Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Nobody's Perfect

Yep. You heard me. Nobody's perfect. Oh, some might claim perfection, some might see themselves as perfect at one thing or the other, but that, my friends, is a delusion. The words 'perfect' and 'human' cannot be used in the same sentence.

Even the mighty William Faulkner, that bastian of American literature, failed to meet the mark of perfection. In 1955, he won The National Book Award for A Fable, his arrogant retelling of Christ's passion using a French, WWI soldier as the model for Christ. In 1955, Faulkner was considered the 'great man of letters,' and the fact that he produced a novel, any novel, seemed noteworthy to the committee making the selection. His acceptance speech turned into a long, rambling, almost incoherent series of sage advice and self aggrandizement. Faulkner wasn't perfect. Maybe he knew that. Maybe he didn't.

If Faulkner could fall short of perfection, if Ernest Hemingway needed to revise The Old Man and the Sea over one hundred times before he got it right, what should we fledgling authors expect from ourselves? Often, we expect agents to pound down our doors just to get a shot at that wonderful first novel. Often we can't understand why that publisher gave a thumbs down on the opportunity to have their house and our work joined on the shelves of the local bookstore. What we should understand is that it takes time, it takes thousands of words, thousands of failed efforts to finally reach the point where our work meets the standards of the industry.

Recently, a fourth-grader submitted a 'how-to' book to an agent. To be precise: How to Talk to Girls. The advent of this new author caused ripples in the writing community, especially among those who've been trudging along for years trying to get the attention that this child received so readily. Even I felt a pang, but I soon realized that the 'oddity' of the submission got the attention, not the talent or wisdom of the author. The boy may be the author of the book, but is he a writer? No. He's an oddity like the elephant painter on YouTube or the guy who has the longest fingernails in the world, someone or something that goes against the norm.

To all those talented, would-be writers out there, I send this message. Don't put down your pens in disgust. I haven't. I need to write like I need to drink water. The sudden and unmerited success of a fourth-grader doesn't mean that I won't reach my goal, that I won't finally put in the time and effort it takes to meet the industry standards, get an agent, and see my name in print. I can't say that my ego isn't suffering some bruising over the recent turn of events, but I can say that before Faulkner and The National Book Award committee made the 'great man' a laughing stock, he managed to write The Sound and the Fury. I cling to the hope that our fourth-grader is more fury than sound, that like all oddities he will fade into oblivion, and that soon I'll be interviewed because of a Pulitzer nomination or that National Book Award.


. said...

The best thing you can do for yourself, in all of life but particularly in the arts, is not to compare yourself to others. Including a 4th grader who's made it big like we'd all like to.

To paraphrase P.J. O'Rourke's take on the last of the Commandments, the more you covet your neighbor's ass, the more you look like one.

Don't compare and despair. Instead, focus on writing the best books you, personally, can. Flukes and phenoms are so called because they're rare. For the rest of us, the Three P's still are what gets it done: Perseverence, Persistence, and Pretty Thick Skin.


WKEverhart said...

As I tell my students, my skin may not be thick, but it's certainly well oiled. No member of the Dawg Pack can afford thin skin--to many scars. :D