The effortlessness of Gods, or “Did you do it yourself?”

I have this sweater. It’s multicoloured, knitted from what looks like oddments of yarn – but silk yarn, I’ll have you know, this is a heavy silk knit sweater – and I fell in love with it the moment I saw it and circled around it for a while after that because the price tag was not inconsequential but finally decided I had to have it and splurged. Oh, I don’t know, three years ago now, perhaps.

In those three years I’ve had several compliments on this thing by complete strangers, comments offered while the complimenter and I were standing in line for something or simply occupying the same room. The comments usually go like this.

“I like your sweater.”

“Thank you.”

“Did you make it yourself?”

Because it looks easy. It’s perfect, but it looks easy, it looks like a lovingly hand-done job knitted by someone who LOVED doing that. The artistry that went into making this highly complex and complicated and elegant piece of apparel is simply… invisible, in a way. It LOOKS like something you might have done yourself, until, perhaps, you turn it over onto the “wrong” side and you realise how much care and  knowhow went into the making of it.

It’s a perfect metaphor for writing, in a way. People pick up a random book, and it looks just like any other book, and it’s technically perfect (okay, there’s a typo here and there and the occasional book has binding problems but by and large they’re *perfect*) and the reaction of the layman, the person who has never looked on the “wrong” side of the business, is that the thing was achieved with the apparent effortlessness of Gods (that was a line stolen from Harold Abrahams in “Chariots of Fire” when he confronted his college Masters in their panelled studies and taken to task for actually WORKING at his talents – “you expect”, he told them, and I paraphrase, “it to be achieved with the apparent effortlessness of Gods”. But, he says passionately, it needs so much more than that – it needs the commitment and the willingness to risk a broken heart and sometimes a willful blindness to everything else on earth so that you can achieve that, that thing, that single thing that matters, and make it look easy… make it look like it was achieved by a God. And nobody knows the blood and sweat and tears that went into the making of it.

Abrahams ran races. I tell stories. The principle remains. The pinnacle of achievement is accepted at face value, admired… and often less than perfectly understood.

I live a charmed life and I know it. I get to do what I love best – write. Others might look at what I’ve done so far, and  think it all came to me – but for every book I’ve published there’s been a piper that needed to be paid, a tithe in time or in effort or in faith or in all three; for every book I’ve had published there’s been at least a year of hard work behind it. A year that starts with the idea, segues into the research into the idea, unravels into the writing and the fleshing out of the idea, bounces like a skipping stone off of that first formless soup of words to become draft 1 then draft 2 then draft 3, then (maybe) it gets accepted, then the first round of editorial “suggestions” and fiats come around and you fix and rewrite, then the copyedit comes around and you fix and rewrite, then the proofs come along and you try to prevent yourself from shredding the entire thing because it reads like nonsense to you by this time, having read the thing very very very very closely for the fourth time with your eyes glazing over as you did so, and then, finally, the book comes, and it’s real, and it’s… perfect.

Like the sweater.

And people come up and say, oh, I like your book Did you do it yourself…?

Eh. They never said it was going to be easy. They DID say it was going to be wonderful.

And they were right.

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Laura E. Goodin

    But HOW does one make it look effortless? HOW?

  2. 2. Bran Fan

    Thank you for this! I needed to hear this today.

    I sometimes think about this when I watch Michael Jordan play basketball. He makes it look effortless. But of course, he’s practicing every single day.

    It isn’t easy, not for any of us, and the story never comes out whole the first time. The trick is, by the final draft, to make it look as if it did.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    Laura: sheesh, if I had a formula for that I’d be a rich woman. The only thing that seems to work is practice, practice, practice. Oh, and you gotta love doing this. The minute it becomes a chore… it might be word-perfect, but it’s a dead thing, without breath, without soul, all glitter and no spirit. So it’s equal parts mechanics and magic…

    Bran Fan: indeed! What you said!

  4. 4. Jin

    So…how does one practice? That has been a question I have had for some time. Do you mean write as much as you can? Write and Edit? Analize books?

    Because just simply writing doesn’t seem to do much if all one writes is … garbage. How does one change that ‘garbage’ into an ‘art form’? I can already hear someone replying “through practice” :P

  5. 5. Alma Alexander

    Answering those questions, in order, yes. Yes. and Yes.

    Between me and my husband – well, when we got married we both brought baggage into the relationship. Books. Thousands of books. I honestly think that when we combined our libraries as we started married life we had six thousand books between us. In the seven years that we’ve been married, we’ve filled up a room NEWLY designated as our library, with virgin shelves. Chalk up another 1500 – 2000 books. In the last week – doing research for my latest novel – I’ve read four books; in the last month, keeping to the research theme, I’ve read nearly 20, and those are sometimes SLOW reading, historical tomes where I take actual notes as I read and take pauses to digest individual nuggets of information. And that’s just the non-fiction. We read CONSTANTLY.

    And yes, the writing – the constant and ongoing writing – that’s an essential part of the covenant.

    And I wish I could tell you that it’s ONLY practice. But there are many kinds of writers. There are those who sit down and write and produce perfect fifth-draft quality prose at first sitting, damn them, and make it look like it was never hard at all. There are those who have doggedly practiced for years, and are finally starting to see the light and recognise that there IS a difference between their early work and the stuff they’re doing now. There are even those who practice and practice and practice and NEVER learn that difference because they lak the eye or the ear for it. But practice, for all but those few, those gifted few at the very top of the pyramid, is an essential building block for all of us.

    There really ARE no short cuts in this game. You learn. You work. You read. You write. You pay your dues.

    You slowly learn what comes close to perfect. And how – with great care and sneakiness, sometimes – you approach perfection.

    And yes, I know this doesn’t really help [wry grin]

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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