Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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A Short Note on Current Events

If I had to choose a moment in my own life that represents what I think it means to be an American, a moment in which I was proud of my country and what it stood for, it was when I returned from a month overseas to a crowded airport in Houston. I stood and gazed at the long lines in front of the customs booths, and my eyes welled up to see the variety of people, to hear the beautiful clamor of diverse languages, all welcome in this land.

Today, my eyes are filled with tears for another reason.

 

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Jump-Starting the Revolution

Women's March on Rome

Women’s March on Rome

 

I woke up early this morning thinking of all the women I love and respect who are out today in the cold dawn, protesting an American administration founded on hatred, lies, and ignorance. In past years, I would be out there with them, raising my voice with theirs, matching my stride with theirs, fighting injustice with a show of peaceful but determined resistance. I’m not: I jumped the gun and raised my own thin voice too soon, missing an opportunity to be part of this powerful and impressive force for change. Yet there is work of all kinds to be done everywhere–in the streets of Washington, D.C.; in Rome, Italy; in Lansing, Michigan, and all over the world on this day and in the days to come. There is work to be done in my own study right now, as I hunch over my computer in the darkness with a small black cat and a steaming cup of tea to keep me company as I try to explain why a revolution is necessary.

This involves facing several hard but absolutely necessary facts, which I will lay out below.

First, education in the United States is not under attack: rather, for the last generation, it has been systematically eviscerated and dismantled. We are used to hearing that K-12 schools are under attack, and they certainly are. But what goes unnoticed is perhaps just as dire: Public education at the college level no longer exists in this country at all. The steep rise in college tuition, even at state schools, which we have accepted for decades as a matter of financial need and fiscal responsibility, means that few people can afford to go to university without making great sacrifices. College students today must be able to pay tuition that is, frankly, unaffordable–or they must be willing to hock their futures by taking out student loans that will shackle them for years to come. This is not public education. Public education is free, or available at a small cost. So, as one of the first steps in starting this revolution, let us first admit what we all know to be true: We live in a world in which getting a college education is reserved for the wealthy or the financially improvident. As a society, we are eating our young, telling them to go out and get an education for all the wrong reasons (namely, to get a job that probably doesn’t exist), and then we are imprisoning them in debt, a debt which forces them into penury and servitude for years, if not a lifetime. Student loan recipients should be in the streets protesting–and yet they can’t do so, or they would lose the paltry, minimum-wage jobs they must work to pay back these loans. The cause of all of this? It’s simply this: education is tottering on the brink of the abyss today, because for decades, power-seeking politicians have understood that an uneducated electorate serves them well.

Second, government is not an evil. Government is good and necessary. Since the Enlightenment at least, government has been essential to safeguard the welfare of a population. We have been told it is a sad necessity–we have even been told by some that the less government we have, the better off we will be–but this is not true. It is a lie. The only people who really believe that government makes their lives worse are the truly uneducated: people who accept the lopsided stories they’ve been told repeatedly and loudly by lying politicians who stand to gain by fostering this anti-government stance. These demogogues use a hatred of government to get elected, to create tax breaks for themselves and their bosses, and to continue to dismantle government entities that work to create a population of critical thinkers. We can argue about the amount of government we need, but to say that government is by and of itself bad is both wrong-headed and short-sighted.

Unfortunately, these two things go hand in hand. We live in a society that values ignorance over education, displays of strength over deliberative thought, and blind faith over a spirit of inquiry. We live in a society that is fearful and superstitious. We live in a society that vilifies those who are different, and ignores and marginalizes those who have diverse stories, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

And so I say let the revolution begin. We are running out of time, people. We need a revolution, because at this point in human culture, we are facing the most dire threat imaginable: not an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse, but a sudden shift in our climate that will affect every human being on the planet. Because we are a resilient and clever species, chances are we will survive this threat, but to do so, we will need  to muster all our resources. We need to be educated, smart, and open-minded, so that we will be able to anticipate problems and crises, and to react to them with well-conceived solutions.

So on this morning, I say to my sisters out there marching in the cold: thank you. More than that–I tell them, Let’s start this revolution today, right now, and bravely face the future we have created for ourselves. It will be a hard job, but we must mend the miseducation of our society, just as we can end the diseducation that has been systematically thrust down our throats for the last 30 years. We can become a nation of thinkers who accept difference and welcome diversity. We can replace fear-mongering with critical thinking, and we can set American exceptionalism aside, once and for all, as we face our future together with people of all nations. Only by doing so will we have any hope of being prepared for the uncertain future that lies before us.

Let the Revolution begin.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Revision

 

Fair warning: this post is not political. It is for all the writers out there who hate revising their work.

Guys, I know the feeling. You labor over something for weeks, months, even years, and when you reach the end, or what you think is the end, it’s so very tempting to stop, put down your pen or push aside your keyboard, and break out the champagne. You love what you’ve written, if only because (1) it’s finished and (2) it meets your expectations, which, let’s be honest, have been systematically lowered throughout the duration of your project. The last thing you want to do is pick over every word and line you’ve sweated over in a pointless effort to tear it apart.

I used to feel that way, too. In fact, I suppose a pretty substantial part of me still does. But today, on the eve of 2017, at the end of a year that so many people are calling a very bad year, if not a catastrophic one, I pause in my own revision work to offer other writers a new way of looking at revision.

I am learning to love this part of writing, because I see it as a perfect marriage between creativity and analysis. Note that I am  using the word “analysis,” not the word “criticism,” because that’s too negative for what I think we do in revision. The job of revision is to help make something better, not to tear it apart. (Tearing it apart should come later, during the critical review, but only in as much as the critic must tear something apart in order to see what it’s made of and how it works. A good critic will always put the work back together again after she does the work of criticism.)

My secret to loving revision, then, is this: Revising a work must involve a willing, enthusiastic attitude. The writer must regard the task of revising with excitement, because it is this part of writing that really shows the essence of craftsmanship, that separates those who write for fun (whether they are published authors or not) from those who write because they are compelled to do so. But how can a writer change their attitude about this pain-in-the-ass time sink? I’ve devised a very simple solution. Instead of hoping that your work contains few mistakes and needs minimal revision, you should assume that it houses many mistakes, some of them not easy to find. Rather than bewailing the need to revise, growing bored and frustrated with finding topical errors, learn to use revision as a sonar device to locate the buried as well as the superficial mistakes. Once found, even deep mistakes are usually fairly easy to fix–much easier to fix than most writers would think. I’ve found that when you let go of the inherent desire not to have to fix something and give yourself over to the idea that fixing it is not only a good thing to do, but an entertaining and satisfying aspect of the nature of the job, revision loses its drudgery. It becomes a pleasant and in some ways delightful stage in the work of creation, and it invites the best use of problem-solving tactics–and creativity–a writer possesses.

There you have it. Stop avoiding revision. (You know you have.) Change your attitude–for real. Love revision and all it offers. Because it’s revision, and not the mere act of writing itself, that makes us real artists. Any third-grader can write. Only a real writer has the ability, and the drive, to revise.

–Offered on this last day of 2016 with a minimum of revision

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The Observer Effect in Local Politics

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An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, a painting by English Painter Joseph Wright (1768). Image from Wikimedia.org

 

I used to try to encourage people to become more active in politics by saying, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” I thought that in order for democracy to work well, people needed to get out and be part of the political system of which, whether they acknowledge it or not, they are a part. I believed that taking action–by running for office, working to get candidates elected, and keeping abreast of current issues–was the best, and perhaps the only, way to make government accountable to those it serves.

I now see that I was wrong.

Local politics is in fact the only level of politics that really matters to most of us, because it’s the only sphere of politics which most of us can affect. And local government functions better when it is played out in front of an audience. In other words, people behave differently when other people are watching them: they are more careful with their words and their behavior. I discovered this by accident; in the wake of profound disillusionment from the election, I took the only action I could. I started attending local governmental meetings: a city council meeting here, a coffee hour with a state representative there. I began to follow the local political news, just to have a sense of what was going on in my little world. It wasn’t much, but it was all that I could do, and I was tired of sitting at home in disgust, frustration, and fear.

What I discovered is that democracy is subject to what is called, in physics, “The Observer Effect,” which states that the mere act of observing a system changes it. Once we set out to observe something, even as a silent bystander, we have an effect on that which we observe. While this might make trying to get a good measurement of electrons impossible, it works to our advantage in politics. We can, as spectators, effect the changes we want to see in governance. With very little effort–by just showing up–we can begin to make our local political units more accountable, and hopefully, more honest and effective.

