Last week was busy (as you can imagine), and this week is likely to also be busy, but I'm squeezing in a little time for a post based on something that came out in a conversation the other day.
A friend and I were talking about pushing one's own envelope, playing over one's head — trying to do something hitherto unexplored with one's creative work and move into new territory. Out came this formulation from yours truly:
Whenever people push their envelope, it's scary. But not all envelope pushing is vertical. It's not always about ascending vs. descending. Sometimes it's also about exploring further out to the sides. It's not about "better", but about "different" or "new".
Something about that stuck with both of us. It's really, really hard not to lacquer the act of envelope-pushing with a moralizing gloss. When you do new things, it's not about invalidating the old ones or trying to one-up them. The old things are their own things, reflecting their moment in time, marking the trail. My first books aren't very good, but I don't feel like the new ones are morally superior because they're better. Without those early bad books I wouldn't have the more recent better ones.
A couple of my more recent books weren't as good as their successors or predecessors, according to a few of my close associates. I was a little surprised Welcome To The Fold was received as coldly as it was by some I knew, although in retrospect I see why Tokyo Inferno didn't work as well as I'd liked: in both cases I think I was trying to do something that I didn't have a real natural affinity with, and the strain showed. But at the same time, I knew if I didn't try, I wouldn't have made that discovery. The works may be technically inferior, but a technically inferior work is not a sign of a moral failing. I should not be ashamed of the work, or feel bad for attempting it, and the same goes for anyone else who wants to see what else is possible.
This business of not moralizing things unnecessarily is a common thread in my thought lately. For a long time, human society didn't know how to make distinctions except in the grossest possible ways; we only knew the binary of Do This or Don't Do That. We're more sophisticated now, but we still have this lingering feeling that to fall back to Do This or Don't Do That in all matters is the best way, the most complete way, the absolute way. It's not. That doesn't mean good and bad don't exist, only that they are not best dealt with only by breaking the world into those two categories and nothing else.