Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mastering an Art

I knew I'd made great strides in my recovery when I actually worked yesterday -- and optional work, not "I have to drag myself off my deathbed because I have a deadline" work. Part of it had to do with finishing the last of my library books, aside from one that isn't really pleasure reading, and being a bit bored, and part of it had to do with the last of those books being a huge disappointment that sparked the "I can do better than this" impulse. I didn't work much, but I finished a new scene I'd been working on.

Then since I wasn't quite up to dance class, I watched The Nutcracker on PBS. I think they need to find another Christmas-season ballet to make a tradition because, let's face it, this one can be kind of boring. There's almost no actual dancing until about 45 minutes into it, just a lot of miming. And then while some of the dancing in the second half can be really lovely, there's really not a lot going on. It's a story about our main character sitting around and watching stuff happen. This one did have one of my favorite Waltz of the Flowers sequences. I loved their costumes, and the dancer who was the Dew Drop Fairy was amazing. I'm writing a book in which one of the characters is a dancer (so this kind of counted as work), and she danced the way I imagine the character would.

Watching anything like that involving people who have mastered an art tends to give me a slight pang of regret. I've never been able to focus on any one thing well enough to achieve that kind of mastery. I felt oppressed by dance lessons twice a week because they got in the way of other things I wanted to do. I haven't had the time or money (or the nerve) to really master music. I'm mostly a dabbler who does a lot of things reasonably well but none of them brilliantly. I'm at an age when it's a little late to achieve mastery, and even if I did, there's not much I could do with it, and taking the time and effort to do so would probably not be worth the opportunity cost. About the only thing I might be able to "master" is writing, and there "mastery" is in the eye of the beholder.

Although different people may have different preferences for something like dance, there are still objective measurements -- you can tell if the steps are done properly, if the positions are correct, if the dancing fits the music. Writing is a lot more challenging. You can't really measure "mastery" by success because there are some truly terribly written things that are wildly successful. Then again, the fact that they are successful means that they touched a lot of people very deeply, which would imply the mastery of something (even if it isn't avoidance of cliches, character development or the ability to string words together). The more literary set tends to define mastery as beautiful prose, but if I'm reading something for the first time and notice the prose, then that means I'm not into the story, and I would consider that a writing failure. I've read prize-winning books that I found dull and lifeless, which characters who were obvious mouthpieces for the authors' world views, and I've read the kind of commercial novels that critics tend to sneer at that really captured my imagination and made me think about my life and my role in the universe.

So I'm not sure it's possible for a writer to really reach a point where someone can say, "Wow, she's really mastered her art." It doesn't help that writing is something just about everyone thinks they can do -- all those "I'm going to write a novel someday" people. Just about everyone knows that getting up on stage and doing The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy would require years of training and preparation to even get their muscles into a condition to do those things. Everyone knows that you have to practice a lot for years to play Rachmaninoff on the piano. But since just about everyone has had to write something at some point in their lives, they don't see writing as something that has to be learned and mastered.

Too bad it's too late for me to be a ballerina.

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