8.25.2020

The Problem with Safe

Carl Jung once said, “A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them,” and in no endeavor does that apply more than writing. As an independent editor, I review many manuscripts. I have different categories for them—limited writing, sloppy writing, formulaic writing—but the most disheartening is safe writing. Lest anyone think I’m being judgmental, I’ll relate a comment my best friend once told me about my own writing: “You’ll never be good until you let yourself go.” A few years after that, I gave up writing and became an editor.

I have long thought the three main ingredients of writing are talent, heart, and stamina. The first is vitally important, for two people can write about the same subject with wildly different impacts. I have been blessed to witness so many elegant turns of phrase, even in books that were mainly pedestrian. Yet clarity and/or deftness is more akin to sleight of hand than penetration. A financed education alone can yield pearls from swine. 

Heart is a more elusive driver of prose. Childhood poverty, whether caused by want or mayhem, and frequently both, has often proven the dictum about a rich man and the needle’s eye to heaven. The bereft among us have a stronger desire to shake off their demons. Yet unbridled passion is no predictor of writing greatness, since it is more likely evinced in motorcycle revs than art. Nor does letting go necessarily confer an entwined wreath, or heroin would be a writing elixir.

Neither of the two qualities above means much without persevering through the many hours spent alone with words. No one is chaining you to your desk, and if you don’t write for a week, no one will notice. Self-discipline is a great quality to have, but over the long run I believe the compulsion to write is fed by the heart. If you don’t have a need to communicate to others through writing, you may write one book and then find the second one just won’t come.

How willing are you to face dark swings of your heart that may alienate your lover, your family, your co-workers? Can you honestly say you have so much writing talent that taking the plunge is worth it? And consider this: most writers ride on tides of greatness. They may produce only one book that stirs the hearts of readers and critics. Yet if you turn away from chaos, even that one book is out of reach.

Exercise: For this post, I will label this as: Advice. If you want to make a go, give it five years. That happens most commonly with people who have just graduated from college. Only after such a long stretch of time, while watching everyone you know start making progress with their careers, will you be able to make an honest assessment. Are you linking up with your soul or your ego?

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”  —William S. Burroughs

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.