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Too much attention is paid to Shakespeare’s talent and too little to his outstanding work ethic.
It is not the number of works which testifies most strongly to his careful determination; it is his originality. His innovations are too regular to be accidental. When I Googled “words and phrases coined by”, Shakespeare’s name was, of course, suggested first by the search algorithm. The breadth of his legacy in this regard is widely known, though most of us are content with snippets.
Like many writers and artists, I am lazy. There is a constant temptation to settle for the first pleasing idea. Time and attention are limited, so “sufficient” can be acceptable. And sometimes great ideas do burst into being suddenly, well-formed. But our most precious gifts tend to be stolen from the refiner’s fire, once or repeatedly.
Editing non-fiction is, in my experience, a simpler exercise. An essay must be refined more for clarity and pace than for originality. The central argument must be new — or else reconstructed in a fresh delivery — to interest readers. But the purpose of altering grammar or words is, foremost, precision.
Fiction is more artful. And art is a damnable wisp of an idea. The thinker is not studying a fixed reality while recasting it in deductive arguments. The idea in focus is rather a thing yet unborn.
A dream sputters in the dreamer’s mind like ever-shifting clouds while he desperately tries to capture it, whole and in fine detail. A hiccup in recording leaves the artist fumbling to recall what the last bit was he saw or heard while miserably correcting the earlier part. Editing while dreaming, often as not, means losing some of the dreams; if not its characters, then its colors.
Beethoven said it best:
The true artist is not proud: he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal, and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.
Art is a chase. Legendary artists like Shakespeare and Beethoven were its most dogged pursuers. They were not extraordinary because they alone could hear the angels singing. They were extraordinary because they kept listening when the body tired when distractions knocked, and when companions praised their first attempts. They fought hard to perfect every detail, returning to old battles and discarding easy victories.
Maybe I’m wrong. We can’t watch them at work. We can’t speak to them. Only centuries-old letters and hearsay inform their biographies today.
But as regularly as modern writers rely on such inheritance as common words and phrases without substantially building upon the great works we have received, it seems to me that Shakespeare made a deliberate effort to sidestep obvious expressions so to paint the human heart as no one had before.
We should not aspire to be mere professionals. We should aspire to touch Heaven and here deliver those stolen treats.
If we desire better art, better fiction, better music, then a terrible price must be paid. We have to work at it!