The Illusive Cordon of Excellence

 

As an aspiring writer, your relationship with words is like a marriage struggling to keep itself afloat. There are good days, far and few between, long streaks of dismal days when you don’t trust the other. Although, in this case, one party can’t even claim sentience, the distrust seems mutual. And you tend, like in any strained relationship, to see yourself as the injured party, almost always. After all, words may not be sentient beings, but they hold an age whenever there is a conflict.

Sometimes I believe we kid ourselves that we choose words. If you look at evidence without the bias that comes with being human, you could quite easily argue that it’s the words who choose us. In his phenomenal work, the Selfish Gene, Dawkins puts forward a gene centric model to explain evolution better. Any meme could be seen as choosing the vehicles for their propagation.  The words choose us. We set arbitrary, and not so arbitrary (according to some of us, anyway) rules to restrict freedom of words. We believe we are enhancing the life of words. But more often than not, those rules end up hurting words. And then words revolt. They choose those who can break the rules, or choose rules that help them. Those who swear by rules are relegated to the forgotten footnotes of existence. While the words live on, way longer than any of us.

We live in a make believe word where writing can be taught. And yet, those who teach writing are struggling with it, just like the one who is learning. Maybe there isn’t anything more to it than practice, practice, practice. Then again, it’s not even remotely sufficient, just necessary. Or neither necessary nor sufficient. If we knew, all would be doing one thing. Thank heavens we don’t know!

Excellence, I sometimes think, is about hitting the target more often than others. Even masters come up with banal, awkward, even downright bad writing. And that assuming literary quality (and by extension, any artistic quality) is measurable, even partially objective.

The difference between good and bad writing — let me rephrase — the difference between good and the best of the bad writing, is tiny. To use a sports analogy, it’s the difference between good and bad timing. Between touching a line and missing a line. The masters seem to make the lines more often.

And yet, there is an endless playing field for those who can’t make those percentage, those cuts. Sometime, right in the middle of a mediocre field, one steps into the zone. Maybe by pure accident. Maybe, that day, the words decide to drop their defenses.  Even a strained relationship has its moments. That’s why we go on.

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