Letting go of the outcome
Jasper Fforde writing flash

The most human anyone can be

I'm teaching a seminar group of first year English-with-Creative-Writing undergraduates. It's part of a literature course on the short story, but it's hard for me to talk about reading for long without it creeping into talking about writing. When you earn your living as I do it's easy to assume that anyone writing more than a shopping list is secretly dreaming of the Booker or the movie deal, so I thought I'd better check. And it was as well I did, because the range is wide, from those who just enjoy it, by way of others who didn't want to have to squeeze their writing in round some other subject, to some for whom it's a big part of their life, and who hope it might be bigger yet.

Before we went round the room, I said that just because I am a professional writer doesn't mean I think everyone who writes should want that. And no, it's not because I don't want the competition, nor is it because I'd spare them the struggle to get published. Nor am I being patronising by downplaying something that's clearly important to me. I said it then, and I've said it elsewhere and meant it, because I believe passionately that much (most?) of what's worth doing about writing is wholly unconnected to 'being published'.

Human creativity is a Good Thing. I sometimes wonder if it isn't, along with love, the thing that makes us most human, that finds the best in humanity. When I'm in the mood to think in those terms I think that it's in creation, as in love, that humans come closest to whatever it is that you might call God. A creative act is one which makes something which seems to be greater than the sum of its parts. Just because we don't all, always, make the greatest possible thing from those parts, doesn't mean we shouldn't have done it. To read some reviews - let alone some book blogs - you'd think it was a moral outrage to write and publish a book that falls short of perfection in some ways. My grandfather was a schoolmaster all his life and he used to say, 'If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly.' Not carelessly or without effort, mind you. What he meant was that most of what you learn from doing something, you learn regardless of the outcome. For someone born in 1899, who spent his entire professional life in the hang'em and flog'em boys' public school system of his day, that seems to me rather enlightened, and, more to the point, I'm sure it's true.

No, not all art - literary or otherwise - is worthy of lasting fame, or even of a space on your own sitting room wall. I won't say writing is good if I don't think it is, though I'm not so conceited as to think my judgement infallible, and what I say instead depends enormously on who I'm talking to. We do need ways to talk about art, and that includes talking about whether it works, whether it's original, whether it has importance beyond today. But sometimes what I think of a complete creative act isn't the point. The point is that it happened: that a human created it, and for that time, they were the most human anyone can be.

We seem to have come back to letting go of outcomes, don't we. Did you know that that's what my screensaver says? Only the phrase is too long for the template, so what it actually says is 'Letting Outcomes Go.' As I keep saying to my students, apropos the newspaper word-limits and deadlines that the great short story writers worked to, no creative act exists independent of its context.

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