Treat It as a Draft

When, in mid-2000, I released my mostly home-recorded CD Fish Wigs Hats Rats, I was elated and eager for reactions. They were mixed: some enthusiastic reviews and comments, and some expressions of disappointment along the lines of “You played cello so beautifully in high school.” Putting it all together, I see the mistake I made: this should have been a draft of a more honed project. Oh, everyone can say this. It’s hard to know when to stop. But this album suffered primarily from two problems: technical clumsiness and the effect of laying too many tracks on top of the previous ones, adding stray noise each time. (That in turn came from singing and playing all the parts myself, except in Gourds, where Hannah Marcus plays drums and synthesizer, and recording all but three on my own, at home.) Also, I didn’t know how to sing yet: how to work within my range, how to give shape to the words and phrases, how to pour forth and hold back. This little album did have its strengths. I am proud of the lyrics and some of the musical composition. But the weaknesses strain the listening, even today.

For years, after the initial excitement, I couldn’t listen to it at all; I cringed to think of it. I don’t cringe any more. It’s something to learn from; I can take the lessons into my writing. When I finish something, I often can’t wait to put it out there, but usually there’s more to be done. Finished isn’t quite finished. I need to step back a little.

This isn’t true for everone. There are those who work so long at something, trying to get every last detail right, that they never finish it, or, if they do, it feels over-labored. A work has to be lively (by which I don’t mean peppy; there’s liveliness in slowness). But probably each of us has a tendency that both helps us and gets in our way, be it impatience, perfectionism, sloth, self-doubt, imagination, or something else. To make a work of art, you have to both follow and resist your own tendencies, in the right proportion. If I weren’t a little impatient and impulsive, this thing would never have come into being, and all and all, I’m glad it did.

“Too Much Giving” (which I co-wrote with Mahlah Byrd, who died in 1994) is my favorite, followed by the first song, “The Ear.” After that, the title song, which was inspired by a sign I saw outside a store in Petaluma, California, with exactly the words “Fish Wigs Hats Rats.” The song alludes to a story a friend told me about a dream he had had, as well as some things that I was going through at the time. I like the eerie mood of it, although God, I wish I had had the sense to bring the key up a bit higher and add some more melody to the vocals. After that, “Funny Funny Grief,” and after that, there’s no particular ranking. “Gourds” and “Marks” are busier than I would make them now, but were recorded, along with “Too Much Giving,” by Joe Goldring at his wonderful studio in San Francisco, and you can hear the difference in the sound.

But those are thoughts two decades after the fact. The real lesson, for me, is to wait just a little longer than I would like, to take just a little more time with projects before hurling them outward into the world. Usually the world can wait too.

Radical Patience

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Urban life seems to tell us that only fools show patience. If you’re waiting in line, and the people in front of you have forgotten to move along, then it’s on you to urge them forward. Or if you apply for a job and hear nothing for several months, there’s no virtue in staying silent; if you want to know where you stand, you ask. In this environment, the people who accomplish things, or who seem to do so, are those who take fate by the horns and rattle it. It is those movers and shakers–legs in the air, hands gripping the Toro–who actually matter, or so it seems.

Celebrity lore perpetuates this idea. Famous people get huge book deals, and their books get *everyone* talking. Famous people make influential films about social issues. Famous people influence election outcomes, for better or for worse. Whenever these take a bite from a celery stalk, they send a tremor through the press. According to these exemplars, any worthy accomplishment in life comes loudly, with grand echoes; if your work lacks such dramatic response, it basically doesn’t exist.

But this celebrity model distorts things. Many accomplishments such as writing require not only persistence and “grit” but a subdued quality known as patience. The right kind of patience is far from foolish; taking time with things, letting them unfold, you come closer to understanding them. Patience allows for sorting and recombination; it puts immediate passions in perspective.

In this sense, patience does radical work. It rips a person away from immediate reactions and demands, away from the distortions of glitz and fame, into a perception of things that matter. Granted, it has dangers, especially when combined with wishful thinking. A person can wait and wait for nothing at all. It needs the mediation of good judgment.

Working on my book, I needed more patience than I first expected. I initially thought it would get snatched up by an agent–or rather, that this was expected of me. People were surprised to hear that I would devote a year to writing when I didn’t even have a publisher, so I figured, “I’ll have one soon.” It takes time to find one; not only that, but there’s something to be said for this stretch of time. It allows for serious thinking and revision along the way.

It is too soon for me to say anything definite, since I don’t have anything definite–but in terms of publication, I see some light ahead. Just what this light is, I don’t know. But the book will make its way into print, and the time will have helped it. I don’t think it would be where it is now if someone had seized it right away.

Too much waiting does no one any good; it can turn into sloth or procrastination. But neither one has shown its features here; while waiting, I have been working on the book and doing many other things.

How, then, does patience differ from grit? With grit, you are the one in control; with patience, not so. Patience is essentially passive (as its root suggests); this quality doesn’t get much respect in our “go for it” culture. But certain kinds of passivity make room for good; moreover, passivity and activity often combine. Patience does not equal a long nap or, at the other end of things, a long scream. It’s somewhere in the background, but not too far; while letting things happen, it stays alert and taut. It exists alongside impatience; there is a time for waiting and a time for saying “enough.” When to do which? To choose between the two, one must be capable of both; the bold word holds hours of holding back.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary.  “Pékség” means “bakery,” and baking, in many situations, requires patience. (Then again, it can also be done in a rush.)

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

 

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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