“Only to make things! There is no greater thing to be said of God Himself than that He makes things.” –G.K. Chesterton
When I was eighteen years old and still brimming with trust for books and their authors, I happened upon a monograph in a Barnes and Noble offering advice to aspiring letter-writers, diarists, and essayists. Eager to learn all I could, I opened to the first page and read (I quote from memory), “Never try to write about your life as if it were a story; your life is not that interesting.” I should have balked. I should have scoffed. I should have tossed the book at the head of the nearest academic. But instead, I swallowed, digested, incorporated, and incarnated the advice on the spot. Those words sank deep and became, for many years, the principle by which I wrote letters, by which I journaled, by which I essayed. They did not sit idle either but, like all ideas do, having found their way into my ideology, they fermented and foamed and expanded into an amorphous, fungal writing philosophy based loosely on the dictums, ‘know your limits’ and ‘write well or do not write at all.’
I sat at my desk four months ago. Rain fell outside and I was alone in the study room, a book of Woolf’s essays open before me. It is a well-known and—among the wise—widely accepted fact that Virginia Woolf is dangerous. One can swim in her sentences and paragraphs, carried along without knowing or caring exactly what she writes. Reading her can be like slipping into a pool that is the same temperature as the air around. One finds it difficult to feel the effects until one steps out. So I read, lulled into a pleasant stupor by her high modern diction and mellifluous syntax. That is, until I came to this paragraph (and even it almost found me nodding):
That is the problem which the habitual essayist must now be prepared to face. He must masquerade. He cannot afford the time either to be himself or to be other people. He must skim the surface of thought and dilute the strength of personality. He must give us a worn weekly halfpenny instead of a solid sovereign once a year.
In a moment of clarity, I saw this sentiment for what it was: my own, and, what is more to the point, something monstrous—something I could no longer believe. To say that an essayist is wasting his talents on weekly essays when he could be writing masterpieces once a year is like saying that the habitual runner has to choose between running poorly five days a week or running gracefully and swiftly once a year. It is like telling the basketball player it is far better to shoot one game-winning shot once a season than to waste time shooting ten thousand mediocre shots (some of them he will miss) in practice. It is like bemoaning the fact that a pianist plays scales and dry sonatinas for hours a day when he could be playing a Liszt transcendental etude every few months. It is—not to put too fine a point on it—absurd. One thing makes the other thing possible. Decent work requires drudging. Great writing requires a pile of poor attempts at writing.
No doubt, one can perpetuate poor writing by writing poorly, but one certainly cannot perpetuate great writing by writing rarely. The solution to running poorly is not to stop running. The solution to a bad basketball shot is not to save up all one’s bad shots so one can shoot a single perfect shot. A man cannot save up talent like he saves money. Skill in writing, indeed in any craft, is more like a garden than a bank account—it is beautiful in proportion to its gardener’s care; productive in proportion to its gardener’s work; pleasure-giving in proportion to its gardener’s patience, and in constant danger of growing less like a garden if neglected. The solution to writing poorly is to write more, with instruction, to choose great authors to imitate, and to write constantly.
In that moment I saw, more clearly than before, the purpose of the Trifler. And as tedious as it is to read writers writing on writing, I should explain myself at least once. These Triflers are a kind of penance for all my years of refusing to write for fear of writing refuse. They are, in a very real sense, the result of my willingness to write poorly that I might, in time, write well.
But in another sense, these triflers are not about writing, for writing is not really about writing. It is about living. It is about observing. It is about recording. It is about assembling. Now, I am obliged to practice literary criticism during my working hours. Literary criticism, at its modern worst, is a smashing, a fracturing of a text into a million pieces and then a description of the mess. No wonder reading avant-garde, postmodern writing sometimes feels like picking one’s way through the wreckage of a formerly respectable building. All the postmodern writer’s construction materials have been systematically diced and crushed and blended and pulverised by modern criticism, and he can do nothing but glue together shapeless novelties.
At its best, literary criticism is a careful disassembling—a minute examination of a text in its relationship to its whole self. Writing, especially creative writing, is the foil to this, for it is a process of assembly, of putting back together, which, as car mechanics know, is a far more delicate process than taking apart. It is a healthy exercise for the critic to try to assemble as well as deconstruct—and not just brutalist, utilitarian paragraphs of the academic article, but the gothic spires of the everyday conversation and the careful masonry of the personal narrative. The critic has his value, but he will understand his value far more clearly when he attempts to produce that which he criticises and realises that he cannot. So I write these Triflers.*
The park across from our apartment has become a near-eden in the last few weeks, filled with plum and cherry, first blooming then dropping petals in snow-swirls of pink and white. I find it more and more difficult to content myself with merely gazing at it on sunny days, so, on occasion I pad across the road and make two or three loops on its paths. Often I bring a book, either audio or paper, and stride around the place, taking in prose along with the pollen. One of these days, I was looping the park, reading some self-important philosopher, when I noticed a limb dangling from a nearby Birch. It had been knocked off, no doubt, by the man who mows—though it would be more accurate to say rampages—the park. The branch hung by only two or three ragged strips of wood, and, I knew that, with the right application of human force, it would come off. Still, I hesitated, wondering whether I should leave the thing for city employees to lop off on their own paid time. I thought about how it would look, a man with a book of philosophy tearing a branch from a tree. Finally, I threw aside these worries, set aside my book, and began the surgical procedure. I grasped the thing in two hands and twisted my whole body in an attempt to wrench it from the trunk. Just as I began to hear the crack of splitting wood, a voice called out from behind me: “Hey! What are you doing?” A man on a bike, wearing a red reflective jacket and concussion-proofing bike helmet had stopped in the middle of the street and was gazing in my direction. His son sat on a smaller cycle next to him.
“Me?” I said, looking up innocently, holding the limb at shoulder level.
“Yeah, you. What are you doing?”
I know now what I should have done. I should have torn off the limb from the trunk with one more great heave, lifted it high above my head and said, “Doing? What am I doing? I’m doing, that’s what I’m doing—not standing and waiting for others to do, not prognosticating and equivocating and authenticating and prevaricating on the ins and outs of doing but really doing. Can’t you see?” Instead, I explained that I was cleaning up the mower’s mess and not going around the place tearing off healthy tree branches at random. He rode on without comment. I completed the procedure, deposited my prize by the trash can nearest the road, crossed the street, went into our apartment, and began a new Trifler.
R. Eric Tippin
Watching the cherry trees snow from Corner House, Cambridge
May 1, 2016
Oil on Canvas - 20th Century
*A reasonable reader might expect a Trifler on triflers to come nearer number 1 than number 9. In this case the reasonable reader would be wrong, for when a man begins a thing, no matter how careful he has planned it, he knows less about that thing than when it is underway and humming and even less than when he has completed it. I suppose a patient and wise writer would wait until the final essay of a series to introduce that series. I am neither patient nor wise.