Questions of Courage

Questions of Courage

The Empowered Writer, Part Three

By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
*Read Part One here and Part Two here

“Even the most successful of careers is built on a mountain of wasted effort.”

—E. M. Forster

Note how in baseball, batting .300—getting a hit in fewer than a third of your tries—earns you esteem. It’s a hard game to play,” pitcher Mitch Williams noted. You are attempting to hit a round ball with a round bat.”

Ours is a hard game too, as we’ve seen—we’ll “whiff” plenty of times while taking our swings, our dissatisfaction with things as they are* prompting us to rewrite as we seek to claim our place on Ferlinghetti’s high wire.

… But is so much truly “wasted”? The old cliché—“nothing ever is”—doesn’t hold so, its cogency resting on the necessity of reps: the repetitiveness of training (the batting cage in baseball; Hamlet in continuous practice with his sword since he got back from England) so crucial to staying fit in any discipline. As T.S. Eliot warned, writers must “keep their tools well oiled”—inspiration may come, but if the tools are left to rust, the writer might not be able to capitalize on it.  All of our “practice” sinking down into the aquifer that hydrates and nourishes our ongoing efforts.

Still, Forster has a point. Not everything will pay off for a writer—nor can it be expected to. Jerome Bruner notes, in his studies of thinking, that always hoping for a payoff forfeits the benefits of fooling around, of being “at play” in a loose, unbridled way.

Let the trashcan fill up with discards, then! It’s just a part of doing business.


So that our minds might turn “without force/ in the deep element,” it’s wise of us to cultivate a certain sort of “squint”—a distrustful/inquisitive habit of vision that fosters discernment, the power to contend with ambiguities and uncertainties at the microbial level, where giving things useful names will stabilize them for us, and increase their dependability as aids we can turn to.

It’s in “squinting” at issues just like the above—“is there ‘waste’ or not?”—that our having at our disposal an articulate inner language will stand us in good stead. That language again (see the end of Part Two) is an articulate inner language that enables (empowers) us to communicate effectively with ourselves about ourselves, when perplexities confound us. Nor is it merely academic! The results of our mulling will be deeply consequential.

But consequential for what, exactly? What will that language empower us to doand help us avoid? What benefits accrue, what pitfalls are eschewed when we’ve grown so conversant with our own creative psychology that the red flags of danger and the gilded flags of the “right moment” hoist themselves da sè—no hair-tearing needed as to what we’ll do next, our composure, now, being what it is as writers?

Let’s start by looking at certain of the complexities that so bedevil writers—moving on down toward the promised micro level.

Misguided courage, misconstrued letdown

How can courage be misguided? Is there ever enough of it? Yes and no, as we’ll eventually be seeing… but in the immediate context: yes! It can indeed be misguided—deeply counterproductive, and abetted, too, by the best of motives, using innocent intentions as “shields” for its protection. Witness the old adage that any virtue, if practiced to excess, will invert itself and set itself against itself.

Robert Pirsig has introduced us, in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to a wonderfully apt concept for grasping how our efforts can overstep the bounds of courage, overstep its usefulness, in the very short term. He calls it the “gumption trap” to describe what happens to us when we press on a task—when we stick with it, as we say, far beyond all chance of breaking any logjam, or solving a stubborn problem by applying our wills to it with brute determination.

 Pirsig’s gumption trap can be seen as a variant of the “lunging” I’d warned of earlier. It also dovetails with what is known as “work decrement,” that exhaustion incurred during the pursuit of a “big” goal, so aptly captured in Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”—

For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
……..(lines 27-29)

—Frost’s point being (the essence of “work decrement”) that even a highly successful outcome can leave us depleted and negative for a spell about the push we’ve been through—letdown in one form, the post-partum blues— even while we’re busy celebrating our achievement. This dip can be experienced, and misunderstood, by writers in their “aftermath,” casting a pall of dampness over the success they’ve just enjoyed, undermining their chances for continued success. But caught in the gumption trap, we harvest no compensation. We’re mired without a payoff.

And beyond squandering our time, as Pirsig points out, falling prey to the gumption trap risks doing us active harm. It can trap us in a “stubborn mode” very hard to exit from—one that convinces us, for instance, that we’re on the right path when we simply are not,* and can lead us, as the saying goes, to “perfecting our errors” when we have the better option of just backing off,  the defeat absorbed for now as we wisely shelve our project till some later time. Worse yet: feeling “trounced” by Pirsig’s trap can lead us to drawing needlessly self-disenfranchising conclusions about our abilities—as in, “Heck, if I can’t push through on this, if I can’t manage this, I guess I’m just not cut out to be a writer.”

As to backing off and shelving our work until later: we might consider courage through an analogy to “attention spans,” entertaining the idea of there being short-term courage spans and long-term ones; the short-term ones measuring the length of time (from just a few moments to any number of hours, even for weeks) over which we continue to have oomph for our work before needing to “leave off”— these short-term spans, then, occurring in “clusters,” among the pulses that govern our routine work.

The long-term span we can view in two ways, the first being the overall courage required to complete a single project like Frost’s apple harvest, or, in our world, an individual literary work. We might have such courage to complete one work, but falter on another. Then, more broadly—going back to Cézanne’s forty years from today—the very longest of such spans will account for the overall fortitude we’ve shown in pursuing our whole career. That span can be reckoned only in retrospect, as the aggregated sum of the countless short-term ones we’ll have accrued over the years. Have we, then, finally (we will have to ask), sustained our writer’s courage over a long enough time for it really to count… or have we not?

… And no “right” or “wrong” as to how our short-term spans might cluster—we understanding that the work we defer till later, our courage spent for now, will sink into the aquifer to marinate, percolate, and ready itself for another time… our patience (once again) being animal cunning.

