“I Could Do That” vs. “I Wish I Could Do That.”


There are two reactions most people have when reading what someone else has written.

One is “I could do that.”

The other is “I wish I could do that!”

Most people assume that we would rather have people think “I wish I could do that” — admire our flowing prose and six-dimensional characters as they lose themselves in the universe that we hew out of the chaos of the blank page in six glorious days like the gods we are — instead of looking at our prose the way someone looks at a Jackson Pollock painting and think “pfft. I could do that!”

Me? I’d rather people think “I could do that.”

You see, when people have that reaction to your work, it means you’ve been more successful. You make it look effortless. Your plot flows out of your characters naturally, and your dialogue sounds like people really speak. People think “I could do that” because your work is so real that they don’t notice all the work you went through to make it that way.

Take, for example, John Finnemore. When I listen to his radio sitcom Cabin Pressure my first reaction is always “I could write like that.” Then I listen more carefully and I notice the craftsmanship. I realize that it isn’t Martin Crieff and Douglas Richardson having banter back and forth; it’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Roger Allam playing roles quite unlike what they’ve become known for. But the dialogue seems so natural — so real — that for a moment you lose yourself in the magic.

Essentially, if they think they could write like you, they’re seeing the art. If they wish they could write like you, they’re seeing the artifice.

And I’d rather been an artist or artisan than artificial.

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