Retracing the steps of others
The struggles of a writer
I’m not sure that I have a lot to say today. Let me put that differently. I’m not sure that I have much to say that others haven’t said before and better.
But I’ll try.
I should read more. I should read different. I should read more poetry.
My friend David sent me a note recently with his favorite passage from the Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.
The excerpt begins,
“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure”
A whole new start and a different kind of failure.
Too much crap
I’ll never write as cleanly and as clearly as that. I don’t stand a chance if I don’t even read writing like that.
I mostly read a combination of technical books and crap.
And I listen to a lot of podcasts.
One of the podcasts considered whether or not to follow advice from an article that screenwriters should read both good scripts and bad scripts. The article argued that you learn a lot from both.
The two hosts agreed that you probably do - but they no longer had time to read bad scripts. Instead, they read good scripts and identified the parts that didn’t work for them. That was enough exposure to writing that wasn’t great.
I read too much crap.
It passes the time and comforts me. I enjoy it. But I also wonder if it exposes me as being a shallow thinker.
I think of myself as a teacher and a writer.
Being a better teacher requires that I be an active student.
Becoming a better writer requires that I be a more critical reader.
Eliot understands the struggle of improving as a writer and reminds us that
“Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it”
Have I learned not to say the things I no longer have to say?
I recently listened to another screenwriting podcast on which the hosts had invited a poet turned screenwriter. He talked about the difference between what you could express in prose, on the screen, and in a poem.
I need to read more poetry. I need to read more classics. At the end of a long day, I pick up a mystery and lose myself in characters and locale.
I smile when Stout writes of a character who dresses themselves in a way that makes it clear that their waistline isn’t where they think it is.
Each morning I get up and write some more. A book, an article, a blog post, some code, an email, an ephemeral thought sent to social media, this essay …
An essay has come to mean something more formal, but it comes from the French and means a try. For me it’s an attempt to access a thought and express it.
Again, Eliot has been there before me and reminds me that
“each venture Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.”
I nod and think, “yes - all of that.”
How does Eliot know so much about me and so much about what I encounter I sit down at my laptop to write. Is this what it was like when he sat down at his laptop (checks the online bio) more than one hundred years ago.
It turns out that Eliot has, of course, anticipated my frustration at him understanding what I am feeling and expressing it years before. He’s experienced it himself and passes it on to me saying that
“what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
I actually find comfort in this.
There is no competition
Of course we must discover things for ourselves and put them into our own words and contexts.
And when I write a book or deliver a training my hope is that it will trigger something in my audience that will allow them to make it their own.
Again, Eliot better expresses something I’ve said for years better than I ever could.
“there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again”
What’s the point? Are we just producing remakes of existing movies?
I don’t think so.
When I can, I watch my friend Mark’s sermon. Our beliefs - or more correctly his beliefs and my lack thereof - couldn’t be further apart. But I am captivated by him taking stories that are thousands of years old, translated from other languages into our own hundreds of years ago, and bringing them alive to the congregation sitting before him.
The stories aren’t about an ark, a burning bush, or the turning of water into wine.
The stories are a fight to recover what has been lost, and found, and lost again and again.
We recover these stories by trying to retell them in our own way and by doing so we discover depths that we might have otherwise missed.
“Daniel,” you ask, “can you make a living that way?”
I do ok. But as Eliot reminds me, I can only control what I can control.
“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 165. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe