I volunteered to do some baking for a dessert auction fundraiser for my eight-year-old’s school. Never mind the ill omens that have attended all my holiday baking projects this year. Yes, the elaborate stained glass ornament cookies turned, within hours, into a substance NASA could use to adhere the heat tiles to the Space Shuttle. True, my attempt at Florentines yielded a batch of uncaramelized, lumpy globs that tasted fine but looked like that fake barf you can get in novelty shops. The gingerbread men looked like homeless drunks, the Moravian spice cookies disintegrated, and the gingerbread house drew legions of ants.
Nevertheless, when given the donation form for the fundraiser, I promptly signed myself up for two high-difficulty-level desserts I have never attempted before. Yep – where the other moms offer up their go-to brownies and lemon bars and cookies with M&Ms in them, Amy puts her hat in the ring for a croquembouche (above) and a chevre cheesecake with poached pears.
Does anyone have some extra Ritalin? I can trade you for creampuffs.
I’ve been thinking about this good and hard. Why do I always set myself up like that? In the end, will anyone care how hard I slaved over my donation? Am I a victim of some pathological drive to impress people? What, in short, is my major damage?
It didn’t take long for the thinking to leak into a contemplation of the writing process and to see this line of inquiry as allied with the others upon which, with your kind indulgence, I’ve been allowed to cogitate this week.
To wit: as writers, we are engaged in an interesting little investigation of identity, are we not? Writing is, at once, a deeply private and utterly public act. We reveal ourselves in what we obfuscate as well as what we reveal; in the things we choose to say and the manner of our saying them; in the words we choose and the way we arrange them; in genre, in form, in diction, in syntax, in character, in line break, in every single choice we make.
I am an unreconstructed, unapologetic lover of formalism. The writers who thrill me the most are usually lapidary wordsmiths (Nabokov, Rushdie, Borges; W.B. Yeats, James Merrill, Richard Kenney). I love all kinds of good writing and don’t confine myself to one style or school, but shown a poem with cool ideas and a poem with cool ideas presented as a hopelessly intricate Faberge egg, I won’t lie to you about which one will win my heart most of the time.
Mastery is a terribly tricky thing. First, it’s all but mythical, illusory – an impossible moving target. Second, it’s easy to make the mistake of conflating mastery with perfection, and I suspect that perfection can be absolutely lethal to art. Some of the most boring music I’ve ever heard features singers with perfect voices. Perfectly rendered verses can have the same problem – they’re static, unsatisfying.
But mastery isn’t about perfection. Mastery is about intimate understanding, about depth perception. It’s flexible, dynamic, energetic. It’s about knowing which way to turn in the quest for perfection and accepting you’ll never fully arrive there. And it involves, de facto, effort, sustained practice, and a continuous willingness to raise the bar. You can master the chocolate chip cookie and never feel the slightest urge to take a crack at the croquembouche – and so what? Who wouldn’t rather have a sublime chocolate chip cookie than a crappy creampuff? A beautifully executed simple thing has no less value than a beautifully executed complicated thing, and arguably more value than a complicated thing executed poorly, which I, for one, may discover I am about to deliver to this fundraiser (not to mention any number of journal editors). So there is also a question of why we develop the urge to master the particular things we do. What is in the psyche of a pyrotechnician like Nabokov or Merrill versus a submerged iceberg like, say, Hemingway (also indisputably a master, and also a hero of mine)? And why are some people inclined to dismiss ornate, complicated writing as overly-cerebral frippery and some, like me, thrilled to the marrow by it?
Oh – did you think I was going to propose an answer to that? Sorry; no dice. I don’t know. But I guess I might posit that each of us writes from, among many other impulses, a desire to impose order on the chaos of the universe, and that for some of us, the more intricate and elaborate the display or order, the safer we feel. Safe? Maybe not safe. But there is comfort in the idea of underlying design. And more: the more elaborate and complex we make something, the more spectacular it can be when we jar it, mess with it, set fire to it, blow it up. Big rewards for big risks.
So clearly, I have no choice but to show up to the fundraiser with the croquembuche rather than the plate of chocolate chip cookies. And a lot of folks would rather eat the cookies – hell, at the end of the day maybe I would rather eat the cookies too. But if I do the stupid croquembouche well enough for even one person to look at it and feel dazzled, feel compelled, feel a great desire to eat that thing, feel a momentary rush of appreciation that someone went to that much effort just to delight them – it’s worth it, and if I show up with a lumpy mess that makes people feel a little sorry for it – um, it’s still worth it.