Sunday, October 01, 2006

The impulse to be minor

When I'm editing a wiki, even privately, I have the impulse to click "This is a minor edit," even when I've made significant changes. It seems presumptious to have an implied "major edit" be the default. I don't want to contribute too much noise to the signal of the wiki's Recent Changes page.

Part of the impulse to label all my edits "minor" is because I twiddle and save frequently; I'll edit a few words out of a sentence here and there, save, and go right back to that paragraph. I blog that way too, screwing up everyone's RSS feeds, publishing carelessly as an idea comes, and then fiddling with the entry over the next hour as I realize my phrasing was clumsy or a new idea, related, strikes me.

On a related but different level, I believe that it is important to expose the process of thought, the evolution of intellect, the muddled waters where research and inspiration meet and ideas coalesce. Many people don't know how to think; they don't think they think; they can't see themselves thinking, because they only have seen "finished products" and never the intermediate stages. Uncertainty is forbidden. It is private. It's personal. It's weak and vulnerable. That is a limitation I see as unnecessary. It is often useful, but not always. It's a barrier to collaboration and to learning.

But then I wonder if both these behaviors in myself, the constant "minor editing" of blog and wiki, might signify an asymptotic process-focus, where I regard nothing as done, nothing as major, nothing achieved. My poems remain in their notebooks and rough drafts indefinitely. I consider even my master's thesis as a "draft". It pains me to refer to it as finished.

Gender plays into this. Women underplay their acheivements & work. I do it too. I don't want to bring attention, or be under fire. I rarely feel any work is done, good enough; I might change my mind. Everything could be improved. I can think of someone who has done part of that, or expressed the idea, more neatly, more professionally. And yet I consider myself bold! What baggage, what damage, we carry.

A good friend and I were discussing this the other day as we rushed to deprecate ourselves and our collaborative work on our own private wiki. "I haven't done enough." "No, I haven't done enough!" Then we realized what we were doing. The conversation led to our discussing how we compare our own work to the best in our field, come up short, and feel we are impostors. As I contemplated this impulse in myself I realized I compare my own thesis, as a work in progress (seriously, it's not really *done* done, no matter what the diploma says!) to writing by women 30 years older than myself who are on their 10th book. We are not comparing ourselves to our peers, but to the best we see -- and worse than that, to the best we can imagine. On some level I am proud of this impulse, and think it will help me to keep improving my work for my entire lifetime. However, this strange combination of arrogance and humility can be a huge obstacle; when it blocks me, I have to try to break myself of the mental habit of "being minor."

As a generalist who is constructing anthologies, I also put a lot of pressure on myself, and feel pressure from outside, to have depth of knowledge as well as range. I cannot be as much of an expert on each poet, or each country, as women who (again) are usually far older than myself and further along in their careers and who have focused down in a narrow area.

Despite all these things, I am becoming more and more comfortable claiming authority. I credit technology and the control over the means of production that it's brought me with part of my own intellectual evolution. Without the freedom to publish and edit, publish and edit, in a cyclical pattern, exposing "drafts" -- unlike the publication of a book that would have to start out more perfect that I could imagine, and that would never be fixable -- I would not have had the confidence to step into a public forum of ideas. My notebooks, essays, poems, and all that would have stayed, like so many other women's over history, in diaries and personal letters.



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1 comment:

wired said...

One of the fiew writing mentor's I've had told me "Don't let perfect get in the way of better."

Actually, I think he was talking about home repair, but it stuck with me. I write f or deadlines, all the time. If I don't have deadlines, I tend to futz around with the document indefinitely, futzing. But really, most of the time, someone comes to me and says, "I need this Wednesday." And my choice is either to say, "I can do that" or say, "You are cracked". And if I want to tell someone they are cracked, I have to have a way to back up that estimation.

So I turn out a lot of work that is not my best, that I'm not proud of, that could have been refined into something sleeker and smoother and smaller and more elegant. But it's good enough to pass muster. It contains the necessary steps. It's adequate.

And a year, or two years down the line, I put those documents in my sample portfolio, and explain that they are representative of my work at that time.