I’ve recently been watching a series of documentaries on the Wild West. I don’t have TV but I’ll watch pretty much any documentary on DVD. This particular series is one that my husband taped on video – I’m showing my age here but, remember those days? Trying to pause the recording before the adverts came on, and then start it up again without missing anything? How you couldn’t switch channels as otherwise the recording would switch too? Ha! Alien concepts in this day and age. Anyway, I digress…
These documentaries are brilliantly done. Well researched and lots of original footage, from photos to letter to diary entries to film – and the reportage is really balanced. Apart from the on-screen wobbles, you wouldn’t think my husband recorded these 14 years ago and we’ve only just had them converted to modern technology!
Why am I telling you all this? Basically, because of a point that was highlighted in Episode 3 that set me thinking. An historian pointed out that the main difference between Crazy Horse and general Custer was that Crazy Horse already thought he had the perfect life; he was in a state of being and wanted to be allowed to continue. On the other hand, Custer was in a perpetual state of trying to improve – he lived in a permanent state of becoming.
I think this Custer reference is a great description for artists and writers. As far as I’m aware, the creative mind constantly demands improvement and change, so there’s always movement. This movement is as unpredictable and unruly as the rolling seas, but it creates the driving force behind old ideas in fresh voices, adds the necessary passion and magic that takes something good and makes it incredible.
But is there another way to be? A less frantic and unsettling approach? My husband is definitely a Crazy Horse – he approaches life in a calm and steady manner, and has more energy and staying power than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s an incredibly creative and talented singer/songwriter, but isn’t driven to the peaks and troughs of emotion that charge in unannounced to interrupt my days. Instead, he meanders his way and eventually gets there.
We’ve discussed this and he seems to think it’s the length of the work involved and the fact that when you perform, you get an instant response from the crowd – hopefully a positive one. Although singer/songwriters suffer from nerves and stage fright, the catharsis comes much quicker. Writers, on the other hand, spend long periods of time in solitude and the work requires more input, a different approach. And there’s no guarantee anyone will actually read what you write.
I certainly approach my own projects differently, depending on what I’m writing. For instance, when I’m writing first drafts (stories or novels) I immerse myself in them. I use the NanoWrimo format and write every first draft in a month, letting the characters and story lead me, concerning myself only with the word count and completely ignoring any edits. A character name changes as I’m writing – so what? I know who I’m talking about when I read it back later, so I’ll worry about that then.
But after that first draft, Custer takes over and every redraft is focused on improvement. It’s shaping, pruning, paring and intensifying. It’s deleting the irrelevant and pulling out the elements that I want to shine. It’s making sure every word is relevant, the loose ends are tied, and that there’s a gripping pace pulling the reader towards a satisfactory ending.
As for the intended audience, do they affect the way you write? Personally, I think they do to an extent – most people write to a higher standard when they have a competition or submission in mind – and I find this particularly relevant when writing for children. You can’t write to a script but you do want your audience to enjoy the journey – and as we all know, kids are harsh critics.
What do you think? As writers, can we ever mirror Crazy Horse and just be? Or is it the nature of the beast to strive for perfection, like Custer?
(c) Elizabeth Rose Murray