The Faintest Ink
By Elizabeth Cutright
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of happening upon an old piece of writing – maybe a short story from grammar school or a love poem from the 16-year-old-you, maybe even that earnest college paper about the fall of the Roman Empire – and buckling under that powerful cringe that tightens your whole body as you read the sloppy plotting, the grandiose language, the grammatical misplacements or stylistic missteps. It’s so embarrassing; all that earnest prose and naked ambition. Those meaningfully managed sentences, all that artistic description, all that lurid plotting. It’s enough to make you through the whole damn thing into the fire and vow to never write another word.
And even if your reaction isn’t all that dramatic, it can still plant that little seed of doubt. If you were so deluded “way back when” to think you had something important or interesting to say, how do you know if you’re not similarly deluded now? How much longer before the world figures out you’re a hack…a pretender…an average Joe marinating in your own mediocrity?
Well, on the one hand…you can’t really ever know, right? You will always encounter detractors; the “haters” that love nothing more than to critique and nitpick and point out how unworthy you are. And there are always those mystifying fans – the ones that love what you do, but not for the reasons you expect. Sometimes their support is even more off putting than the out-and-out critic. If they think your poems are funny and you were aiming for heartfelt, then maybe you don’t know what you’re doing – maybe you need to put the pen down, back away slowly and let the professionals go about their “real” work.
Last night, while re-watching the third season of Mad Men during my marathon viewing in preparation for the season 5 premier next week, I came across a great moment that really illustrates my point about burdening your work with expectations. The scene encapsulates all the nuance of the push and pull of living life as a writer – battling to rise above the hacks without falling into a pit delusion.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show – which is set at a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s – many of the characters grapple with ideas of self (are we what we portray to the world?) and self-perception (am I as “good” or “bad” as they say I am?). It’s a dialogue about the two sides of one coin – the doubt and the delusion – and the show does a great job of dramatizing the way this ying/yang relationship with creativity effects and influences the artist and the writer.
In this particular episode, two advertising copywriters are working independently to come up with a campaign for Western Union. While one character works off the cuff and often conjures up a winning idea on a whim, the other character labors at the process – using tools and tricks to get his creative juices flowing. In the end, the laboring character is hit by inspiration – his tricks have worked! Unfortunately, he forgets to write the idea down. When he tells his coworker of his misfortune, he reminds her that it’s writing that makes something real.
“You know what the Chinese say,” he tells her, “the faintest ink has more power than the strongest memory.”
In the end – you probably saw this coming – his little lamentation becomes the spark for a successful advertising campaign, because after all…as the famous Don Draper himself says, “you can’t frame a telephone call.”
The faintest ink has more power than the strongest memory.
What can this bit of wisdom tell us? To me, it seems to be a reminder that in the end, we need to cage our inspiration – or tame it – by writing it down. What we write doesn’t have to be great or even very good, the important thing is to get it down….pen to paper…one word at a time.
“Hope begins in the dark,” she continues, “that stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”
“In order to be a good writer, I have to be willing to be a bad writer,” Julia Cameron admits in The Right to Write. “Prose can benefit from a little lurid frippery. The understated, carefully modified, exclamation-point-only-with-papal-permission prose that we learn in school actually bores a lot of us out of writing.”
“If only we could give ourselves permission to write “badly,” so many of us would write very well indeed,” she says, and I agree. It’s so easy to get caught up in making it all sound so perfect, so witty, so sharp and creative. If you’re not changing the world or writing the next great American novel, then what’s the point?
If you have ask – as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing – you’ll never know, right?
“Writing is medicine,” says Cameron, “It is an appropriate antidote to injury. It is an appropriate companion for any difficult change.”
Once we open up our eyes and allow ourselves to be imperfect, we start to see inspiration everywhere. The truth is that at any given moment we are the pretender to the throne and the king of the mountain. We are all two sides of a coin, the winner and the loser. Writing can allow us to try on many different lives, to write out our problems, to write out new futures.
But the transformation and the mutability will never be achieved without sitting down and taking that first step.
Let go of pretention and expectation, and just write.
If you won’t listen to me, listen to Cameron, “Writing allows us to rewrite our lives.”
So who do you want to be?