And so, I want to correct my earlier statement. Democracy, at its lowest but its most important level, can indeed be a spectator sport. We don’t all have to run for office, making speeches and participating in debates. We don’t even have to study the issues, although it would be better if we did. All we really need to do is show up and let our elected representatives know that we are, in fact, watching them. By doing so, we will inspire them to consider their ideas and words–and ultimately their actions–more carefully and thoughtfully. And we will do our part, however small and seemingly insignificant, to make sure that democracy not only survives, but thrives, during this difficult time.

 

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After the Apocalypse

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I am no  stranger to political loss. I ran a decent campaign for state representative in 2012, but my opponent, a well-funded Republican, beat me handily (58% to 42%). But today’s loss is different. This morning, we all woke up to a world that is not the same place it was yesterday. I have to wonder whether this feeling of grief and horror is how my elders felt on November 22, 1963. Something important, that was once beautiful though imperfect, is broken, perhaps irreparably.

I do not want to point fingers, to wail and moan about the coming years, to wring my hands with worry. I want to get past my feelings of anger and hostility, my disgust with an electorate so ill-educated and short-sighted that it has elected a person monumentally unfit for the highest office in the land. I want to put aside my fear for my children, my guilt for not doing enough to prevent this.

Maybe I’ll get there  tomorrow, or the next day.

Not today.

Today, all I can see is an America that is sick and dying. Today, I can only see that democracy is not the best form of government when a populace persists in selfish, xenophobic, and inhumane beliefs. Most painful of all, today I have to admit that the country I loved (despite my criticisms of it through the years) is a fiction, a mere chimera.

Today, I mourn for everyone who will be touched by this tragedy, and they will number in the millions. And to my readers across the sea and above and below the border, today I apologize for my country.

Today, I am ashamed to be an American.

Tomorrow, the resistance begins. Who will lead it? What form will it take? We will find out the answers to those questions when the shock and disbelief wear off, when the sharp edge of grief subsides. And until then, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that we will not give up fighting for what’s good, and decent, and right. Because that’s how Americans–true Americans, those who are not motivated by greed and fear–act.

Here, then, is my battle cry: I will not give up.

 

 

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Television in the Age of Netflix

 

Let’s face it: we all need to escape from our reality every so often. It’s a fact of human nature, and I would guess that all human beings throughout all ages engage in escapism. The paleoglyphs in Lascaut, France,  as well as those in Painted Rocks, Arizona, were probably produced by hunter-gatherers who had tired of their daily grind, early humans who were looking for some type of entertainment outside the bounds of their usual activities. No doubt in medieval times, Europeans escaped the poverty and hardship of their lives through the romance, ritual, and mystery offered by the Church. In other words, the tendency to indulge in escapism is nothing to be ashamed of; on the contrary, it’s probably one of the few things that sets us apart from animals and makes us human.

All of this is a long, roundabout way of introducing my latest form of escapism: television. Of course, people have been escaping through television programs since the first transmissions occurred in the 1920s and ’30s. (My grandmother bought a set of World Encyclopedias in 1933, which I used to love skimming through as a child. Here “television” was deemed an experimental technology, which some people argued might one day reach the popularity of radio, although this was doubtful, according to the editors of the article.) But television has changed, as everyone knows. Netflix and Amazon, along with Hulu and other streaming platforms, have made it possible to binge watch shows, consuming in three days what used to take several months of patience, waiting for Wednesday nights to come around in order to watch the next episode of a favorite show.

What interests me isn’t so much the personal habits of television-watching; frankly, I’d rather not know who else is staying up late watching five episodes of a show in a single night. Some things should be private, after all. Instead, I think it’s important to point out that not only have the means of reception changed in this industry; the means of production (or at least of distribution) have changed profoundly as well, making it possible for Americans like me to watch any number of interesting programs, some of which would never be available in this country without streaming television. In my view, Netflix is the best thing to happen to television since Milton Berle himself.

And yet there’s one small problem. What’s missing from this plentiful choice of programs is a way of sorting through all of them.

Until now. I am pitching in to do my part in helping clueless viewers, like myself, figure out what to watch in order to avoid another boring evening at home filing receipts or folding clothes. Below I offer  a list of shows that I’ve watched recently. (Note: I omit shows like Broadchurch and Stranger Things, since they have become mainstream. The purpose of this list is to alert people to shows that are, so far as I can tell, still under the radar.) I recommend all of them. It’s true that some are less entrancing than others, but all of them are interesting and are worth watching through at least a couple of episodes.

