That post title is a bit of a lie, but it’s also an excellent opening thesis statement. At least, I regret nothing vital.
I am catching up on about three months of back-reading, and my latest read is “The Author Sends Her Regrets” by Elizabeth Minkel, one of many reactions to JK Rowling’s recent remarks about what she might have done differently in her books. Minkel’s article echoed a lot of thoughts I had about Rowling’s remarks, but more importantly, it moved on to showcase five “Authorial Regrets” — mistakes that five great authors in history made, and how they dealt with them later.
I was charmed by Charles Dickens about-facing, even if only partially, on his portrayal of Jews; a person capable of stepping outside of their accultured prejudices in Victorian England wasn’t exactly common. And I recognized F. Scott Fitzgerald’s efforts to quantify what did and did not work about a failing novel, though I haven’t read either version of Tender is the Night and can’t actually say whether he fixed what was broken. Anthony Burgess and JD Salinger I have less sympathy for; if your biggest regret is that a book you weren’t that fond of made you famous, I have a hard time really empathizing. Ray Bradbury I have an even more difficult time sympathising with, because I am well documented in thinking he was a dick, so perhaps the less said there the better.
But the upshot is that it got me thinking about what I regret, in terms of being a writer, and the answer is not much. I am potentially a lot less complicated than the people the article talked about, in great part because I’m not as famous, but even in terms of fanfic — well, for example.
Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange and said,
The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about…
Now, I have read A Clockwork Orange, and after reading it I saw the film, and I don’t necessarily disagree with him about the latter — although I will say that, while flawed, the film very pointedly expresses the institutionalized brutality of the society in which Alex is incubated. But whether or not the film was any good seems somewhat irrelevant to me because the book was so spectacular — brutal and cruel, but amazingly executed as a pointed critique of British culture at the time and written in a language that bore only about a two-thirds resemblance to modern English. But Burgess calls it a jeu d’esprit, which when I googled that it turned out to be “a lighthearted display of cleverness”. He thinks the book’s a lightweight, and he wrote it in three weeks, for the money. If I could write a book half as good and iconic as A Clockwork Orange in twice the time, I’d feel pretty fucking great about myself.
Here’s the story as I love to tell it: a few years ago I was riding the train home when I got an idea for a fanfic set in the fictional universe of the television show Torchwood. It would be about the alien-hunting cast of Torchwood discovering an alien that looked exactly like a small grey cat, who only communicated in the kind of language you see in the LOLCat meme. I roughed out the story on the train, polished it when I got home, and posted it the next day. And it exploded. It got featured on a couple of well-known literary websites, even (which alas did not lead to networking opportunities for its author).
I wrote the damn thing on the train. And it will probably end up on my tombstone. (HE COULD HAS FANFIKSHUN.)
But for all I complain about the fame of “The LOLCat Fic“, I’m laughing while I do it — shaking my head over fate, but unashamed of it, because I know that within certain parameters it was the best work I could do. If I was going to write a story about LOLcats, by God, it was going to be the best, funniest, most interesting story I could possibly make it. I don’t regret it; I’d be a fool to regret something that has made others laugh and brought a certain measure of fame to me personally, at no cost to my dignity (not that I’ve ever had much to begin with, but I was creating something with intent, it’s not like I’m making an ass of myself on national television).
Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange for the money, and I get why if that’s the case it might not be his best work, or at any rate he might not think it is. And sometimes you do have to work for the money rather than to please oneself. But that’s why I have a day job — so that I can always be sure the stories I tell, even if I’m not as prolific as a full-time writer, are fully the best work I can provide.
I may have regrets in life, I’m sure everyone has a few (perhaps too few to mention?) but I find it hard to regret even the errors I made when I was younger: they were part of a learning curve, and at the time they were the best work I could produce.