Wednesday, November 7, 2012

IWSG: Bridging the Chasm


It's the first Wednesday of the month, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

Today's quote is about that long, often troubled journey your work takes from the back of your mind to the bottom of the page. Have you ever measured the fruit of your toil against the grand promise of the original idea and found yourself a little disappointed? You're not alone. In fact, you stand in the company of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Twice a winner of the U.S. National Book Award for his short fiction and children's literature, Singer was known for writing his books twice, first in Yiddish and then in English, often with significant differences in style. He considered the English versions more than mere translation, calling them his "second original," which has lead to some debate amongst readers over the "true" versions of his work. He had this to say about the aperture that exists between that spark of inspiration and its eventual yield:

"Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper."


Isn't it funny how unbridled truth in a potent enough dose can serve both as a reality-inducing punch to the gut and an inspirational propellant all in one blow? I can't tell you how relieved I felt when I first read this quote some years ago. It's not just me. Sometimes when you stare at the words you've produced, you can't help but shake your head and wonder what happened to that masterpiece you thought you were writing. It makes you feel like a fraud, as though you've shortchanged yourself by wasting all that time, shortchanged the muse by mistranslating the unfiltered excellence she brought you. The next time you start to feel that way, read this quote and smack yourself.

Even the best of us cannot perfectly reproduce that feeling of awe and excitement we get when inspiration strikes. How could you ever hope to capture something so perfect that it makes you drop your silverware in the middle of a meal, leap out of bed in the middle of the night, tumble out of the shower with shampoo still in your hair? You can't. All you can do is dash after it and hope you gain enough momentum to carry you across the finish line.

But the more you give in to that chase, the harder you work at it, the nearer you will come to closing the gap. So keep at it. Keep putting the hard work in, and you will notice improvement. Keep indulging those ideas, no matter how short of the mark you think you're coming. Eventually you'll begin to learn the language of the muse, one word at a time, and your translations will become clearer and clearer. You might never feel you've managed to bottle the whole thunderstorm, but that's no reason not to allow yourself a little satisfaction at having held a bit of lightning in your hands.

And at the end of the day, it's a good thing to feel you haven't done your idea justice. The first step in bridging the chasm is realizing it's there, acknowledging how far you must go. Don't ask me what the hell the next step is, because I haven't made it that far yet. I'm still peering across mine, wondering how big a ramp I need to build. If I ever make it across, I'll see you on the other side.

17 comments:

  1. This post comes with a perfect timing, James!

    It's really astonishing (sometimes shocking) how big a difference there is between a daring vision and it's limited manifestation, between idea and story, between the writer's inspiration and the reader's perception.

    You know I've started revising my manuscript, and after reading it (and hating the way it sounded compared to the vision I had of it) I started rewriting it from the ground up, with lots of improvements and additions I still can't believe I omitted the first time around. I've learned so much from this very experience of observing that chasm you spoke of, and devising ways to bridge it (for the time), than I've ever learned from theory, however useful.

    I'm confident that realizing there is such a chasm between our vision and our results is a great first step (a leap, maybe) toward working harder and improving, as any ambitious writer should. It's the prerequisite of growth.

    Thank you so much for this very encouraging post! I'm deeper in the trenches now than during drafting, and I'm so thankful there are other writers out there who have been through the same experience and emerged victorious. It gives me hope and energy! So thank you! :)

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    1. You're welcome, Vero! I'm glad to offer encouragement. We all need it from time to time in this crazy line of work.

      And you're absolutely right. The writers with real talent are those who recognize the gulf that exists between what's in their head and what's the page. You can't improve without first recognizing that there is, indeed, room for improvement. Those who delude themselves into perfect word syndrome will never grow in their art. Honest self-assessment is the first step to improvement in any field--and in writing, it often happens when you first peer over that chasm.

      Thanks for reading, as always!

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  2. Hey, nice to meet you.

    Closing the gap, I hope.

    Great post. Thanks.

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    1. You're right, these is something comforting in discovering famous writers have some of the same hang-ups and issues as the rest of us!

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    2. Thanks, farawayeyes! Good luck with that gap.

      Camille, it definitely helps when I read an essay or interview with a writer I admire and realize they were facing down some of the same issues and obstacles that I find myself tangling with when they were writing some of their most famous works. Very motivating!

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  3. You just do the best you can.
    I visualize everything I write, and it's tough to get it from bigger-than-life, blockbuster movie to the page. Usually it comes out as a screenplay, and a skimpy one at that!

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    1. Absolutely, Alex. And as long as you keep doing that best, before you know it, that gap will get smaller and smaller.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. What a great post. This is one of those things that it's nice to know everyone struggles with, at least to some extent. We just need to keep working! :)

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    1. Thanks, Rachel! You're right. Sometimes it can feel like you're the only dealing with whatever speed bump is in front of you, but it's just not usually the case. We all hit those obstacles, including the absolute best of us.

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  5. Oh, I totally get what you're saying. I think it comes down to focus and how capable you are of zoning in on what you're trying to get across to the reader through the fictive experience. That is actually extremely difficult to write. I know I always need the guidance of my books on craft to figure it out and make sure I'm staying on-point and going deep enough. Even then, I still might not be pulling out all of the story's true potential, but then... what author ever does?

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    1. You're right, Cathy. It definitely helps if you can maintain a tight focus on the message and experience you're delivering and can honestly assess the tools at your disposal to do so. That way, you can play to your own strengths and try to build up your weak areas in the process.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  6. "We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper."

    That last part is so true for me! I can never seem to get down on paper what I see in my head. It's so hard for me. This is the perfect post!

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    1. Thanks, Dani! It's not only true for you; I think it's true for most of us. I couldn't tell you how often I'll read back a story or a scene and wonder what happened to that grand, original idea that seemed to perfect and wonderful in my head.

      But keep on trucking! You'll get better at closing that gap. We all will.

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  7. I'm doing my best in my head, I get those ah ha moments too...in the shower, on the toilet, in bed. Why does it happen then? Why can't it happen when I'm sitting in front of my computer?

    LOL. Great post, got me thinking and now inspired!

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    1. I ask myself those questions all the time. Sometimes it's hilarious to look at the notes I sleep-typed on my phone when an idea came while I was half asleep in bed.

      Glad to have given you a push toward inspiration, Diane! Thanks for the comment.

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  8. JW, you're always so gosh dang inspiring!

    I love the quote, and the post. I often look at my work and say, "Huh? Why'd this sound so awesome in my head?" It's kind of like when you go on a drinking binge, think you're awesome all night long, and then the next morning your friends tell you how much of a fool you were. It sometimes is for me, at least!

    Always second guessing and wanting to aspire to better things is good though--it means you *are* always aspiring to better things!

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    1. Haha, well I must admit I'm a teetotaling stranger to drinking binges, but that sounds like a great analogy! Inspiration can definitely feel like a drunken, creative stupor when it's got you in its grip.

      But you're right, continuous aspiration is the mark of the professional, especially in the face of adversity. Thanks for reading, Randi!

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Thanks for reading!