Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Not trying too hard
But in the seventh mile, twenty minutes from regaining sight of the Fox and Hounds, an odd idea popped into my head, out of the blue: it’s not a good idea to try too hard. The world is overheated with it—literally. Enough striving, ambition, “pursuit of excellence”. Teachers should stop urging their pupils on. In any case, they don’t really do it for the pupils’ sake, but for targets. Everything is driven by targets. Result: everyone is insecure.
Reader, I’m not preaching my new doctrine. I’m just reporting the thought that came to me in the dappled sunshine, walking back up to Christmas Common, back up that Hollandridge Lane. And since I didn’t know where it came from, I tried to give it meaning and context. Suppose we each did what we found came naturally: sometimes lazy, sometimes driven by the joy of doing what we can do, even indulging it to excess. The standard of living would fall. We would no longer be such slaves to productivity and economic growth. We would gain in personal dignity.
I thought about the various regions of Africa before the European slave-traders, missionaries and colonists arrived. I felt they would have been better off and more in harmony with the rest of Nature. My grandmother was in Kenya in the Fifties. She justified the white man’s appropriation of the black man’s land in terms of her own recollections. She had gone there for her health, to ease her painful arthritis, and liked to sketch scenes in water colours. She said the Africans loved to sit laughing and lazing in the shade of a tree all day, while the white man strained to get the best yield from the land with his plantations of tea and coffee. There was no doubt in her mind which was the good, strenuous, Christian thing to do. And what did the indigenous people think? The young braves among the Kikuyu showed by their deeds how much they appreciated the kindness of the white settlers. They started the Mau-Mau uprising.
So, I found meaning in the thought: “It’s not a good idea to try too hard.” But where did it come from? The blue sky? Then I remembered. I’d been absorbed in Nature, aware that it was much more than the wild flowers, the trees in their new foliage, the calling birds and the bumbling bumble-bees. I knew that creatures struggling for survival eat each other, sometimes even their own young. When the cuckoo hatches in its foster-parents’ nest (in England typically a reed-warbler’s), it heaves the other eggs out, for its appetite matches that of the whole brood. I thought of cuckoos because at the edge of a field I found olive-coloured shells, four of them scattered, the size of pigeon-eggs, and I wondered how they got there. Then I realized I could not put all my vague notions of Nature into one basket; some of them were second-hand anyway, for I am no naturalist. I traced them to their source: Annie Dillard, the Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Then I had thought, “I love her writing: but she tries too hard.” It’s none of my business how hard another writer tries, but I thought if she tried less hard, she would be easier to read. Not only that, but she teaches writing too! And in some distant hero-worshipping way, I am her student too, so it matters doubly to me.
I don’t even have to open her book The Writing Life, because the publishers have kindly provided an extract on the dustjacket, from which I take a paragraph to illustrate how hard she tries:
A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which you now can’t catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’
Phew! After copying it out, I feel I must go and lie down for a bit. Its magnificence is undeniable; but I prefer understatement. It reinforces an already-established conviction: for me, the blog essay is the highest literary molehill which I dare climb. I do try, but not too hard.
Then, this morning, synchronistically, I read Bryan’s comment on my last, which includes these words.
My number one cardinal rule of writing, which I recently passed on to my daughter, is that good writing should be like good acting. If it’s done right, it shouldn’t even be noticed.
I hope Annie teaches that, too.
Posted by Vincent at 9:58 am