As anyone who knows me will testify, I love a good argument – the four minute or the ten minute variety. I don’t go in for rancour or nastiness but a fair and frank exchange of views sharpens my brain, not to mention my tongue, and adds a certain spice to life.
Lately I’ve been arguing online – surely the biggest and most pointless time sink yet discovered – about progress. No, not evolution or anything contentious like that, but the view, firmly held by many people, that the more we write the better we get.
It is partly the fault of those of us who teach creative writing; we suggest that students will improve with practise, with redrafting and rethinking, with time. This is true enough of very inexperienced writers, but I’m not sure it is true of the rest of us. Will our next book be better than our last? Well, it kind of depends what you mean by better doesn’t it?
I always want to do something different. Each book is a new departure, an experiment and by virtue of the fact that I have not written this particular book before – I am always a newbie, making new mistakes, screwing up in ways I hadn’t thought of before.
I was surprised that this view was not universally acknowledged as a self evident truth- as even well known writers don’t always produce their greatest work at the end of their lives, and how many brilliant first novels are never followed up?
Yet the response to this view was horror: ‘ I could not go on if I felt like that’,‘ Unlike you, I will keep striving to improve my craft,’ or words to that effect.
It struck me that as a society we want to believe in progress, economic, social and personal and are inclined to ignore evidence that does not fit this thesis: the idea of continuous self improvement has moved on from being a nineteenth century religious aspiration to a twenty-first century fact of secular faith.
I don’t think it is true and it doesn’t bother me in the least. I am about to publish my tenth novel and have written a couple of others that may never see the light of day, I am completely comfortable with the idea that each one is not ‘better’ than the last. I don’t feel I have yet produced my ‘ best’ (though I might have) that isn’t really for me to judge. I just keep bashing away, taking each idea as it comes, trying to shape a good book, meet the challenges I’ve set myself and get it out there. What about you? Are you getting better?