Clever vs. Good
With Six Stories, Told at Night merrily dropping episodes, I’ve been reflecting on two much earlier plays I wrote. This was ages ago, when I was all of sixteen/seventeen. I’d written one play about an author who falls in love with her character—he’s onstage, but only she can see/hear him, which results in much hilarity and absurd humour. The second was a play written in response to that first play. It was a very pointed criticism of art criticism, in which characters debate the meaning of an abstract statue, resulting in much hilarity and absurd humour.
Both were pretty clever. Even at the time, though, I had whispers in my ear saying, “There’s a difference between being clever and being good.”
Being sixteen/seventeen, I ignored those whispers and merrily churned out more clever writing. Most of it wasn’t very good. But what do I mean, about the difference between clever and good?
Clever skims the surface. Clever is slick. Clever is a neat idea—perhaps even an original idea—perhaps even a good idea—but it isn’t followed through as fully as it could be. That’s the thing about cleverness, you see. It’s quick—the flash of a firefly, bright for a moment and gone.
Clever gets you praise. Clever makes you laugh.
Good makes you think.
John Scalzi’s written about this very topic, as it relates to young writers. If I may quote him, he noted that, “There’s nothing wrong with being clever, and it’s possible to be clever and good at the same time. But you need to know when clever is not always the best solution.”
I think that an important difference is this: with cleverness, there is usually an element of showing off. Like we said—the flash of a firefly. It can be easy to get distracted by the surface show, and not realize that there’s very little of substance underneath. So when Scalzi says you can be clever and good at the same time, I suppose that means you’ve got both the shiny, slick exterior trappings, as well as something of greater depth.
It’s really hard to do. Again, I think this is partly because cleverness directs its energy towards itself—look at me, my smarts, my humour—whereas things that are good direct themselves outwards, striving to connect to something within the audience. In a way, then, good cleverness needs to be oddly unaware of itself.
Recently, I wrote a story with a clever ending…but something about it nagged at me. I heard Jim Kelly’s voice in my ear, whispering, “Yes, yes…you’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Try again, and write something good.”
The same whispers I heard eight years ago—cleverness is a tendency I need to watch in myself—but this time, I listened. I wrote a different ending. We’ll see if it’s a good one.
But hey, we’re learning!
Before we go…you want to see some of this play, don’t you? All right. Fine. I’d say to bear in mind that I was seventeen, but…well, anyway…here it is. The sculptor’s uncle has run into a haughty art critic.
SAGE: Vince, Vince, Vince. Of course art should be enjoyed by everyone. But it should be commented upon and criticized by those who have the training for the job.
VINCE: What if commenting on art is part of the enjoyment?
SAGE: Your opinion does matter, just not as much as the opinion of someone who’s right. Now, if you’ll excuse me, they’ve erected another work by the south end, and I must see it.
VINCE: But wait, your write-up, it’ll be…
SAGE: A cutting exposé of the depraved messages infiltrating our cherished public spaces through rampant narcissism.
VINCE: Look, we can patch this up. Maybe… (He rummages in his pocket.) Maybe Queen Elizabeth can convince you to be a little kinder?
SAGE: What are you implying?
VINCE: (Looks through his wallet) Or maybe you can have a threesome with William Lyon Mackenzie King?
SAGE: Are you suggesting I have sexual relations with a dead prime minister and the Queen of England?
VINCE: No! All I meant was-
SAGE: Never mind family ties; this is why you so adore this monstrosity! Clearly, you are too emotionally immature to understand the wrongness of this statue… and you’re dependent on perverted fantasies!
VINCE: I was trying to bribe you, all right?
SAGE: Oh. That is hardly better! Sexual intercourse can be a wonderful and natural act, but money appeals only to the greed-driven, consumerist levels of the soul.
And then I had an elderly couple whose sole purpose was to wander onstage every so often and offer a dose of absurdity (they later partially resurrected themselves as Old Mabel):
ETHEL: George? Have you a sweetie?
GEORGE: Why, yes!
ETHEL: I like sweeties.
GEORGE: As do I.
ETHEL: Is it an orange sweetie, or a lemon sweetie?
ETHEL: Neither? Then… George, can it be?
GEORGE: Yes! It is a cherry sweetie!
ETHEL: Splendid! (Pause) George, have you only a single sweetie?
GEORGE: Yes, but I shall give it to you.
ETHEL: I couldn’t eat your only sweetie, heavens no. It would be terribly selfish of me.
GEORGE: Then I know what we shall do. We shall purchase other sweeties!
ETHEL: Sweeties are very nice to suck on.
GEORGE: They are. Do you suppose they make scotch sweeties?
ETHEL: Shall we ask?
GEORGE: I think we shall. To the shopkeeper!
They wander offstage.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sigh…I do like Ola Gjeilo. This week, I’ve been playing a lot of “Unicornis Captivatur.” The text is a Latin chant from the Engelberg Codex, a compilation of chants from ~1400s Switzerland.
Basically, the wounded unicorn is presented to the court, it heals itself, there’s a lot of fairly conventional Christ metaphors, but also phoenixes and hydras eating crocodiles alive from the inside. (Listen for Idrus intrat crocodilum, around 1:45.)