The Writing Life: Aiming High Part 4 – What if Nobody Notices?

In earlier episodes of this series I described what aiming high means for me, why missing isn’t failure, and why I think as any kind of artist it is beneficial to strive for more and push your own personal envelope, no matter what medium you work in. Go creatives!

These things are all well and good, but what if no-one notices your attempts to aim high? Wouldn’t that be terrible?

I love that idea! It makes me smile. It truly does. That’s the great thing about aiming high – if no one notices, you’ve still done it, you’ve still worked on your technique, your craft, your path to creating art. You have hopefully still learned and improved in your chosen field – which is the goal, surely? If your striving for more does not draw attention to itself then I’d say a) it isn’t a distracting mess, which is a good thing in a story, (looking at you, Last Jedi), and b) you maybe haven’t gotten it right. Yet. Or c) It worked well! Could that possibly be it? Should all experiments be noticed and discussed?

If no-one notices, and your story still works and people are enjoying it, you have a win. If no-one notices but your story falls flat, well the story needs work, and the challenges you set yourself didn’t elevate the language, the characters, the narrative, whatever you hoped to improve, so some investigation is required to work out what happened.

And maybe, in writing at least, (the visual arts are another kettle of fish!) unlike those early mathematical problems you had in school, it is better not to show your working. (My old maths teachers were infuriated by my tendency to skip parts of the problems, add 10 for no apparent reason, and come up with the right answer. “Show your work, boy! Where did that number come from? Why did you choose it?” I still don’t know how I did it. And no, I can’t do that anymore – it got drilled out of me!)

So maybe, if you’re like me, you don’t really want people to notice your attempts at new technique, you just want readers to enjoy the fruits of its (hopefully) artful employment: the artifice is supposed to be buried, to look natural: to become art. Only the result (the finished work) counts, and if you’ve got a good answer to the dramatic problems you set yourself, does how you got there matter? Do you need to show your work? In my case I’d say no, it is enough that it’s there, and did its job. On the other hand, as a reader I do like to spot nice rhetorical flourishes, or structural framing, as long as they are adding to my enjoyment of the book. It is a tough row to hoe, this writing business, as readers gain their pleasures in so many different ways!

I think that in writing specifically, unless you want to have your experiments with technique to be the story, unless you want the artifice to be the star of the show, then having your attempts to push your own artistic envelope slip by beneath the readers’ radar is no bad thing. If looked for by readers who enjoy such things, they can be dug up and investigated, but they don’t need to be front and centre. Joyce deliberately studded some of his writings with mysteries and technical wizardry to confound the critics, I would say Shakespeare did not: he used a lot of techniques in order to entertain and amaze. William gets deconstructed, I don’t think he deconstructed himself in advance.

So there you have it: I think if nobody notices your experimentation with style, form, or technique (or anything else you may focus on), you just smile and keep right on at it, pushing harder the next time!

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