Blake on Improvement

I ran across this quote from William Blake:

“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

For a stretch of about twelve or fifteen years, I read a couple of the popular writing trade magazines almost cover-to-cover. It wasn’t just about “studying” them — it was a form of relaxation for me. Reading about the craft of producing fiction was, I suppose, what TV is for many people. The articles gave me a warm glow, a tingle of excitement. I loved reading about the techniques and tools, the markets and trends, and I liked hearing the stories of writers who were actually doing it: setting their words on paper and selling them. It still thrills me to hold a book, to browse in a bookstore, to see a ream of typing paper or a computer monitor, to hear the click of keyboard keys and feel them under my fingertips.

Writers’ magazines definitely have their benefits. They keep you somewhat in touch with what’s happening in the publishing world. They can teach you shortcuts and the proper ways of going about things (such as submissions). They can chop a lot of time off the process of learning, which would otherwise be done by trial and error. They’re a wonderful source of resources and places to try sending your stuff. But — to finish the TV analogy — wallowing in the trade magazines has its negative aspects, too. Like TV, it can become a form of escapism. Every moment you spend reading about technique is a moment you don’t spend improving your technique, either by reading well-written literature or by striving to write your own.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, points out the mistake companies make in focusing on artificialities and secondary concerns at the expense of creating products (or services) and selling them. Instead of building a good computer, for example, they schedule a meeting to discuss selecting a committee to explore the feasibility of creating a task group to formulate a strategy. . . .

Endlessly studying writing techniques can be the same. Isaac Asimov said, “It’s the writing that teaches you.” And Asimov certainly knew. You’d have to walk quite a way to find a writer more prolific.

I’ve met “writers” who are all about networking and getting an agent and learning how to protect their intellectual properties from theft . . . but they don’t seem to have any actual material. They don’t, that is, write. I’m not sure when they’re planning to do that part.

There’s a second danger of studying too much technique. There’s the danger that you might learn it. I remember a big debate about ten years ago over the proliferation of writers’ workshops and MFA programs in creative writing. The criticism leveled against them was that they produced multitudes of Serious Writers who all wrote the same. Stories began to smell of having been “workshopped” — all the edges sanded off, all the distracting idiosyncracies plucked out, all the individuality boiled away. “Trained writers” were becoming a quite competent lot who had learned not to take any risks. Nor were the book superstores helping the matter, with their shelves of “safe bets” by a few giant authors, to the exclusion of almost anything else.

During my years of ingesting the trade magazines, I worked and reworked a gigantic novel manuscript, the infamous “second novel” (after Dragonfly, I thought I had it figured out How This Works — heh, heh!). When it came back rejected from my first publisher and two agents, I scrapped almost the whole plot and rewrote and rewrote it all again, grinding and polishing and stewing over all the techniques I knew I should be using. I “finished” it again after hundreds and hundreds of pages, after countless thousands of hours. Today, the book is rife with possibility in its ideas and characters, but the writing makes me shudder — it’s extremely hard to read because it’s been “techniqued” so much. Bleah! (Thank Heavens I was selling short fiction during those years, or I would have been pretty discouraged.)

A big epiphany for me in the last year or so has been to take a deep breath, “forget” the techniques, listen to the characters, and get back to basics — to not concern myself with what’s “marketable,” but about what excites and fascinates me in a story. [By “forget,” of course, I don’t mean “forget”: I mean that techniques must assume their proper place. They become part of the writer, deep inside, like all those scales you played when you were first learning to play your musical instrument.] Tell a good story. Slosh paint around. Break the rules when you need to. Use anything and everything to get the story told.

Clifton Fadiman wrote, “Books are not rolls, to be devoured only when they are fresh.” I think we need to go back and read the great old books that have stood the test of time — books that are still with us, and that were written before writers knew the rules and went to workshops.

A final thought about Blake’s quote: I’ve heard several Japanese friends say that Japan is a country not of innovation but of skillful imitation. In the arenas of manufacturing and technology, Japanese are masters of taking the inventions of other countries, making small improvements, and then cranking out steadily better and better models every year. [For readers who don’t know: I live in Japan. This paragraph won’t make sense without that fact.] This [Japan] is a land of discipline . . . a land of regular Improvement. But in most cases, the Genius is borrowed from abroad — from lands where it’s more permissible to sit on a creek bank doing apparently nothing . . . to wander the crooked roads until the stars come out . . . to try things . . . to listen to voices in the cornfield . . . to dream.

We came in with Blake’s words. Let’s look at them again, the same words, on our way out:

“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

Give me a crooked road any day, with moss growing on the stiles and branches bending low, and surprising meadows at the turns!


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8 Responses to “Blake on Improvement”

  1. I partook of the Big R Says:

    I dunno much ’bout writing, and know even less about trade magazines, post-graduate seminars and workshops and secretive confabs of English major eggheads all sitting around stiffly assuming they alone understand how best to use the language.
    Here is what I do know — I do not like ‘pop.’ I despise pop television, revile pop music and avoid pop writing (save when my own limited talents are at work).
    Why? Because the public sucks, and so do their mega-everything, where vanilla is the flavor of choice.
    That was the genius of Dragonfly — it is, if nothing else, ‘un’pop, which to me is a great thing.
    Self-consumed writers and literaria (my word) spew snotty arrogance and talk about taking the road less traveled. Unfortunately, so many have taken that road that is has now become (as Fred was getting to) THE road.
    Give me a rough trail or let me create my own path, thank you. I had enough of English professors and tweed jackets long ago.
    We don’t need more megamarket bookhandlers who cowtow to the corporate pablum, but we also do not need more Berkley-esque poetry houses where self-important liberals spew what they think is genius but which instead is bunk.
    What we need is a surge of Book Center’s.
    The end.

