Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Using up words, growing days: What happens when you use something

The other day I was reading an article by a Sweet Valley High ghost writer, which included this thought:
"What if you’re only born with so many words, and you use up the ones you’ve been allotted on writing somebody else’s stories? Then what?"
"That's nuts," I thought, "of course words grow like a muscle." To be fair, the author was quoting that concern expressed by someone else, and she clearly didn't buy it, though she did have anxiety about the related concern that she might be developing her "repetitive simple prose for teens" muscles to the detriment of her ability to write in other styles that she would find more fulfilling.
But anyway, that got me thinking about the different ways resources are affected by being used. Here's my little taxonomy:
  1. Depletion: For some things, there's only as much as there is. Mines and oil wells come to mind. Also teeth.
  2. Limited but renewing supply: a peach tree will produce in a summer, at most, as many peaches as it had fertilized flowers in the spring, but there's no sense trying to limit your harvest to leave some until next year, nor will picking the ones that are there make more appear. Obviously the nature and the flow of things like this can vary a lot. Vacation days tend to come in at a slow and steady rate, but can be spent fast or hoarded all year. Sunlight comes in a deluge when it comes, but it’s really hard to hold onto it.
  3. Growth: the more you spend of your physical and mental resources, the more you tend to have at your disposal, once you’ve recovered from the immediate exhaustion. An athlete gets stronger by spending strength.

It’s possible I’m wrong about a writer’s capacity growing from use. Arundhati Roy and Harper Lee each apparently had one novel to give. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems like certain types of creative work often or even predominantly follow a depletion pattern. There are lots of writers, musicians, and other creative artists who seem to have a certain amount of brilliant and important stuff to get out, and then they either stop or start producing work that doesn't live up to what came before.

But then there are others who either have an abundant supply of different things to say or who have one big thing but are continually able to come at it from different angles. So actually it seems like creative work can fall into any of my three categories. Probably some types of work tend more toward one or another (writing possibly to #1, pottery more toward #3), but with plenty of individual variation.

Another nuance or qualification applies to #2: sunlight is limited from the perspective of absolute availability, but in a way it’s unlimited because it’s impossible to use all that’s given. Time seems to work that way, too--it’s terribly limited and constantly being depleted, but on the other hand there’s always room to use one’s time better, and to some extent it will expand when you do*.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, aside from the joy of making distinctions and listing things, I think it can be useful for understanding the costs and benefits of one’s actions. Obviously mistaking a finite resource for a renewing one can lead to bad choices, but I think the easier mistake to fall into is the one I reacted to in the first place--looking at the cost of some choice and seeing only loss when in fact it’s the kind of exertion from which you’ll come back stronger.

*I’m sure this has been pointed out before and was the intended irony of the character, but I’ll just say it rather than finding a source to cite: Dunbar in Catch-22 had it completely backward. Being bored only elongates the moment itself, but in any retrospective view of time, even on the scale of days or weeks, time seems longer in proportion to what you did with it, especially new and interesting things. The first day in an unfamiliar country can feel longer than a month of one’s usual routine.