There is a rule I hold very dear when it comes to matters of work: no excuses, no explanations. The story of how you completed something, or worse, why it is not what you hoped it would be is an indulgence. It is dull. The work should speak for itself. This is a useful rule to follow during those weak moments when you feel ready to quit a project. It is a rule for school children who are far from the master years. But let’s put rules aside for the moment.
There are, in fact, some very fine examples to the contrary. The “ethical appeal” as it is called can still persuade your audience. Of what? Of the very human nature of work.
Consider the following from Samuel Johnson:
In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the authour, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow: and it may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed. If the lexicons of ancient tongues, now immutably fixed, and comprised in a few volumes, be yet, after the toil of successive ages, inadequate and delusive; if the aggregated knowledge, and co-operating diligence of the Italian academicians, did not secure them from the censure of Beni; if the embodied criticks of France, when fifty years had been spent upon their work, were obliged to change its oeconomy, and give their second edition another form, I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise. (Samuel Johnson, Preface to the English Dictionary)
Samuel Johnson was a wonderful prig, a stupendous snob, and I don’t believe for a moment that he thought his work flawed. Or, if it was, that such a flaw would reflect the author personally. No, rather, Johnson was just reminding us of his real talent: to exist as a man of letters in the world of illiterates.
Yet, we know well enough that there are so many barriers to good work. Family life, money anxiety, youth, old age, too much time, time that is not enough. These are real antagonisms. The struggle is real. And somewhere I believe that the story of our struggle is noble, so long as it remains private. An audience never needs to see an actor hurry to the stage; rather expects him to walk on cue and with the tempo of the piece; but every stage manager knows that even the simplest performance is a kind of miracle. So many things get in our way.
Reading this passage by Johnson made me think of another genius. This letter from Checkov to D. V. Grigorovitch in Spring of 1886 if often quotes in books on writing. It is best read not as advice, not as succor, but as a testament to troubling truth of good work:
If I have a gift which one ought to respect, I confess before the pure candour of your heart that hitherto I have not respected it. I felt that I had a gift, but I had got into the habit of thinking that it was insignificant. Purely external causes are sufficient to make one unjust to oneself, suspicious, and morbidly sensitive. And as I realize now I have always had plenty of such causes. All my friends and relatives have always taken a condescending tone to my writing, and never ceased urging me in a friendly way not to give up real work for the sake of scribbling. I have hundreds of friends in Moscow, and among them a dozen or two writers, but I cannot recall a single one who reads me or considers me an artist. In Moscow there is a so-called Literary Circle: talented people and mediocrities of all ages and colours gather once a week in a private room of a restaurant and exercise their tongues. If I went there and read them a single passage of your letter, they would laugh in my face. In the course of the five years that I have been knocking about from one newspaper office to another I have had time to assimilate the general view of my literary insignificance. I soon got used to looking down upon my work, and so it has gone from bad to worse. That is the first reason. The second is that I am a doctor, and am up to my ears in medical work, so that the proverb about trying to catch two hares has given to no one more sleepless nights than me.
All of this is due to a little discussion I had with a documentary filmmaker the other night. We were at a marvelous party. Many of the guests were successful artists. He is fifty years old, with many children and his successes dwindle with each film he makes. His last film took eight years! Eight! And he seemed broken and haunted like the Ancient Mariner at a wedding. But unlike the Mariner, he did not give warnings, nor did he make excuses. He was sad and unsure and I wanted to recite for him a poem, but I fumbled the words and it did not come off.
Here it is. “Mowing” By Robert Frost.
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—And that was why it whispered and did not speak.It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weakTo the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
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