Instant Beauty.

The other night I drove to get a takeaway meal to share with the Handsome Sidekick for our tea, and the national radio station was replaying the opening address to the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The speaker was Andrew Solomon, and even though I only listened to about twenty minutes’ worth, the parts I heard had me moved to both tears and laughter. As I got out at home and reluctantly turned off the radio, I thought to myself, ‘What a simply brilliant speech.’

I brought this up with the Handsome Sidekick over coffee the next day.

‘One of the things I loved about that address is just how evocative it was,’ I said. ‘It was really beautiful writing, and it got me thinking about how it takes time to do that. You know. To create something really amazing, it is hard work, and it’s time-consuming. But there is so much pressure to be prolific. And it’s relatively easy nowadays, to put your work out there.’

In the 24-hour news cycle, not only do we now demand instant reporting of world events, we also apparently want instant analysis. We want poignant, insightful articles. We await outstanding commentary within a short window, and sometimes, we get it. Sometimes, a writer really can do an incredible job. But for most of us, the combination of deadlines and emotion surrounding major news events means that the work we produce is merely ‘good’, instead of ‘best.’

It’s not just journalists who feel this pressure. Other writers also worry about having online presence, about finding publications who will accept articles or short stories to boost their credibility and curriculum vitaes while they focus on larger, longer works. After all, it takes time to craft, edit and rewrite your writing, but how do you pay the bills in the meantime?

And it’s not just writing where this is an issue. Across the arts, we’ve become used to the attitude that near enough is good enough. It’s so much easier now than it used to be to create a computer game or a cartoon; it’s so much simpler to be able to record and release a song, or take and edit a photograph. That’s not to say that there is no talent left in these areas – it’s just that we’ve become used to quick turnover, and those who take time over their art risk being left behind.

A friend recently pointed me to an article by E. Stephens, published last November, which discusses this idea. Stephens laments the decline of the newspaper apprenticeship, noting the value of spending many years having one’s worth constantly edited and reviewed. The result, Stephens notes, is great writers, who have truly honed their craft. But in our more modern world, the paradox is that we’re more likely to have our work available to the public (via a blog or self-published) and yet less likely to earn money from it, or even to have it read.

This highlights one of the real problems artists face: most of them cannot support themselves financially through their art. I believe this is the reason many look to self-publishing or attempt to monetise blogs. It’s not just the instant feedback, it’s the instant cash. Stephens quotes Arthur Quiller-Couch, noting that poverty is not conducive to writing great works. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned before, when you’re poor, making wise decisions is particularly difficult. Trying to think creatively when you’re hungry and stressed about money is simply not something I’d recommend.

I’ll admit, for me, it’s not just finding the time to write, nor finding the motivation. I also worry that what I want to produce – something inspiring, and interesting, and incredible – will never transpire. Andrew Solomon’s speech was so very beautiful, and I worry that the ideas I have which are so vividly intense in my mind will somehow fade and crumble when I finally get them onto the page. And I wonder if in a few years, I will lose the struggle with the budget and simply have to return to teaching. Not the worst scenario in the world, since I actually enjoy teaching. But still, I’d be sad.

I think my identity is tied up in writing to the point that I don’t feel quite myself if I can’t write. Not necessarily public writing, but anything – tales about my children, my private thoughts on politics, an email to friends. Anything. But I also find it hard to justify writing as my job, let alone a career. It feels like I’m possibly cheating. As if it’s not ‘real work.’ Of course, that’s not the case! We need artists, just as we need plumbers and engineers and dentists. And let’s not forget that those plumbers, engineers and dentists need art. At the end of their working day, they will come home and read a book, or go out to watch a film, or play a game. Life without art is empty. But it should be good art.

So it’s the job of the artists – the writers, the film directors, the game developers – to step up and produce good quality work. To take the time, and practise, and become masters in their fields… while at the same time, trying to earn a living, and promote one’s work, and support one’s family, and other artists. Come to think of it, that sounds quite difficult. No wonder so many decide to make it a hobby, rather than commit themselves full-time. But if that’s the case, what masterpieces will we have to offer future generations, if we don’t invest in our art and artists today?

– – – – – – –

Still no proper internet access – I’m posting this using the mobile which is quite expensive and very slow. Please forgive me if I don’t get back to any comments in a timely fashion!

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4 thoughts on “Instant Beauty.

  1. As a programmer by profession, this kind of reminds me what an old professor used to say about coding : we can code like lawyers, functional yet soulless, or we can try to be artists, interesting yet inspiring.

    We were “hard technologists” and were rather snobbish about literature – but many years of fermenting later it’s obvious. There is a grace and wit in pure writing that is missing in much of today’s discourse. Read most news, journals, dispatches today and compare them to, say, pre WW II or Victorian papers and you can kinda feel the loss. That’s not to say, of course, that today’s writers are less in anyway, but just that most words are mechanical and grinding, reflecting our society broadly.

    Stephen King actually did a good comparison of sorts in his books Danse Macabre and On Writing.

    • I think it’s easier to get snobbish about culture, be it literature, film, or whatever. Also when you’re in that mindset and having it reinforced by others around you, I don’t know if it’s easy to have perspective. Perhaps that comes with age, too!

      Perhaps we’re writing for information first and beauty second nowadays. I definitely feel the loss.

  2. I share your concern for what we will leave behind for future generations to remember us by. I think the problem is that as a culture, we have allowed ourselves to get wedged into a position where genuine quality is something that simply takes too long … we want results, and we want them now, just as others expect (demand) the same from us. Why go home and prepare a wholesome meal that appeals to all the senses, when there’s a fast food joint around the corner that can prepare a pile of cheap slop in a fraction of the time? Full is full, after all. This seems to be the philosophy that drives so many of us these days, and it filters its way into all aspects of life.

    There are times when such a mentality is necessary; but I remain skeptical as to whether or not it is truly as necessary and desired as many seem to believe it is. I also ask myself, in the end, who benefits from a society that concerns itself more with quantity than it does quality? As to how we reverse the trend, I can only offer at this point my belief that such changes must start with the individual decision to alter their own focus and remain obstinate about the alteration.

    • The instant gratification is certainly a trait in contemporary culture, that’s for sure, and it permeates everything. It’s disappointing but very hard to fight against. I find it takes a lot of will power (which I don’t always have!) But as you say, it does start with the individual. And if we do take that stand, I suppose at least we benefit, while hoping that there will be a greater trend in that direction.

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