I was going to write something here about moving and home improvement projects, but that is some grim, boring shit, the likes of which I hope will soon recede in my memory to a faint acrid haze (at least the moving part). But I have nothing of note to share: I learned the same lesson I always learn (and forget), that blind optimism doesn’t actually make hard work go any faster or easier.
Instead, I’m finally getting around to quoting Jerry Saltz on writing, from the introduction to Seeing Out Loud, Village Voice Art Columns Fall 1998-Winter 2003.
For me, writing always seems to take everything I have; sometimes it’s hell. Generally, I don’t know what I’m going to write until I write it. However, in the same way that art tells you things you didn’t know you need to know until you know them, writing is a way of finding out what you think. Of course, often when you start figuring out what these thoughts are, they’re not always the ones you hoped you’d have. You might dislike something you thought you’d like. Or vice versa. I often find myself writing about art that embarrasses me, is unknown or unresolved. About reviews like these, a colleague warned, “Critics make their names by writing unequivocally on well-known artists.” Maybe, but just doing that reduces you to what artist-critic Douglas Blau calls “a validator of the inevitable.” Reactions are complex, and critics should try to plumb this complexity and be willing to fail in public, sometimes flamboyantly, just as artists are. Reviews that are all positive or negative, only neutral or descriptive or so obscure or academic you can’t figure out what they’re saying, sell everyone short.
There’s a slew of interesting ideas contained in this paragraph. The first to grab me is one I’ve observed again and again when I try to compose a response to a fellow writer about the story. I may have a gut reaction of some kind, but until I sit down and start writing about it, I don’t really know what exactly I think about something. For me, writing = thinking. I have had kneejerk negative reactions to stories that, once I begin to write about, I come to understand after a fashion, and lose my distaste in the process.
Another idea: it’s hard to write unequivocally. I discovered this early on in my MFA program, when I foundthat the leaders of my craft classes basically expected me to take an interpretive position on a story and articulate it with authority. For a while, I was led to believe that this was a somehow morally superior position from which to approach a given work and I tried to become more definitive in my opinions. It’s not that I’m indecisive, but I am often awash in ambiguity. I no longer think that’s a bad thing.
Finally, that last sentence…last year, I was in a class where we read a bunch of nominees for the Essay Prize. Among them was something from I think Artforum, a review of a show by Dianna Molzan. The (then-anonymous) nominator was completely enamored of the form, a dialogue between two people, one seasoned, and one young. The nominator believed this essay represented a fresh and delightful, “insouciant” way to write about art. Reader, it was intolerable. The seasoned interlocutor spoke in what I think was supposed to be humorously over-the-top arty jargon. The younger was bored/indifferent. This was not an essay about the show it purported to review. It was a stuffy in-joke, maybe funny only to its author and its nominator. Which is fine – universality is a shitty metric for quality.
But perhaps everyone concerned needs to read Politics and the English Language.