  1. River. A psychological police procedural that is riveting. Skellan Skarsgard and Nicola Walker present fantastic performances in a miniseries that is impossible to stop watching.
  2. The Detectorists. Don’t be put off by the beginning of the series: it looks like an English version of Dumb and Dumber, but it’s not. Stick with it and by the third episode, you’ll be hooked. Season Two just became available, but I have not yet allowed myself to watch it, because I’m worried that it will fall prey to sophomore slump, like Grace and Frankie and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which seem to have become rather sophomoric in their second years.
  3. The Returned (French version only!). This provides a subtle horror feel in a program that presents interesting scenery and unusual characters, all while helping you review your high school French.
  4. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. A strange little episodic show, based in a diner that is only open from midnight to 8 am. It’s odd but interesting, with a fascinating peek into Japanese culture.
  5. Fearless. This is my current guilty pleasure. This documentary on professional bull riders is exceptionally well done, from the very unusual opening sequence and music (shown above) to the many interviews with Brazilian and American rodeo bull riders it presents. Even if you’re not a fan of PBR, it’s worth watching for the insight on the lives these men and their families lead and for the excellent cinematography.

All of these are interesting shows, and each provides a nice little escape from a contentious (sometimes ridiculous) election year and other disturbing news stories. Take a look if you have a chance. And don’t be afraid to binge watch: your secret is safe with me.

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My Literary Discovery of the Year: Laughing Whitefish

For me, discovering an important book that I’ve overlooked is one of the most pleasurable parts of the reading life.  I used to use the classroom to share my findings with students–who, I’ll admit, for the most part didn’t really care about my discoveries–but now, since I’ve retired, I’m forced to use The Tabard Inn to record them for a posterity which probably doesn’t really exist. That’s ok, because I feel it’s my duty, if not my destiny, to read forgotten books, to encourage these literary wallflowers and buried masterpieces to take their place in the spotlight, so to speak, even if no one is in the audience.

I’ve discovered a number of fine books through having absolutely no discipline in my reading the last few years. But I count Laughing Whitefish, by Robert Traver  (McGraw Hill, 1965), among the most significant of my discoveries. My readers may recognize Robert Traver as the author of the book Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a racy film starring James Stewart in 1959: the star’s father, believing the film to be immoral, actually took out an advertisement in his paper to ask people not to see it. You can see the unusual trailer for the film below:

Much attention has been given to Anatomy of a Murder, but I’ve seen virtually nothing about Laughing Whitefish, which is actually a great deal more important than Traver’s earlier book. In fact, I will make the claim here that this novel is every bit as important in its way as To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published five years earlier. Laughing Whitefish is based on real events and is based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; it takes place in the late nineteenth century and focuses on a lawsuit in which a Native American sues a mining company for breach of contract. Like Lee’s mythic condemnation of the inequalities between blacks and whites in the first half of the twentieth century, Traver’s book addresses the evils done to Native Americans during the settlement of the United States. And it does this in impassioned language. Take, for example, these words spoken by the first-person narrator:

It seems passing strange that we whites in our vast power and arrogance cannot now leave the vanishing remnants of these children of nature with the few things they have left….Can we not relent, for once halt the torment? Must we finally disinherit them from their past and rob them of everything? Can we not, in the name of the God we pray to, now let them alone in peace to live out their lives according to their ancient customs, to worship the gods of their choice, to marry as they will, to bring forth their children, and finally to die? Can we, who for centuries have treated the Indians as dogs, only now treat them as equals when they dare seek relief from injustice in our courts?….I am the first to concede that whatever you may decide here will be but a passing footnote in the long history of jurisprudence, that the pittance we are jousting over is but a minor backstairs pilfering in the grand larceny of a continent. (202)

These are difficult words for a white person to read, but I believe it is important for every American to read them, because they present the situation as clearly as Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. The question is, why is it that we know Lee’s work, but not Traver’s? I would suggest that Laughing Whitefish be made required reading in public schools, because it is just as important a book as To Kill a Mockingbird.

No one has a monopoly on misery in this country. But the first step in solving a problem is admitting it exists. The second step is exploring its origins. What a different world we might be living in today if, instead of making a film of Anatomy of a Murder, Otto Preminger had made one of Laughing Whitefish.

