Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Bravery of the Writer and the Dilemma of the Delicate Dermis

There has been all manner of speculation, in recent times, about the dinosaur epidermis - the texture, the tint, whether feathered or scaled, armored with coarse hide, or bristling with horns and spikes; a variety of evolutionary solutions to the ongoing bloody battle of tooth and claw.

 I have been pondering lately the fragility of the writer's skin - that delicate membrane so easily pierced. What defense mechanism can we employ against the critic's barb, the agent's dismissal, and the reader's disdain? And I wonder again at the path we have chosen. To spend years upon years in a dedicated literary endeavor - to agonize in the darkest hours, before the world awakens, over scene-setting or plot point.

Then, when finally complete, to endure the long-winded rebuttal of remote publishing agencies who read little, if any, of the submitted work. And if so fortunate to persevere beyond this, to emerge in the full-independence of self-publishing, or to find a House that suits, then of course inevitably follows another battery to which our frail covering seems singularly inept. For not only does our Pragmatic Critic lurk in the shadowed peripheries of our own mind, but there are, indubitably, those bothersomely opinionated sort that exist beyond our private residential allotment - who will proceed to voice their thoughts regarding plot, character and dialogue - done well, or not - many of which, despite the validity of independent opinion (are some more valid than others? A provocative suggestion for which I doubtless deserve a slap on the wrist!), can itch and aggravate our delicate dermis.

But of course Praise and Accolades are always coveted additions to the literary fireplace - greeted with open arms and a grateful heart. The knitted brow,  the pursed lip  (tight with disapproval), the head shake, the low-toned skeptical muttering - that is another thing. Rather like those remote relatives, with whom one is barely acquainted, that impose themselves with unerring regularity upon the rest of the family. And who must, of course, be duly tolerated. As a recipient of literary criticism - how ungrateful I am! After all, I suppose that this external critic (as opposed to my own internal Pragmatic variety) has gone to the considerable trouble to read my novel (no mean feat at 180,000 words! - they earn points for stamina, surely?) and certainly should be accorded the respect every thoughtful response deserves? But how, then, to continue? I was told once that I possessed an 'awkwardness for the historical material', and that I should consider a profession other than the penning of fiction past. Dagger to the heart!

What defensive mechanisms might we writers employ upon such occasions? Spitting venom? An inert facsimile of death? Or perhaps we could acquire a carapace of toxic hue, mimicking more venomous cousins? What evolutionary mechanisms might serve the literary purpose? What robust exoskeleton might protect the soft innards of the writing endeavor? And if there is such that suits, how do we acquire it? For I am eagerly waiting in line! For what is it we wish for most devoutly? To be impervious to critical asides, to the snickering of those who uncannily target the areas of  maximum vulnerability? Perhaps the only reason criticism achieves full velocity,  impaling upon the bulls-eye, is because it insidiously coincides with our own private fears. For we are, figuratively speaking, chewing our fingernails to the quick over this or that...secretly wrestling with whether that plot turn was effective, or that dialogue appropriately portrayed, whether the opening pages proved too dense and unfathomable; whether, in short, the work engages. What armor have we? Absolutely none. Just a thin and pitifully permeable membrane - thinner than the average probably. After all have we not years of hopes, fears and anxieties accumulated behind this particular venture? And is it not a hard-birthed literary offspring that we bring into the world? We are, truly, as invested as the most doted of parents, surreptitiously cleaning faces with spit, straightening attire, and hissing urgent whispers: "stand up straight! Smile!" It is not that we seek mindless affirmation (although doubtless rather nice in doses!) as much as thoughtful confirmation. Yes - you are on to something here! Yes - this resonates with me! Yes - this lives beyond the rigidity of page and ink!

And there is a place, of course, for criticism of the thoughtful kind; some jabs that must be allowed to penetrate the casing. After all is that not what enables growth? Keeps us attuned to the perspective of others - which must be considered when it is these others for which we ultimately write? So - an armor casing of some flexibility - an intelligent sheath that enables some to pass and keeps others at bay. (Which of course the human immune system achieves splendidly!) Naturally, we lack this shell, this protective mechanism. We bare our shivering skin to the elements; our nakedness, with all attendant blemishes, wrinkles and sags, on display for all to see. This is the reward for years of labor (devoted as it may be).

And then? Then we must stand proud, raise our faces to the warmth of the sun, grasping hold of each other's hands - others engaged upon a similar task. For most of us there is no particular financial reward for this path taken - quite the opposite in fact; doling out for this review blitz or that blog-promise, time spent on media platforms in the fruitless hope that of the thousands who follow, one might buy. For it is extraordinarily difficult to separate oneself from the numbers, isn't it? The paltry sales, the quiet oblivion into which the hard-worked novel seems to be resigned? How to distinguish this from private notions of literary worth pondered over in the dimness of predawn hours? I do not entirely know. Perhaps the answer lies in the burning light within that sustains the literary endeavor. For there is a flame, a driving need, a restless imperative to write that overcomes all else. That will not be denied. That is, perhaps, stronger than the fear of novel-reception, stronger than the worry of hours spent and the lack of industry-related financial remuneration.

 The overwhelming evidence is for the continuity of life - the feathers a tantalizing thread tying lumbering quadrupeds of yore to the hollow-boned flying familiars we see gracing the skies today. Simply a matter of quiet perseverance, is it not? The insignificant rodent-like mammals that roamed the Jurassic landscape, furtive as they were, survived to become the dominant species in present time. So we too, writers of all hue, must be similarly brave - baring our literary works to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; many of which will draw blood. But true courage stems from a dedicated doggedness despite fears of the outcome; from striding headlong into the fray ready to engage regardless of the dread that bids us cower and hide. For can a writer be truly happy without a pen in hand, without a plot to forge, without characters to ponder? And so I salute all writers, impressed beyond measure with the courage of those who pursue this calling, and proud indeed that I can number myself among these inestimable peers of the pen.