At lunch with my friends Alan and Chris, I was introduced to wabi-sabi.
Rows of exquisite rolls of raw fish sushi-ing enticingly by on a conveyor belt? No. Wabi-sabi isn't sushi. It's the Japanese art of imperfection and impermanence.
The art of imperfection?? I've spent most of my life struggling against it. Haven't you? The concept of wabi-sabi provides much food for thought, and it doesn't come in little parcels. I began to think about wabi-sabi and writing.
I thought of what author Emma Darwin calls 'Ugly Duckling syndrome'. UDS is what strikes after you've completed your first (or second, or third) novel. You've learned a lot. You begin the next novel full of hope and enthusiasm. And then you suddenly find yourself wracked with self-consciousness. Stalled. You know what needs to be done but you feel utterly incapable of doing it. Every phrase you write is ugly, awkward. Every sentence is imperfect. Your Inner Editor sits on your shoulder, swiping you around the ear each time you begin to write.
Adjectives? Adverbs? Pah! the imperturbable Inner Editor spits, whacking a ruler painfully over your knuckles.
Cliche-ridden... The Inner Editor grins from ear to ear. Sure as eggs are eggs, you won't get that one past her.
Present Tense? The Inner Editor picks up her mobile and dials 999 to summon the men in white coats.
Don't Tell - Show!
I have to tell you that the Inner Editor is a pernickety old fart.
Have you ever actually seen an ugly duckling? I haven't. They may trip over their own feet occasionally, and those unformed little flaps on each side can't yet fly, but how cute is that? Only in fairy tales (Grimm ones) do ducklings see themselves as ugly. So why do we, as writers? What if we celebrated our temporary imperfections, seeing that in them lies our originality?
Take the Shitty First Draft. This is wabi-sabi in action. Any preciousnesses about an SFD can be thrown out of the window before you begin. The SFD gets you from here (no novel) to there (a draft) in the twinkling of an eye, and there is much to recommend it. Firstly, it's short on pain and angst. Secondly (as NaNoWriMo adherents know) it's quick. Thirdly, it is by nature unfinished and you can therefore relax and get on with it. Finally, you know it's going to be imperfect. Shitty. Awful. Rubbish. So, the reasoning goes, I can do that. Beautiful.
Wabi-sabi pots are just a little misshapen. Wabi-sabi people are weathered and wrinkled. Wabi-sabi ducklings don't swan around pretending to be something they're not. And wabi-sabi writing is full-on, in-your-face, unashamed-of-itself imperfect writing.
As Ben Okri says: 'Where there is perfection, there is no story to tell.'


Roderic Vincent said...

Fab post, Susie. So many of us are at this stage - we know everything about writing but how to do it. I'm sure the only way is to keep on keeping on.

Thank you for posting and I hope you've recovered from the food poisoning.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Brilliant post, Susie! I am suffering from this myself at the moment, having recently zipped through a serial that fell out of my head onto the page and took no time to write.

I'm really struggling to repeat the process and beating myself up about it. Having read your post I am simply going to change my point of view and identify the rubbish I've so far come up with as a first step to something I can improve on.

Susannah Rickards said...

Thank you for this timely post, Susie and for introducing the notion of wabi-sabi. Makes me want to look into it. Several of us are at this stage. Was saying yesterday to a fellow Strictly that one of the most revelatory things I ever did was see an exhibition of Cezanne's early work. My, was it BAD. So bad. I'd have chucked out my paints and said art's not for me, done something else. No talent at all in evidence. That he became one of the greatest, most sensitive and pioneering painters of his generation, having had such an unpromising start, was a revelation.

We must keep going, keep our aims in sight and let there be bumps along the road.

Sarah Hilary said...

Excellent post, Susie. I'm exactly in that Ugly Duckling place and this really helped me to get a perspective. Thanks!

Caroline Green said...

What a fantastic post, Susie. This has really helped as I am currently in that ugly ducking phase...

Julie P said...

Hurrah for Wabi-sabi! I shall remember this post when I get the courage to start a novel!


Helen Black said...

What a fab post.
I've been a bit paralysed of late ( actually can you be a bit paralysed??? No of course you can't - see I can't even get my metawotsits right).
After the editing on book three was finished I didn't seem able to start book four at all.
I dithered between three different projects, not actually getting going on any.
Last week I finally started on one and it hasn't been easy.
Every sentence seems forced, the plot lacks conhesion, I'm not sure I've nailed the MC's voice.

Of course what I need to do is just keep on, keeping on. Get that shitty first draft down.
That's how I've always done i before. And it's always worked for me.
How had I forgotten that?

Gillian McDade said...

Great post, Susie. I enjoyed reading this! :) I definitely have UDS!

Rosy T said...

What a wonderful post, Susie! With my heart, I agree with you. But with my head, I'm afraid my Inner Editor stops me from moving on from a chapter - or a paragraph or seven a sentence - until it's as right as I can make it. Oh, to be free to embrace wabi-sabi! but no: I'm far too repressed and anal to recognise the freedom of a 'first draft'.


Paul Lamb said...

I understand that it was the tradition with Navajo weavers to put an imperfection in every blanket they made. It was supposed to signify that the world is not perfect either.

Roderic Vincent said...

I'm feeling really guilty about the way I treated that Navajo after we found a flaw in the blanket we bought.

Administrator said...

Great post, Susie. I sometimes struggle, though, to see that my first draft really is shitty, and send it out tentatively. A few rejections usually help me see the light and commence rewriting with gusto:)

Deb said...

Thanks, Susie. I feel so much better after reading this:)

Caroline R said...

I'm happy with the concept of shitty first drafts, but still can't do them quickly and painlessly - 2 years so far and counting! I think I've progressed from ugly duckling to comatose duckling.

Caroline Green said...

I have just guffawed at Rod's comment!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

LOL, Rod, and thanks everyone - and so sorry I've not been around to reply (was away for 3 days with no internet access). It's very comforting to hear that there are so many other people in the UD stage like me! Rosy, I DREAM of wabi-sabi - but I'm just as anal as you say you are! Maybe (like sushi) we can just try tiny little parcels of imperfection and build on them!

DT said...

A great post, Susie. Wasn't the ugly duckling actually a swan, in the end? I love this concept because it frees us up as writers, to just get on with the writing.

We can only edit after we've written. And we can only write if we allow the writing to flow without judgement.