Is the dilettante ready to commit?

5.12.11 | | 4 comments

I will cop to a certain amount of pride in my dilettanteism. I will also admit that there might be some fear involved as well. And I will also say that I have been thinking for a while that it’s time to settle on something so when I listened to the very first episode of The Appendix back in February, and heard Sarah, Rob and Marion talking about how you need to choose a genre, it was like a punch in the gut. I can’t even settle on a form, let alone a genre.

But even though I’d received this message many times in the past, I resolved to take it seriously and so I did an inventory of semi-viable (as in: not dead yet) projects. The result: 1 play, 2 essays, 14 works of fiction — a mix of literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and parable — and 1 epic-ish poem. And then I decided that based on my current interests, and where the majority of my short stories clustered, and what I enjoyed reading (although I read across a fairly wide range of genres), I needed to focus on fantasy with a literary sheen. And by that, I probably mean slipstream, but maybe not exactly, and, of course, it’s probably not the smartest of choices since it’s not the hottest of sub-genres at the moment, but it seemed to suit me. I even went so far as to secure a twitter account and domain name, and then spend a couple of hours installing textpattern and realizing that it really isn’t all that interesting of a CMS. Meanwhile I was actively not writing. Classic trap, but self-awareness of my bad habits makes things worse in my case. I tend to deliberately step in things rather than avoid them.

Fast forward to late April and Lisa Torcasso Downing posted What Does a “Good” Writer Write? on the AML blog, which led to a discussion of how most writers are unable to write at a high level across genres, and that caused me to think back to the inaugural The Appendix episode and my reaction to it, and I found myself torn again between the inclination to have feet in many camps and the desire to hone the craft in one specific genre.

And then last Saturday morning I blew off other obligations and wrote for two and a half hours straight and finished a short story. It was fun. I found myself able to solve some of the problems that had caused me to stop working on the story in the first place. I got that lovely rush from completing a draft. I didn’t let myself get sidetracked — I just wrote. But here’s the problem: the story was a piece of mainstream fiction of the Mormon faithful realism type. Even worse, I found myself making choices that led to transparent prose. Transparent prose people!

Sunday morning I found myself with a quiet hour and, still high from the previous day’s writing session, I finished another short story that had been lying fallow for quite some time. This one is Mormon speculative fiction of the weird variety. And while the prose has some strong resemblances to that of the day before, it is less transparent. And it was, again, great fun to write.

Now I don’t know if either of those short stories are at all any good. At the very least they suffer from what all of my work suffers from — nothing much happens, of what does happen too much happens in people’s heads, the endings are a bit too epiphanic, the prose is awkward in that it is not literary enough to scream literary, but not transparent enough to be windowpane (shout out to Shelah for introducing me to that term). But both stories have moments that seem to me to be authentically Mormon and authentically interesting. And both need to be in the genre they are currently in. And I love them equally.

And that leaves me in a strange place. I’m still very much the dilettante. I don’t want to commit. And so far I don’t know if I even can. I can’t tell what I’m best suited for, and I’m not sure if that’s because I’m just not very good at any of it, or because I could be good at a lot of it. And this weekend’s experiments in Actual Writing proved nothing — other than I should probably find more time to write fiction. In fact, that’s exactly what it all means. So, yes, this is another one of those “just write” or “you need to get a million bad words under your belt” or “you’ll never know until you try” posts, but it’s one where I’m also going to say this: focus is good for your career, but there are some small joys that come from dilettanteism.

4 comments: “Is the dilettante ready to commit?

  1. Wm Morris Post author

    Sorry about that — somehow the comments got closed on the post.

  2. Jonathan Langford

    William,

    Cool post over at AMV. I think I agree with your main moral, which is that you need to write what it is that you want to write, especially first off. Trying to get direction is pointless until you’ve got momentum. (Someone once pointed this out to me with the memorable example of how much easier it is to turn the wheels on a car if it’s already moving.)

    For that matter, I’m not sure how much good career planning is even for those who are professional writers. My guess is that it’s easier to make a successful career out of one’s passion than it is to try to direct one’s passion in (theoretically) promising career directions. And in your case, I’m not even sure you want a career as a full-time writer, so you’re even more free to do whatever it is that you feel drawn to…

    I’m also reminded of Moriah’s comments earlier this week (and those of others) about how people don’t get into writing as a purely economic decision. That being the case, it’s even more important that we please ourselves with our writing.

  3. Mojo

    othing much happens, of what does happen too much happens in people’s heads, the endings are a bit too epiphanic, the prose is awkward in that it is not literary enough to scream literary, but not transparent enough to be windowpane (shout out to Shelah for introducing me to that term). But both stories have moments that seem to me to be authentically Mormon and authentically interesting. And both need to be in the genre they are currently in. And I love them equally.

    It sounds to me like you’re writing essays, not stories. But having not read them blah blah blah.

  4. Wm Morris Post author

    I’d rather write short stories as essays than essays as fiction. Or do I mean the opposite? But yes, like many literary fictionists, plot is secondary (actually both of these stories do have movement and action, it’s just not quite as outwardly exciting as most genre works).

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