Posted by Dave Bull at 1:49 PM, May 5, 1995
It's a bit of a surprise to me that my little essay writing hobby is still rolling along steadily. I described earlier how it got started, with a small request from a weekly newspaper, but when I look back at the pile of pieces I've produced over the past nine months since I really 'got serious' about this ... more than 70 essays and one 'book'; I find it hard to believe that I really wrote all those. (I certainly haven't generally felt that I've been getting much accomplished recently, but evidence to the contrary is there in front of me - not only these essays, but a new woodblock print every month, the quarterly newsletters, the monthly print letters, and then of course, all the housework, cleaning, shopping and cooking, etc. What could I do if I really felt energetic?!
The other evening I spent a nostalgic couple of hours reading through some of the older pieces (can one actually be 'nostalgic' about something from only nine months ago?), and was struck by a couple of things. The first was how much they need editing; how clumsy many of the sentences are, and how poor I am at expressing ideas clearly. I had thought they were so well done ... But I have a good excuse - I am a beginner at this. Hopefully, if I keep it up, and try and be fairly self-critical, they will gradually improve.
The second thing I noticed, was that the shorter pieces were the 'better' pieces. I think this comes from the fact that anybody can put an idea down on paper, but developing it properly is far more difficult. (It is also probably due to the ideas being so 'simple' in the first place. They don't really need much more than one page to be expressed.) But even though I now read those pieces with a critical eye, that does not detract from my pleasure at having created them. Beginner I may be, but that means that the only way to go ... is upwards!
Although it is relatively easy to see defects in work produced some time ago, it is much more difficult to self-criticize new work. So in the interest of improving my writing skills, I have recently passed some of these pieces out to friends and acquaintances for their comments. Generally though, this has not resulted in much really productive criticism coming back to me. Friends are friends, and thus are not particularly willing to risk endangering a friendship with any 'hard-edged' comments. Their 'criticism' is thus almost universally positive ... nice for the ego, but doing nothing for the skills ...
It was interesting for me therefore one day recently, to get a chance to watch someone read a short piece of mine printed in a weekly newspaper. This person was only the most casual of acquaintances, and felt absolutely no obligation to praise the work, or indeed comment on it at all. And somewhat to my surprise, that's exactly what happened. I saw him read through the piece quietly, and when he got to the bottom of the page, he folded up the paper ... and tossed it aside. No comment. He then started talking about something completely different. Now, although I hadn't expected him to start raving about what he had read, I had expected something - some kind of reaction to the ideas expressed. But no, it had obviously struck no chord at all. It was completely of no interest.
I sat back quietly, and didn't press the matter, but when I returned home, I took out that little piece and re-read it myself ... Was it really that boring? Well, I didn't think so, but he was the judge, wasn't he! This little episode made me think a bit about the 'what and why' of writing these essays. What am I trying to do to the readers? Why am I doing this?
The second question is easily answered ... answered with that word used by kids everywhere - 'because!'. Just because. Because it gives me pleasure, and whether or not there are deeper hidden reasons for doing this interests me not in the slightest. I'm having fun!
But as to the expected reactions of the readers, I am not so sure. Am I trying to teach them something? No. I am not such a gross egoist (egotist?) that I would place myself in that position. Am I trying to incite discussion? That's closer. I love discussion and arguments, and never lose an opportunity to draw people out ... to find out what they think about things ...
Perhaps the easiest way to answer that question 'What am I trying to do to the reader?', is to reverse the situation. When I am reading someone else's essays, what do I want to see? Once put this way, the question is easily answered. I want to read something that will strike sparks. Maybe I will agree with it ... "Mmmm ... mmm ... mmm!", or maybe I'll be dead against it ... "No way!", but in either case, I want to read something that will incite a reaction, that will make me think. This is why I was so disappointed when I saw my newspaper story tossed aside so casually that day. Obviously it hadn't struck any sparks. Nothing.
But I had got what I wanted, hadn't I! I had been looking for comments and criticism, and this was certainly a comment. So thanks a lot for the advice, J . I'll take your silent criticism in hand, and keep it in mind when starting the next essay. The next one that is ... It's too late to put some more fire into this one!