Craft and compromise


I had two conversations yesterday–both with writers working on their own personal projects–that brought me to an unexpected conclusion: Writing requires compromise.

To some people, this might be so glaringly obvious a fact that it isn’t even worth mentioning. But I was genuinely surprised because, in all my musing and talking about the hardships and triumphs of writing, it never really occurred to me. And, of all the people I know, my fellow writers seem the least likely to compromise. These are people who, for the most part, have abandoned the prospect of a “realistic” career with the attendant financial security and comfort in order to pursue something they know will never bring them material wealth. In fact, they’ll probably end up with a giant pile of rejection letters (sometimes the cliches are true) and be forced to debate whether it’s more important to finally schedule that doctor’s appointment or get the car fixed because you can’t afford both.

I don’t paint this picture expecting or hoping that you’ll pity writers. I say it because it’s mostly true, and I’m trying to explain why I find it so unlikely that a writer would compromise on anything ever. The beauty of writing is that you get to construct an entire world and fill it with people and characters you control. In theory, at least. The reality is, even the characters that come out of your imagination rarely behave the way you expect them to. But you still crave that absolute control–perhaps even more so after you realize that it’s unattainable.

So why is compromise so important? Both writers that I spoke with yesterday were struggling to finish projects. One was struggling with the amount of research and his desire to nail every little detail of his work. I sympathize with this. I’ve put in countless hours of research trying to learn everything I can about ancient Rome in order to make Vestal as accurate and truthful as possible. But I’m certain that if a historian whose expertise happens to be ancient Rome happens to read my book, they’ll discover inaccuracies. Despite the fact that my book is fiction, that really bothers/ embarrasses me. And when I was younger this probably would have generated a crippling degree of self-doubt that would prevent me from finishing the manuscript. But I’m older now. I understand that my life isn’t going to step aside to give me time to write these novels. I have to carve the necessary time for myself, and I can’t justify five years of research before I even set pen to paper, or finger to computer. Not when I’m already eschewing recreation, social interaction, and all other creative projects in order to get this done. I have to draw a line at a certain point and say, “This will never be perfect, but it is good enough.”

“Good enough” are terrible words. No one wants to produce a mediocre product, but to a certain extent, forcing myself to understand every little detail of an ancient empire becomes an excuse not to actually write, or an attempt at guaranteeing that if I can nail every tiny detail, the book will be good. And there’s no such promise.

The second writer has a hard time finishing projects because they never live up to his expectations. I think every writer can sympathize with this. You have this idea–this shiny, beautiful vision–fluttering through your mind and you know that if you can only capture it exactly, you’ll write a brilliant novel and stake your claim to literary greatness. But the beautiful vision doesn’t actually encompass a complete book, with characters and arcs and a thousand individual sentences, an infinite galaxy of word combinations. Maybe you only brush slightly against this vision once or twice in your entire book. A beautifully phrased sentence hints at that promise, or it lingers in the smile of a charming character. But that will never be enough.

So what do you do? Do you labor over a single project for the rest of your life, hoping one day you’ll finally get it right? That’s certainly a viable option, and one that I respect. People dedicate their lives to many a stupider pursuit. But that doesn’t give you the opportunity to learn and advance from past projects. All of your talent and energy and ideas are bound in a single work which to me seems too dangerous.

Do you wait for a manuscript that is every bit as brilliant as you imagined it would be? For all I know, such blessings do exist though I’ve never seen them. The problem is, I highly doubt a writer would recognize it even if they’d just written it. It’s hard to judge your own work. Truthfully, I’m never really certain whether something I’ve just written is utter crap or worth some kind of chocolate trophy wrapped in gold foil. I’m guessing, most of the time, it’s somewhere between the two. But it could be either end of the spectrum and I wouldn’t know it.

Without realizing it, I opted to compromise. I did as much research as I possibly could, and then I started writing. Sometimes the things I don’t know crowd my head and try to choke off my ability to continue writing. But I keep going, figuring that any words are better than none. And now I’m 76,000 words into my manuscript with less than a week’s worth of writing to go. I don’t know yet whether it’s any good. Writing in first person has proven very difficult for me. I thought it would get easier as the book progressed, but it hasn’t and I don’t think I’ll ever write a book in first person again. But I have something to show for my efforts. It will never be perfect, it will never be as good as I want it to be, but it’s something.

Of all the triumphs my youthful self imagined, the ability to compromise never ranked very high. In fact, it wasn’t even on the list. I thought compromise meant artistic death, meant that I had to abandon my pride and beliefs. But maybe compromise is merely giving yourself permission to silence or ignore the parts of yourself that make it impossible to accomplish anything at all. Maybe compromise means acknowledging the realities of the world–jobs, financial responsibilities, insufficient time and resources–and giving yourself permission to be imperfect in an imperfect world. Ten years ago that idea would have destroyed me. But today I find it rather comforting.


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