Monday, October 28, 2013

What makes a Masterpiece?

The results are in and this year's WRiTE Club champion is Tex Thompson a.k.a. Muleshoe. Many congratulations to Tex for giving us such inspiring writing and to Jane Lebak (Philangelus), our honored runner-up for her well-crafted entries as well. An extra special thanks, of course, goes to Don Hammons and his wife, Kim, for their great work in putting the competition together...a brilliant job running a brilliant competition that lit a brilliant fire under many a sluggish butt.

This year, my super-cool wife, Faith, and I were lucky to be on the other side of the judges' table, which gave us a completely different view of the competition. It was a tremendous honor and an incredibly helpful one, too. It is always an interesting thing to see a large number of writing samples all at once.

If I had to pinpoint the most dramatic thing I learned, it was this:

Decent writing doesn't cut it.

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Great, not decent.)

Now, this idea may seem like nothing new.... I'm sure I've heard it at least once at every conference I've been to, before tidily packing it away with all the other info I heard into neat little boxes I meant to open at a later date. After judging a large number of writing entries, it's become pretty clear that the entries that really stood out (ahem...Muleshoe's...) seemed to be of a different level completely. Now it wasn't that the other entries were bad--far from it. It was simply that the overwhelming majority of entries were decent.

And there's a problem with decent writing...especially when it is sitting snug in a slush pile. It's the same problem that occurs when you go wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art or any other large art museum. At first, your eye is grabbed by every well-executed piece of art, but as more and more good works are noticed, you end up with a sort of art fatigue; the paintings all blend into one and it takes a real Masterpiece to break the cycle. As a result, a room full of "decent" beautiful works can go completely unnoticed.

Ingres: Portrait of the Princesse de Broglie ("Go ahead, try and overlook me.")

And I don't want my writing to go unnoticed.

Besides obvious good craftsmanship, the thing that makes me stop and stare at a gorgeous painting, or a great writing excerpt like Muleshoe's, is confidence. There's a combination of boldness and subtlety in the work that makes you forget, for a brief moment, that you're taking in the invention of someone else's mind. It feels real. It literally captivates you, and won't be dismissed or overlooked.

And who doesn't want to be captivated?

Bouguereau: Two Gypies. (No caption needed, actually.)

I realize this is over-simplified... I'll be trying, over the next few weeks, to devote a series of blog posts to this general topic; to examining in more detail what makes me see certain pieces of literary art as confident, captivating masterpieces.


  1. I completely agree about Tex's piece standing out from the very beginning. And I wanted to add that Jane's work also captivated me as a reader--it had such great, but subtle, humor, which is hard to pull off! I wasn't surprised at all to find those two writers in the finals.
    I'm looking forward to reading your series on masterpiece-ness. :) So, you know, I can have a few extra things to scan my writing for before I show it to you... ;)

  2. I completely agree. DL never shared the specific numbers, but he did say that Muleshoe's first piece was the only one that all of us prejudges voted for. I find that fascinating. I had that piece with Holly as #1 by a significant margin in the pre-judging.

    I think this points out that many of the 'very good' entries may have connected with the varying tastes of individual judges (and there were several that I really liked), but that everyone was able to see the quality in Tex's. That 'masterpiece-osity' somehow rises above individual taste and preference.

    Really glad to see you back in the blogging business, but I can't give you too much flak for taking a long breather in-between posts -- I took months off myself, and have only recently returned to it with a new, rebooted blog.

    I'm eager to see how your series evolves!

    ..and, uh... So what's up with WInifred Wootz and Mr. Jaspers these days? I'd still love to read 'the rest of the story' in both of these cases. ;)

  3. LOVE this post, Mark. When I read Muleshoe's piece in the first round, my reaction was, "Aw, shucks and dang it to pieces. This here writer showed up in Sunday finery." I have read a few entries on grammar over on Tex's blog and they are the clear sign of someone who not only knows the craft of writing inside and out, but has internalized it seamlessly. Much like yerself and yer lovely bride, fine sir.

    More blogging would be nice. As would finding out "the rest of the story," re: WW and Mr. J. But if you find yourself bogged down with churning out exquisite string instruments and the ensuing excitement of Baby's arrival to join the three Misses Hough, then I will have to understand.

    1. Oh ... and how could I forget your artwork? That, too.

  4. Hi, Mark! I'm sorry to be so late to the game over here - it is GREAT to see you active in the blogosphere, and thank you so much for all your spotlighting praise. Coming from someone as accomplished and thoughtful as you are (and Faith as well!), that means a heck of a lot.

    So here is something I've been thinking about since then: it sounds like the pre-judges and the final-round judges were both pretty one-sided in their decisions. (Which is great for the ol' ego, let me tell you.) However, the same absolutely wasn't true of the jury: there were a couple of rounds in which I only barely scraped a win, and very few that came down as a landslide. The disconnect is interesting to me, especially as so many runaway bestsellers seem to be springing up where the tastes of the distinguished literati cleave away from those of the Twilight-hungry masses. I'd be really interested to hear whether and how things like that have affected your decision-making when you write - you know, how you figure out who you're aiming to please (because even the Mona Lisa doesn't please everybody!)

    Actually, I'd be really interested to hear just about anything you care to say - I am so glad Ms. Freeman pointed me to your blog, and will look forward to tuning in to your continuing adventures, regardless!