(*I’ll return to this later as a “delusion of obsession.”)

Misconstrued letdown. The hazard of “pressing” with excessive zeal has fewer sadder instances than Balzac’s cautionary short story, Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, “The Unknown Masterpiece.” A master painter, laboring for a decade to perfect his greatest work, so overworks it that an exquisite foot alone remains recognizable amid the inchoate swirl of colors. Driven mad by disappointment, he burns his paintings, and dies.

Balzac’s tale suggests an error we must all guard against, one often not discerned, and at considerable expense: being “discouraged” and being “demoralized” are not the same thing, for all that we use the terms quite interchangeably, so fundamentally do they differ as psychological states. Being discouraged—that is, in letdownhowever unwelcome, is an inherently robust form of disappointment. As often as not, it’s directly responsive to some setback of the moment, and rich in intent for continued pursuit.

But no wish here to give discouragement a “smiley face”! At its worst its bite is nasty; it makes for bad nights; it will prompt long, meditative strolls through the woods. (One successful writer: “When my writing isn’t going well, it means that I haven’t walked enough.”) The very fact that discouragement will “nag” the way it does attests to its stubborn nature, its admitting to “the evil of unfinished business,” which calls for redress.

Discouragement also fosters what I’ve called—rather clumsily—a strategic, voluntary self-demotion on behalf of hoped-for eventual self-betterment. It’s through such “self-demotions” that we relinquish our momentary satisfaction with ourselves in favor of our recognizing—and humbly accepting—our overlooked shortcomings in expectation that we will, with application, find our way forward to doing better. But no guarantees! Such reconsiderations, any more than revising (Balzac’s painter again), do not assure us any gain in our performance, for all our wish to have our hopes well-placed.

There is too, then, an element of daring in the essential risk-taking that such a self-demotion calls for—a “throwing-of-the-self-forward”* into the uncertainty of a gamble, the off-chance, that is, that our resources, marshalled, brought to bear on our problem, will stand us in good stead. The letting-go entailed—the relinquishing of any sense of assurance about the outcome—attests to this fundamental psychological-moral rule:

humility is, in essence, flexibility

 —pride in its very worst sense, then (is this fresh news?), amounting to rigidity, the inflexibility that prohibits individuals from accepting or contending with their shortcomings or flaws, or from enjoying effective means of seeking remedy for them. We cleave a sharp distinction here between pride in this sense and its more robust sense as “just self-esteem” (Milton’s phrase), so utterly indispensable to being a serious writer.

(*The literal meaning, from their Latin and Greek roots respectively, of “project” and “problem”—projacere in Latin, proballein in Greek, both meaning to “throw forward.”)

Being demoralized. But why not see it as the same as being “discouraged”? To be sure, there’s plenty of letdown for the two states to share… and yet we’ll see that this issue, like the earlier one—Is there ever too much of courage?”—is a yes-and-no proposition.

Discouragement, anglicized, means “losing heart,” “becoming disheartened.” Demoralization, anglicized, denotes “the decay in or loss of one’s moral structure.” That’s a steep decline in letdown—a “sag” of a truly more insidious sort! A key symptom of it, of demoralization, is the onset of resignation—which we anglicize in turn as “giving up,” “giving it over.” –Quitting being the consequence, often, of being truly demoralized.

It’s a telling paradox—often observed in irresolute writers who’ve withdrawn from the fray, having let disappointment dissuade them from persisting, dismayed that their efforts haven’t borne the expected fruits—that “escaping” from the rigors of the discipline of writing brings them relief, as in, “Whew! And I’m glad that’s over!” They can appear (at least outwardly) to be more cheerful than those who remain discouraged, having allowed themselves to purchase a sense of consolation through a rather too-easy outlay of despair. Often as not, they will rotate away (if indeed to anything) to some other venture—their new-found pursuit, whatever else it might achieve, “numbing” them, at least partially, to relinquishing their writing.

In this respect, they’re quite like Prufrock in his self-consoling [read: defeatist] mode toward the end of Eliot’s “Love Song,” in whose resigned attitude we see rather a lot of specious self-justification for feeling contented that the ordeal is over—the striving, in his case, to make his way with the ladies—

……..And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while…?
… No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…
……..(lines 99-100, 111)

—although at least he understands that he’s grappling with humiliation as well as rejection in giving up the fight. Do we dare, I wonder, to attribute some moral “ebbing,” or loss of nerve, to what we’re seeing at work here? Certainly, in Prufrock’s case, depression has played its manifest part, as indeed it has from the beginning of the poem. What we do see in those who have grown demoralized, him included, is that they have counted themselves out as people possessed of a vigorous sense of “agency” (Balzac’s painter again).

The “demoralized,” then, set alongside the “discouraged,” might be seen to be thin-skinned in dealing with rejection and other forms of disappointment—some measure of humiliation (even if “denied”) lurking there in the shadows… Which leads us to suspect that a quiet egotistic anger simmers beneath the surface, as if such individuals, at least in this one area of their lives, are indignant that things didn’t go better for them—meaning, they weren’t treated better. The inability to endure being humbled by honest failure—which needn’t bring shame on anyone, although it does upon the prideful—fosters a fear of losing face among the people who “count.”

But so as not to go too far: we recognize the difference between the kind of giving up that demoralization will prompt, and withdrawal from a venture based on a just self-assessment—as with a candidate, say, bowing out of a race, having calculated the odds.  We are not fit for everything that we might aspire to, and at times testing the waters is the only way to find out. It can hold true for writing.

Moving forward, we will see how those strategic “self-demotions” serve as healthy, welcome pulses in our daily writing efforts, and why, along with that, we ought not to trust our “inner critic”—overmuch!

Read Richard Wertime’s short fiction, “Soccer,” in WTP, and find his other reflections on craft here

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