Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The importance of irrational optimism

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An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.

T.S. Eliot

Looking back at recent posts, one of the themes I seem to hit repeatedly is the importance of objectivity. When you’re working on a novel or short story, you need to view it as coldly as possible, trying to see it, as Zadie Smith reminds us, through the eyes of an enemy. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to make the hard choice to cut a favorite line or scene, to radically restructure the plot, or even to abandon a project altogether. Objectivity, then, is one of the greatest strengths a writer can possess—with one big exception. Because in order to make the decision to be a writer in the first place, and wholeheartedly devote yourself to the writing life, the last thing you should be is objective. A writer’s state of mind, when first starting out, needs to be one of irrational optimism, because if we were totally objective about it, most of us wouldn’t become writers at all.

It’s safe to say that no one with a completely realistic temperament would ever dream of becoming a professional writer, let alone a writer of fiction. The odds of success have never been high, but these days, they’re objectively steeper than ever. First, you need to write, and finish, a good book—and that goal itself can often seem dauntingly out of reach. Next, you need to find an agent, and after that, a publisher who is willing to put real money on the line. Then, even if you’ve gotten that far, you need to navigate a hugely competitive market, with thousands of new novels published every year, not to mention what everyone agrees is a historically challenging moment for publishing of any kind. There’s a reason why the percentage of published writers who make a living solely through fiction is vanishingly small. And by definition, the odds of becoming one of those authors yourself are even more negligible.

And yet I don’t think there’s any writer, no matter how objective in other ways, who doesn’t secretly think: I will be the one who makes it. Certainly that was true of me. While I won’t say that I wouldn’t have tried to become a writer at all if I’d known exactly what was in store, it would have given me pause. Looking back, I’m little embarrassed at how confident, even arrogant, I was five years ago. Most writers would probably say the same thing. But here’s my point: for a writer, this sort of unwarranted optimism is essential. It’s the only thing that could possibly entice an otherwise rational person to become a novelist, or to enter any kind of creative field. Novices always overestimate their chances of success, and some will be bitterly disappointed, but none of them would have gotten anywhere if they’d accurately judged the odds. Paul Graham, the programmer, investor, and charming essayist, makes a similar point:

One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are. This lets them do a kind of deficit spending. When they first start working on something, they overrate their achievements. But that gives them confidence to keep working, and their performance improves. Whereas someone clearer-eyed would see their initial incompetence for what it was, and perhaps be discouraged from continuing.

In other words, irrational enthusiasm can sometimes confer a selective advantage. If a mother didn’t have an irrational attachment to her own children, she’d smother them in the cradle. Similarly, if a young writer wasn’t convinced that he was much better than he really was, he’d never work long enough at his craft to become as good as he could be. The fact is, most young novelists aren’t very good, and even the best are generally producing little more than resourceful pastiches of more experienced authors—which, in itself, can be enough for a career. It takes years of objective practice to find an original voice, but only irrational optimism, and an inflated regard for one’s own potential, can carry a writer to the point where it pays off. Achieving this balance between optimism and objectivity is one of the hardest things for any kind of artist, but it’s essential. Because even the coldest, most objective writer needs to believe, for the sake of his own survival, that he is also, somehow, the exception to the rule.

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2011 at 10:01 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

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