (I'm a piece-mealer with essays and poems. Fiction, I can write straight through but no one knows the fiction I've seen).
Even if my writing isn't better, thinking about better writing is fun and good for my students, who, I hope I can convince that writing better is better than getting an agent or publishing because the idea of better is a strange idea and is worth thinking about even if it's not necessarily worth writing about.