Wage War on Your Art

In the process of critiquing other’s writing, I aim to push the author’s work to be the best it possibly can. Yet often, after delivering my advice, I hear a notable sigh of relief from the author. “That’s an easy fix,” they say. But is the easiest route really the one to take?

I can feel for this proverbial author because it’s also me. For years I’ve fallen into the trap of already having the manuscript written. With hundreds of pages written, the work develops a sort of inertia. It refuses to be moved more than a nudge in any direction. I know that for many of my past works, short stories and especially novels, the thought of going back to make even the smallest revisions made me cringe. 

The question is, do we want to create a good piece of art, one that suffices, or do we aim for the best?

As a case in point, let’s look at Arthur Golden and the novel Memoirs of a Geisha. This is a book that took ten years, three drafts, and 2300 manuscript pages to create. The result, few would argue, is stupendous.

Mr. Golden states that working on Geisha was like waging war. He often felt like a “general looking down at the battlefield, trying to make a strategic decision.” The reason? He was unwilling to settle for mediocre. 

His first draft topped out at 750 pages and a third person point of view. However, he then had the chance to interview Mineko Iwasaki, who opened up about the hidden life of the geisha. I know that I would have balked at rewriting a finished manuscript, much less 750 pages. 

Three years later, Golden was finished again, only this time his friends said this new effort was “dry”. How often have we recoiled from similar critiques of our works? This sort of feedback makes me want to curl into a ball and wall myself off from the world. 

My gut reaction is to think that these critiques are missing the point. The work is good as is. Maybe a few tweaks. Something easy to fix. And we’re off to sending it out to agents and publishers.

Yet Mr. Golden persevered and wrote another draft, this time in first person from the point of view of the geisha. The result was a novel that dominated the bestseller charts for years. 

So why do we rush toward the finish line? True, early writers simply want the joy of finishing something. Except most of the writers I work with, including myself, have multiple finished novels under our belts. Yet still we rush. 

Recently I’ve begun to slow down. A flash fiction of only 500 words dominated six-weeks and went through four top-to-bottom rewrites. Something I would have never done before because it would seem like wasted time. But every sentence I craft, whether it makes it to the final draft or not, is experience to learn from. 

My most recent effort at a novel encountered a serious critique early on. I really love this project and I know that if I forge ahead with a quick fix, I will soon be hundreds of pages in and the inertia will be too great. Better to step back and accept deep changes now. Six months in, I only have two chapters to show. But they feel solid (though nowhere near done).

In the end, a quote from the anime My Hero Academia keeps sprouting up in my mind. In the series, the top super hero All Might becomes a teacher at a school for fledgling heroes. He notices something about the candidates. “The slight difference between those who always aim for the top and those who don’t… It’ll come to a matter in a big way.”

None of us like to dig into our already finished work. We want to release it to the public and bask in its reflected glory. But there is a huge difference in aiming for the best and just settling for an easy fix. 

Declare war on your work. Whether it be visual, written, or musical. Make the art defend itself, fight for everything it’s worth. Only then can you create something of worth.

Tim Kane

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