  2. Gabe Says:


    I’m very good at Stephen King’s dictum: read, read, read everything. But I don’t do enough writing. I have to set aside a time, I think, and get really strict about it. There’s no real time set aside for reading, because I do it all the time (taking breaks to go to work, or mow the lawn, or cook meals, or clean).

    Anyway, do you still have that first draft of _Fires of the Deep_? Maybe there’ something “true” about it that you should consider again.

    This post rocked. Very inspiring. Thanks for this.

  3. Catherine Says:

    “Listen to the characters”–last time I did that, the main character stole my sweater. She eventually returned it, under great duress. Thievery aside, I’ve found that tool to be VERY helpful…

    Thanks for writing this blog; it’s fascinating!

  4. Baron Thredkil Says:

    This is not strictly limited to the arts. In industrial research and development occasionally you realize the business teams are busy devouring books on “managing innovation”. The Adams quote is quite correct. There are those out there who don’t technically ever put themselves on the line to _innovate_ or create from whole cloth, but are more than happy to pontificate on how to “plan for innovation”.

    These people also make more money than me, and counting the number of failures I’ve had in the lab sometimes I am sorely tempted to try to join their ranks just so I won’t have to work so durn hard! 🙂

    I’ve also heard the statement about Japan used in reference to some “emerging market countries”, but I suspect it is largely to ameliorate our inherent fears in the U.S. that we aren’t necessarily the only truly creative innovators on the planet. People are people, we all have the innate ability to do whatever a human can do, regardless of country of origin. But as you point out, you can definitely “sand off the edges” and train true creativity OUT of a person with enough effort. And that is sad.

    I go through phases in my musical tastes. Sometimes I’m happy with an over-produced bit of music that is perfect in every tone, and sometimes I want that raw, jangled, mess that has moments of brilliance. Sometimes I want to hear an artist who seems like he or she is just barely keeping the train on the tracks long enough to get to the station. It makes it all more human.

  5. Baron Thredkil Says:

    Will the “publish on demand” revolution mean we have more “UnPOP” literature as “Big R” calls it? (I like that term). Or will it mean we have an even worse more muddied pool to splash in?

    I work in a part of industry that is involved in the next “printing revolution”. While I am not part of that research I get to see it from close up. The company I work for and our competitors are busy working on what are called “digital presses”, these are high-speed off-set like presses (the kind that books and newspapers are printed on), but instead of being offset they apply the ink more like a desktop printer. This allows for much lower costs on short runs.

    One of the big drivers in the book industry as Fred no doubt knows, is cost of inventory. If I write a book about my dog, Aleister Growly, and it somehow makes it past the editor (who perhaps was drunk while reading the manuscript and approved it) and it makes it to the press the company is on the hook for a minimum book run. The books go out and if they don’t sell the company is on the hook for unused and unsalable inventory (and believe me, my book would be unsalable).

    With the highspeed digital webpress revolution perhaps publishers will take more _RISKS_ and publish more off-center works and works that will not make huge returns but will sell enough to cover the costs of the shorter, cheaper runs.

    It sounds kind of sick to discuss art in terms of “OpEx” and inventory management, but sadly I think this is the big bottleneck to broader release of more varied art.

    My only fear then is that with cheaper runs, easier publishing hurdles and more risk-taking that someone, somewhere will publish the kind of garbage _I_ would write and it would tend to dilute the pool to the point that _real_ artists would be harder to find just because there’s more trash to swim through.

    But this will be an interesting transition. Until, of course, we abandon books altogether in preference to “reader” hardware and “paper-like digital displays” (commonly called ePaper). At which point I will be saddened because bookshelves will become spare and sparse.

  6. Tandemcat Says:

    Excellent point, Fred, and well-made. At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s the quote attributed to Douglas MacArthur, IIRC: “A good plan executed today is far better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

  7. fsdthreshold Says:

    I thought of you, Tandemcat, when I was writing about the appeal of small, meandering roads–I know your abhorrence for superhighways that get you there in no time and show you nothing along the way.
    Gabe, I think you’re right: I should go back to that earlier draft of _The Fires of the Deep_. At least as a starting-off point.
    Baron Thredkil–excellent points. Essentially, what you’re describing with the coming trends in POD book publishing, we already _have_ on-line. Anyone with an Internet connection can (electronically) publish infinite reams of material with no editor under the sun touching any of it. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure–I suspect it comes with both goods and bads. I hope that, as has always been the case, the truly good writing will still emerge from the mire, borne up by word of mouth.
    Catherine–you’re welcome, and thank YOU! I’m glad you’re here.
    Big R–thanks for the kind words about _Dragonfly_. Ah, the Book Center (happy, nostalgic sigh)!

  8. Tandemcat Says:

    Yes–the Blue Roads (as William Least Heat Moon wrote about in his book _Blue Highways_), and, as Charles Kuralt wrote, “Thanks to the Interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel America from coast to coast without ever seeing anything.” It’s all very well to talk about “the road less traveled by,” but how many have actually done that? We will be doing that in an even more intense way, in a few days, when we once again set out on the trails between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. How great it would be to be able to travel bicycle trails from coast to coast in America!

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