November 27, 2005

Note to Self: Remove Scaffolding

I’ve come to the conclusion that one thing I need to do at this point is stop aspiring to mainstream publication. I spend decades in the grip of that striving, and while it brought good results and taught me the traditional craft of narrative fiction, I think it’s also kept me from knowing who I really am as a writer. What would I be writing if there were no commercial publishers who could say Yes or No to it? That’s what I should be writing.

The fact that, in the past several years, my work has drifted further and further from what publishers want, has caused me unnecessary turmoil and frustration. All I would have had to do was keep writing but stop striving for mainstream publication, and the pain would have gone away and the situation would have clarified.

In order to gain mainstream publication you need to be a sensor and amplifier for the zeitgeist – and I’m not. I have no interest in things of the moment. I’m only interested in things that last. That may make me a snob and it may blind me to things that are outwardly of the moment but have lasting value, but it’s a part of my makeup I don’t want to change.

In the movie ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, the main character, a video artist, is showing her video to a gallery owner. The gallery owner says (paraphrasing), “I’m looking for things that could only be done now, not things that could have been done in any era.” I don’t know if that scene was written with ironic intent or not, but it seems to me to express the standards of all mainstream art entrepreneurs I know about. And if material is only of this moment, I’m not interested enough to write about it.

Creative writing students nowadays are taught to write in acknowledgment of and in consultation with everyone around them: fellow students, teachers, critics, famous writers of today, and perhaps even the great writers of the past. I used to write in emulation of the great writers of the past. At this point it seems to me I should write in consultation with none of the above.

Doesn’t that leave me hanging in empty space? Well, yes. An interesting view.

Anyway, it’s only an ideal. It would be impossible for me (though not perhaps for everyone – not for Kafka) to achieve. I’ll fail to meet this ideal the first time I post something in a traditional genre such as haiku – perhaps tomorrow.

In tai chi, when we first learn a move we learn its most complicated form. We analyze it part by part: “Shift to the left, shift to the right, turn to the right, step in, step out, turn to the left, shift to the left…” Those analytical instructions are useful scaffolding for the learner. Once we’ve practiced the move, we don’t have to think about each part. Nor is it merely that the parts become habitual, unconscious. The movement itself becomes simplified, smoothed out; the separate parts disappear from outward view, and the practitioner makes the move his own, not simple a learned mechanism. He gains a higher understanding of the move’s essence. This is known in pedagogy as removing the scaffolding.

In my case one major part of the scaffolding is the desire for publication. It spurred me to keep going as a writer, but it is no longer necessary and it only gets in the way. Another part of the scaffolding is consciousness of conventional genres. Whether I’m writing a novel, a short story, or a microfiction; whether it’s science fiction or realism; even prose or verse; should be irrelevant. I need to make this art my own and feel its essence.

Another comparison from tai chi: people who studied “hard” martial arts in their youth can attain a higher level by studying this “soft” art later on. They can graft their new understanding of the power of strategic yielding onto their old skills of strength, speed, and self-defense. By doing so, practitioners can achieve a breathtakingly high level of martial skill. But there are also people who begin with tai chi, begin with softness, and don’t think of it as to be used for conquering opponents. Once in a great while, such a person can take softness to such a high level that without thinking of victory or defeat at all, he or she can spontaneously, overcome all opponents. Martial skill is merely an unplanned side effect of higher developments, and by no means the most important effect.

As a published fiction writer, I resemble the former kind of practitioner. I trained in the traditional forms and now I’m trying to add something different, something opposite, but with the ultimate hope that it might eventually help me in my mastery of those traditional forms. I’m not one who begins and ends with “softness” – with pure individual vision. Nevertheless I hope to take my art to the highest level I can. And if an ideal of pure softness helps me continue, so be it.