Be Better Than Yourself…

‘What I write is so inadequate … the worst trick God can play is to make you an artist, but only a mediocre artist.’

According to my NME rock annual (and frankly I don’t know how reliable it is as a source) David Bowie said this in September 1980.

I really like this quote, to the point that I have carefully copied it out and stuck it on my study door.

First of all I like it because it simply expresses what anyone trying to achieve something creative has probably come up against more than a few times. It suggests, and I’m thinking here purely in literary terms to suit my own purposes, the morning-after feeling in the bitterness of the word ‘trick’: that initial moment you get an idea, the giddy feeling of getting a rough draft down on the page, when you really believe you’re on to something, that you’re creating something outstandingly brilliant. And then there’s the bit where you reread what you’ve done, in what often seems to be the very cold light of day, and realise it’s not everything you had hoped. The difference between what you feel, the impetus for creativity… and the end result. The chasm can be, at least in the mind of the person who’s written it, all too vast.

It’s also a rather inspirational quote – for obvious reasons. If Dan Brown had said it, we’d all just be nodding our heads in tacit agreement, glad he recognised his own limitations – how refreshing! But it’s Bowie. I don’t know exactly how he meant it, but to me I like it because it seems unusually honest. A lot of successful people are happy to reveal anecdotally (and safely) how they struggled to produce what turns out to be a critically acclaimed work of art, but Bowie seems to suggest he will never achieve what he wants to, that he doesn’t rate himself much at all. Yet by 1980 he’d already written some of the greatest songs of all time.

I always harp on about it but The Paris Review Interviews – which can be found in each issue of this incredible magazine and in several collected volumes you can buy in bookshops – are goldmines of information to aspiring writers. William Faulker’s interview is one of my favourites. In it he comments:

‘He [the writer] must never be satisfied with what he does. It is never as good as it can be done. […] Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.’

There is that sense of struggle that all writers who have seriously applied themselves, whether to good or bad effect, will recognise. And anyone who has sent work to publishers or magazines or agents should recognise that feeling that the piece is never finished, is never quite right.

I also like it because it makes me consider, what is the value of writing, and by that I mean, just writing and the act of writing itself? Bowie’s words seem to suggest that not-often considered concept – that you can be born an artist with a true and real vocation, even if you’re not a very good one.

The oft-asked question: is it possible just to write for yourself? To me the answer is simple: no. There is always an audience whether it is imagined or real, or both. The act of writing is one of communication. But if no one ever reads it, does that mean it doesn’t mean anything? The answer, to my mind, is still the same.

Quite some time ago a friend mentioned that his father had written a memoir, a swinging-sixties-in-London affair, but that it had not been picked up by any publishers or agents. ‘Oh well,’ I remember saying, ‘at least he wrote it.’ To which my friend shook his head, implying that there was no point if it was not a success, if it was not published and recognised. I’m not suggesting this opinion isn’t valid – it is – but for some reason I’ve often thought about this instance. Was it a complete waste of time for this man to have written his memoirs, which he wrote with publication in mind, if no one would ever read and appreciate them? I go back to what Faulkner’s quote implies: that writing is a battle with yourself more than anything else, though you write for the world outside yourself.

Ana Silvera, a great songstress and writer (we published her excellent piece ‘Becket and Madness’ all the way back in PP2) recently sent me a piece about sentimentality, which might, in some form, be published in Pen Pusher in the future. In it, she considers how generic forms of expression are the mainstay of communication in the modern world. That people describe their deeply personal emotions and experiences in often near-identical and highly sentimental ways – a worrying and slightly creepy trend that belittles human experience.

Writing is a way of trying to find a means of expression, and the novel, short story or poem places human experience at its heart. If a writer has really applied him or herself to the writing, whether the note they receive six months later is in acceptance or rejection, they have gained something.

Writing can be seen as a way of trying to, often sub-consciously, fight against limits that are placed upon expression by category and trend. A way of fighting against the brain’s wish to adhere to habit and safety. And surely that is a good thing?

(And at the opposite end of the scale, when you read something that you consider to be a work of exceptional imagination, thought, etc, you get that uncanny feeling that the reader is unnecessary to the text: it exists as it is, without need of validation by the reader. I think, most recently, of Austerlitz by WG Sebald – an extraordinary book I’d recommend to all. And perhaps this applies to everything?)

And all this is why I like to read Bowie’s quote. It validates the creative process and understands and represents its frustrations. It is a comforting and an encouraging quote for these reasons.

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