“Brighter! Make it brighter!” – Charles Dickens
We are all daunted by someone or something. Even Pulitzer prize winning writers like Michael Dirda. In his latest book, Browsings, a compilation of a year of columns he wrote for The American Scholar he said that he was “cowed by the prospect of succeeding William K. Zinsser” in the online column. He said that even in writing an introduction to his book, he could hear Dickens’ admonishing words: “Brighter! Make it brighter!” This only proves that writers are always trying to better themselves even if they are chosen as “one of the twenty five smartest people in the nation’s capital.” This was Washington of course, Dirda being American, but with some humbleness and I suspect a bit of tongue-in-cheek naughtiness, he wore the banner well, saying “you have to consider the competition.”
Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well” died in May of this year. He was one of my heroes so I understand Dirda’s dilemma in following in the footsteps of such a distinguished man of letters (and I could not mean this more literally). But Dirda is not a shrinking violet when it comes to writing, being a regular writer for the New York Review of Book and the Washington Post, author of numerous books, and receiver of many awards. Yet he keeps it all in perspective.
Fellow writer Steven Petite (author of Concept of Home) says that Dirda’s reviews “are oftentimes personal anecdotes about his life, and he speaks in the first person at times which is not common for highbrow literary critics….” He is passionate about the written word, but uses it to convey not just intelligent thought (I feel smarter after reading him), but intelligent thought in a way that does not make the reader feel…..uh….stupid. Having read a few books that have made me feel stupid (not illuminated, not enlightened, not more informed) I really appreciate his “way with words”.
Dirda says that a writer’s greatest challenge is “tone.” He says that he likes “a piece to sound as if it were dashed off in fifteen minutes—even when hours might have been spent contriving just the right degree of airiness and nonchalance.” His wish to appear as if he just dashed off a piece of writing is my fear. Because I am not as well-established as he is, I fear that people think I dash these columns off in fifteen minutes (which I guess goes back to the writer’s ever petulant inner voice which is never kind).
My dream is to someday compile my columns into a book. There, I have said it. Aloud or as aloud as the written word will permit. Alas, I have voiced this wish before somewhat timidly and tentatively and been met with a variety of responses. Many have been encouraging, yet the one that comes back to haunt me is the person who said, “Well, don’t you have to be famous before a compilation of your columns would be published?” My response to this person was merely a raised eyebrow, although my first instinct was to punch him in his prominent belly really, really hard. A girl can have her dreams can’t she? Dashing them is ill-advised. (Now where did I put that Pulitzer prize?)
“Done is Better Than Good”
I declare this to be my new procrastination-battling mantra. They say that some procrastinators are perfectionists, and because of this trait they do not do what needs to get done. I find myself in this rut and I want to dig myself out of it, and if the pragmatic words: “done is better than good” help me achieve a win over my battle with delaying tactics, postponing the inevitable, and stalling strategies, then I am believer.
Not a believer in the true sense, in that I really would like everything I do to be “good”, but I am willing to employ “done is better than good” to some areas of my life (like dusting and vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom). I came across these wise words in Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book “Big Magic”. Her mother gave her this advice with the explanation that, “There are only so many hours in the day, after all. There are only so many days in a year. There are only so many years in a life. You do what you can do as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.” Gilbert’s mother felt that “mere completion is a rather honourable achievement in its own right.”
I agree. Now all I have to do, is “ just do it”. (Sorry for the steal, Nike.)