Lord Chesterfield once observed that “whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” And to this day, whenever I hear someone repeat that, I feel driven to respond with G.K. Chesterton: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
These are not contradictory statements. They are complementary. But in our efforts to achieve the one, I fear we frequently, and all too deliberately, overlook the other. It’s rather nice to think about something done well. Reflecting on the messy bits beforehand only gives us a headache.
“So pass the aspirin and the beer like a dear chap, won’t you?”
Writers are often guilty of this, especially young writers (and I speak as one of these). Sure, we talk a good game, all about getting our names out there and writing the Next Big Thing. We intend to make a splash. Only instead of picking up the stones and letting fly, we stand slack-jawed on the river bank with our hands in our pockets.
“Not yet,” we say, “not yet. One day, certainly. Just not today.”
So that novel remains unwritten and those notebooks gather dust and ambition is swept under Tomorrow’s rug. We want to spill ink like Bradbury and carve words like Faulkner, but we’re not willing to make fools out of ourselves to get there. We’re not willing to do badly so we can do well.
N.D. Wilson describes this attitude in Death by Living:
My work (entering middle school) clearly did not measure up to the work of C.S. Lewis (or Tolkien). And so I walked away from it, sagely planning to come back to writing later, when my writing would be better (without practice).
Yes. Well. Put it that way and it sounds rather silly, doesn’t it?
Pick up the stones and start throwing. We must write, even when it makes our eyes bleed and our stomachs quiver and our toes curl in revulsion. A lot of it will be dreadful. None of it will be wasted. It’s how we learn. We jump off this cliff and figure out the flying part on the way down.
Chesterfield: “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.”
Chesterton: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
They say variety is the spice of life. I say paradox is.