Why Effortlessness is an Illusion in Art

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Recently, I posted a few pieces of poetry to Scribophile for critique and feedback. One of my pieces was particularly well received. A critique called it effortless and said that it “came much more naturally from your heart.” Wow, what a compliment!

I just wish it were true.

Most of my poems take months to develop. Although this one came quickly to me and with little tinkering in the time that followed, I wouldn’t say there was anything effortless about its creation.

The truth is that this poem reads naturally and effortlessly because it’s standing on a pile of junk–that is, all crappy poems that came before it. It is golden junk, because it’s junk that I had to work through to get to that moment of effortlessness, but it is still junk. I think this is true for a lot of art (and sports, and really, anything that takes skill and practice to develop).

In fact, in the last year I’ve drastically changed the style of my poems. In reviewing my work, I felt my poems were immature and abstract in a way that was emotionally cathartic for me but not constructive as a poem. I’ve focused in more on concrete moments in time and space, worked on minimizing the introduction of new imagery and honed in on my themes.

I like to think it’s leading to stronger poems (and it would be fun to deconstruct an old poem of mine for the blog to demonstrate more of what I mean here), but it’s been work. Just this week, I found myself twenty or so lines deep in the old habit and had to stop and pull back.

In my poetry file, I’ve got work spanning back to 2013. The good stuff is pulled out and puzzled over, tinkered with dozens of times. And this is my “recent” work, from my Scrivener file. This week I discovered old writing files from Word and yWriter2, which dates back to middle, high school and college–and no, I haven’t yet dared to dive in and see what lurks within.

My poetry file from Scrivener, where I’ve got work going back to 2013.

The point is, I’ve been doing this for a while. Whether or not I’m good in the publishable sense, I can’t deny the improvements and growth over the years. I’ve been writing for a while, long before I felt good enough to even try to publish. (And am I too precious about my work? Also yes, but that’s something I’m working on).

So, has this been effortless? I’ll let Ingrid Michaelson answer this time.

It was something that struck me, too, as I listened to a recent Writing Excuses episode, Setting Goals for Your Career. Victoria Schwab says that six or seven years into her writing career, people started calling her an overnight success.

She goes on: “I was amazed and insulted, because I think we have this idea, we love to fetishize the metrics of success, which are not in an author’s control, and in so doing, erase a huge amount of the work that is going to create where you are at that point.”

In the same way, I was recently surprised to see Maggie Rogers at the Grammy’s. I’ve been a fan of hers for a few years, so I was a little puzzled to see her listed nominated for “Best New Artist.” The truth is, like Schwab, Rogers has been working at this for a while.

And, on a much, much smaller scale, it’s the same for my poem. I was very flattered to see it receive such positive feedback, even as I was confused and maybe a little frustrated to hear someone call it natural.

It’s a great compliment, but there’s nothing natural or effortless about poetry. What looks like effortlessness is skill in motion.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

2 Replies to “Why Effortlessness is an Illusion in Art”

  1. That must’ve been very nice to hear…all those complimentary comments. I think you’ve hit the truth, though. To become “effortless” in anything requires much work. And, as you say, we see this all the time in sports when some athlete performs so gracefully. It’s easy to say, “Oh, that was effortless…he’s/she’s a natural.” Talented?…sure…but behind the performance was years & years of practice & effort…along w/more than a few failures. Well done…your introspection has served you well.

    1. Yes, it was quite lovely to hear and it’s not that I don’t want to hear it again (I do! Such a compliment), but it lead me to thinking. I think sports is a great demonstration. I remember how awkward it felt to do some things–learning to bunt, catching–until, with lots of practice, it was “natural” in a game. And that’s the same process here, with writing! I hope I’m reaching the place where naturalness and craft mastery comes more easily and regularly.

      Thanks for reading <3

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