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As some of you know, eugie has changed editorial hats and no longer runs Tangent Online.  She's the new head honcho for The Fix, a short fiction review zine.  As part of that change, my column that I used to write for The Fix, "The Day Job," will restart.  The Day Job is loosely centered on the writer's life, and what it's like to do this job when it isn't my career.

Here is a sample column as a teaser:

The Day Job

            When I was a little kid, I read a Tales from the Crypt comic book about a jazz saxophonist whose only goal in life was to blow the ultimate riff.  As he saw it, out there somewhere existed a string of notes that when played properly would rip the lid off the universe.  He tormented himself in the search for it.  I remember deep blue and black panels where the saxophonist crouched on the edge of a skyscraper or sat on a subway terminal bench or leaned against a tree in an urban park, always playing, his eyes closed, fingers searching for the right progression, the proper intonation.  The rhythm.  The soul of it.

            J.R.R. Tolkein talked about the search for perfection too, in his beautiful story, “A Leaf by Niggle.”  Niggle wanted more than anything else to be a painter.  His subject, a tree.  The problem was that he wasn’t particularly good, not at trees, anyway, although he did manage a good leaf now and then, and the real world kept interrupting anyway.  Sometimes it was intrusive neighbors.  Other times relatives dropped in.  Often his daily routine kept him from his true passion, to paint something perfect.  Of course, Niggle’s difficulties were not only that life seemed to be conspiring to prevent him from painting, but also that his vision of the perfect painting kept changing.  The painting he was working on, splendid as it was in some ways, wasn’t exactly what he wanted to paint.  Still, even at the end when death came calling, Niggle wanted to continue trying to perfect his imperfect art.

            I know that feeling.

            Every story begins with perfection, the blank page.  As I sit with my fingers poised over the keyboard, the potential for a string of words so powerful, so exact and moving that I’ll weep to type them seems only a few muscle twitches away.  Then I begin to write, and what falls on the page may be adequate in a sort of middling way, but the words there fall short of what glowed in my mind before I started, and the farther I move into the story, the dimmer the original vision grows.  In the end, the story finishes, which sends me into the revision mode, another writerly activity that’s as fulfilling in its own way as the original composition, but still has the feel of me as a sculptor’s assistant, following behind with a trowel and a bucket of plaster to seal the cracks, erase the seams and smooth the rough spots.  Necessary and interesting, but hardly noble labor.

            Every story ends with a twinned sigh of satisfaction and disappointment.  Once again I have completed a work: writing has fought the good fight against chaos and the eventual heat death of the universe, but the story didn’t really win the fight either, and it exists as a faint reminder of what I set out to accomplish days and days earlier when the page was blank and perfect.

            It’s depressing.

            Here’s what keeps me going, though.  In the Tales from the Crypt story, the saxophonist eventually succeeded in his quest.  One night, he poured everything that made him who he was into his playing, and, for a moment, the lid to the universe came unhinged.  What watched him on the other side turned out to be a Lovecraftian nightmare.  The obsession for perfection called an elder god into our world, and the thing snatched the saxophonist away.

            Shades of Narcissus or Arachne or Pygmalion!  To achieve perfection is to rival the gods, and the gods take such behavior poorly.

            Who would want that fate?  The myths’s messages are that I should be content with my imperfections and not worry about the words that don’t sing with as pure a voice as I imagined them in the moments before I go to sleep.  Gods punish the presumptuous.

            But I don’t believe in the gods, at least not the Lovecraftian ones or the jealous Greek ones.  What I believe in is the more realistic middle ground, which is that perfection in the written word may be possible, but it’s unlikely that I’ll know it when I’ve done it, just as most writers who have ever penned a fine thing didn’t really know it when it happened.  The reason I’ll never know is that I always have the vision of what I wanted to write.  I can’t forget it, ever.

            I went to a concert once where a student of mine was a featured soloist.  When she stood to sing, she transported me to places I’d never been musically.  Who would have thought that singing could be so uplifting, so ethereal?  I half feared that maybe some jealous god might rip the concert hall’s ceiling off, then squash her on the stage.  What happened instead was that the audience rose to their feet at the end and clapped and clapped and clapped.

            She told me later that the praise embarrassed her.  “I missed a note,” she said.  “I lost a beat in the third stanza.  I wasn’t even thinking about the song for the last couple minutes.  My mind wandered.”

            “But you were perfect,” I said.

            She shook her head.

            I wonder if all the writers I admire would say the same thing about their greatest works: “I missed a note.  I lost a beat.  My mind wandered.”

            I once asked James Patrick Kelly how he wrote one of his great stories, “Think Like a Dinosaur.”  He said, “The same way I wrote the crummy ones you’ve never read.”  He didn’t know that it was any better than any other piece he’d written.  He certainly doesn’t think it’s the best story he’ll ever write.  Nope, he’s metaphorically still perching on the edge of a skyscraper or sitting on a subway station bench or leaning against a park tree trying to write that ultimate riff.

            That’s where I am too.  The page is blank.  All possible worlds exist there.  One will appear.  Maybe, like Niggle, I will fail at the tree but at least make one beautiful leaf.  Maybe the audience will rise and fill the hall with their adulation.  And maybe, just maybe, the gods will come.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
mckitterick
Oct. 10th, 2007 03:07 pm (UTC)
Fantastic! Thanks for sharing this.
jimvanpelt
Oct. 10th, 2007 03:14 pm (UTC)
Hi, Chris. I realized this morning that I have a tendency to make long posts. It worried me for a moment, then I went to my life mantra, courtesy of Popeye, "I yam what I yam."
mckitterick
Oct. 10th, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC)
Eh, the only issue with long posts is that people hurriedly reading LJ will often skip them, but if something catches their eyes, they'll pause and read a little more. People interested in the content will stop to read. I was a little of each, so I was guaranteed to read this post!

PS: Ba-da-boom, tsch!
redwill
Oct. 10th, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
An excellent thought-provoking writing.

Rimbaud must have been a bit like the saxophonist, believing for a while that if only he could write the perfect words, it would change everything, reveal all, show the universe. He lost the dream early.

This part of what you said: ''... the farther I move into the story, the dimmer the original vision grows.'', may be why everything I write is so brief. Part of why. There must be other reasons, but surely this is one of them, and important.

May be that I just run out of inspiration after the first flash of words to say my thought. Run out of thoughts altogether. A single-point artist.

It would be very hard to achieve intense universe revelation in a long form; length dilutes the vision.

And gives more chance for error.

david_f_g
Oct. 10th, 2007 08:50 pm (UTC)
I call it the Mind's Friction.
You pluck a perfect idea out of the ether, but it has to get washed through the hardware we call a mind and the software we call a soul. What comes out the other side is...less than perfect. I don't know if that's an original term or not, but I like it. Hmmm - does that mean that SF writers experience Science Friction? Sorry. I mean, I'm really sorry about that one.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )