“I see you’re a writer,” a friend messaged me. We had just reconnected via Facebook, after being out of touch for almost twenty years. She asked if I would be willing to critique a story. “Be honest,” she told me. “Don’t pull any punches.” I was honest. Her story was full of passion and longing. It dealt with family and belonging, hurting the ones we love most, forgiveness, redemption. It was not a very good story.
I never heard from her again, and the other day I noticed that somewhere along the way, we had stopped being Facebook friends as well.
I’ve had a number of similar experiences with amateur writers, and two things are inevitably true: the writer is wrestling with real and important subject matter, and she does not want to put in the long, hard hours required to make it something great—she wants to take a short cut.
In an interview recently, Ira Glass, talking about an artist’s apprenticeship, said, “there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.” He went on to say most people quit before they’ve gotten through this stage of making bad art.
In the novel My Name is Asher Lev, the naturally talented Asher goes to study craft under a master painter. The gruff old man warns Asher that it is not going to be an easy apprenticeship. It will be rigorous and often not much fun—but it is the only way. He tells Asher, “Only one who has mastered a tradition has a right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it.” You can break any rules you can get away with breaking, to paraphrase Flannery O’Conner; but you have to be doing it for a good and apparent reason, not because you don’t know any better.
Short of being born a genius, there are no shortcuts. You have things burning to be expressed? Important things to say? Be serious about your apprenticeship—learn your craft. If your passion is true, this will not extinguish your fire. It will refine it, focus it until it burns white hot and pure.