 

 

 

 

 

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On Alleys and Why I Love Them

Resized_20160801_184237Alleys are half-wild places; they are the places where raccoons and skunks prowl at night, where kids hide their contraband items such as potato guns (and worse), where you might meet a resident stray cat you’d never see on a regular street. I like this illicit quality in alleys, just as I like the fact that people generally don’t walk through alleys. Everyone knows you’re supposed to stay on the street when you walk through town, not prowl through alleys like a hungry varmint searching for food. But when I walk through an alley, I get that frisson of excitement, similar to the one that comes from wading into a stream to fly-fish: there’s something illicit and transgressive–and thoroughly enjoyable–about violating a rule of civilized society. Pedestrians are most often found on streets, not in alleys, after all,  just as folks who fish belong on the banks of the stream, not thigh deep in it, looking back over at the trees that provide the watery shadows in which trout revel. This kind of transgression is alluring and exhilarating, and it’s one reason I love alleys.

mms_20160801_194453Houses, of course, look different from alleys. You can glimpse backyards and sheds, garages and decks, old bicycles and worn-out boats from the dust-covered alley. You can also see the vegetable gardens that go unnoticed by mere streetside walkers, the backyard window-boxes replete with petunias of all colors, and cute metal sculptures that play second-fiddle to people’s proudly manicured front lawns , those bastions of self-assurance. Walking through an alley, in short, is like looking at a real person who just woke up; walking down the street, on the other hand, is like looking at a public figure about to get his or her picture taken by a professional photographer. You can trust what you see when you walk through alleys.

To be honest, I’m not even sure whether an alley is a right of way; perhaps I’m breaking some kind of communal law when I walk down an alley. But that’s fine by me. It’s worth the risk to discover a hidden treasure that lies right beyond my own backyard.

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In Praise of Bad Novels

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I read a lot. Not as much as my husband seems to think, but a respectable amount nonetheless. This year I am keeping track, and since January 1st, I’ve read fifteen books. That’s three books a month, a figure that includes one audio book but does not include the four books I’ve read for reviewing purposes. And among those books, I’ve found two books that I think are actually bad novels. Surprisingly, these two bad novels are by acclaimed authors–authors whose works I have enjoyed, recommended, and highly admired. Hence today’s topic: why reading a bad novel isn’t an utter waste of time.

Many of us have had those moments in which we spend a good chunk of time resolutely plowing through a New Yorker short story only to complain afterwards, muttering something like, “That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” And the same could be said about these two novels. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and listening to Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana left me frustrated and perplexed until I began to think about bad novels. After several days of thought, I began to see the value of reading books that simply don’t measure up to our standard of writerly quality.

Don’t get me wrong: while in the midst of these two books I kept reading and listening precisely because, knowing the authors’ other works, I expected things to take a turn for the better. When they didn’t, I grumbled and complained, and marveled at the insipidness of the stories being told. I finished Ishiguro’s novel thinking, “That’s strange–it never did get any better. Where is the writer who produced two of the finest novels of the last thirty years?” I finished Eco’s in even worse shape, thinking, “At least I knitted several dishcloths while I spent fifteen hours [!] listening to this thing.”

imgres-2So why would I celebrate bad novels? There are a number of reasons. First, there’s value in reading a body of a writer’s work, just as it’s worthwhile to watch a body of a director’s films. Watching the ebb and flow of good writing within one author’s body of work is instructive: it shows us readers that all writing is experimental, even the writing created by excellent and talented writers. Second, it makes us question our values. What makes a novel bad rather than good? Is it predictability and relying on telling rather than showing, as in When We Were Orphans? Or could it be long-winded musings that interrupt and detract from the real narrative, leaving readers with a shaggy-dog story rather than an enriching experience, as in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana? Would we judge these books as harshly if we didn’t know the authors’ other works, masterpieces in their own right? These questions may not have clear answers, but they are certainly worth considering.

And for those writers out there (and aren’t all of us writers, even those of us who don’t regularly produce manuscripts or succeed in getting our work published?), I’d offer this thought: considering bad novels gives us hope. If Kazuo Ishiguro can miss the bull’s-eye, even after he wrote The Remains of the Day, then we can certainly forgive ourselves for not coming up to snuff. We can continue to labor at our work, trusting that, like Ishiguro, we can still produce some wonderful work, a heart-breaking novel like Never Let Me Go, jaw-dropping in its artistry. Using Eco’s example, we can say to ourselves that our present work may not be quite the thing, but that another, beautiful piece of writing lies within us, struggling to come out.

And most important of all, we can remind ourselves that all stories are significant, and that even the not-so-good ones deserve to be told–and read.

 

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