Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Writers’ Career Paths, Part 1: Prolific vs. Painstaking

I’m going to devote a couple of blogs to the different types of careers that writers can have. I’d like to start by talking about volume. There are some writers who are extremely prolific. They write almost every day, often for several hours. These writers spin out book after book. Other writers are extremely painstaking in their process. They sweat every adjective. If they produce one poem or one short story every few months, that’s a lot.

Here are a couple of poets who represent those two extremes.

The Japanese author Yosano Akiko (1878–1942) was renowned for her ability to write as many as fifty poems in one sitting. She wrote mostly five-line tanka poems, but still! In her lifetime, she is said to have written more than 50,000 poems. That’s an average of about three a day for her entire career. In addition, she was the author of eleven books of prose, including literary criticism, an autobiographical novel, and a translation into modern Japanese of one of Japan’s classics, The Tale of Genji. You might wonder if she was able to do this because she was a single woman who had no children. No, actually. Yosano Akiko gave birth to and raised eleven children. She must have been a hurricane of energy. 

Yosano Akiko
Here’s my translation of a poem by Yosano Akiko that I like a lot:

that hateful fan
endlessly wafting
sandalwood incense
in my direction—
I snatched it away

At the other extreme, there’s the U.S. poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979). I’m holding her book, The Complete Poems 1927–1979. It weighs less than a loaf of bread. Excluding her translations, it’s 228 pages, and even with her translations from Portuguese and Spanish, it doesn’t reach 300 pages.

Yosano Akiko lived to her 66th year; Elizabeth Bishop, 68. Roughly the same lifespan, but a difference in output of about 10,000 pages.

Who is the greater writer? Well, it’s hard to say. I don’t read Japanese, and only one book of Yosano Akiko’s has been fully translated into a European language. Claire Dodane translated into French the poet’s masterpiece, Midaregami, or Tangled Hair. Dodane’s translation is titled Cheveux emmêlés—same meaning in French. Yosano Akiko wrote this book about her scandalous love affair with the leading male poet of the day, Yosano Tekkan, whom she married and had such a large family with. The book contains 399 tanka poems, a fair sampling of her work in that form. Not every poem is a masterpiece, but there are a remarkable number of excellent poems, especially when you consider that Yosano Akiko wrote this book when she was 22 years old. But quite a few of the poems—I’d say the vast majority—are not at the same level as the best of the collection.

Elizabeth Bishop, on the other hand, must have produced endless drafts of her poems. She published only a handful a year, maybe 120 in her lifetime. Each poem is a sapphire, with every facet cut and polished. Is that a better way to write?

Elizabeth Bishop
I like to think that Elizabeth Bishop and Yosano Akiko wrote roughly the same number of pages of great poems, even though their output and process were so different. But that’s not necessarily the case. And who is in a position to make such a crazy calculation?

There are dangers both to being a prolific writer and a painstaking writer. The danger of being a very prolific writer is that quantity becomes so central that quality may never enter into the equation. Fortunately, that wasn’t true for Yosano Akiko. Some of her poems are bad, some mediocre, some great, some absolutely classic.

The danger of being a painstaking writer is that authors of that sort are such perfectionists that they sometimes never finish anything. Or if they do, what they produce is so precious that it lacks spontaneity and juice.

For some writers, a painstaking process works well, and is absolutely necessary to satisfy the perfectionist within. For prolific writers, the method is to set free all the thoughts and images and emotions and stories and then let the reader sift through and pick favorite pieces.

There is not a right or a wrong answer about how prolific to be. I think it’s a question of personality. Readers may have similar preferences, liking writers who are great stylists, or ones who can tell a good story. Personally, I enjoy the work of both prolific writers and painstaking writers.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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