On one hot summer day, back when I was in school, a teacher told us about a — at that time peculiar — a habit of a famous Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore who wouldn’t just publish his work. He would have a bout of inspiration but then he would take time to refine the piece he wrote, over multiple evenings until he would get it just right before marking it ready for publication. “How does a poet of his calibre ever feel the need to polish his work?!” I had thought. It might have been a sign of humility, but what struck me the most is the emphasis on reflection in his process or the fact he even had a process. In my mind, creativity was a stream, raw and unadulterated. Even when my Father explained once about his work as an editor, I didn’t understand how any author would let their work be altered by borderline strangers. Editing was pointless in my naive view of creativity. In my mind, edited work wasn’t real. How can one possibly preserve the authentic iota of expression when an editor gets involved, I wondered. It took me quite some time to understand what editorial really meant and longer to realise how important it was.
In 2018, I came across an exhibition in Amsterdam of Dali’s sketches. The small scale of the exhibition, combined with the lack of crowd, I was thinking if all of those sketches were in actuality Dali’s work. Thankfully, that doubt was dispelled fairly quickly as I came across a sketch piece that I recognised as Dali’s. But, funny enough, all of those sketches didn’t feel like Dali. When I think of Dali, I think of twisted surrealism under a gossamer of strangeness. All those sketches in front of me, were more “normal”, if I can call them that, mostly line drawn, barely holding any resemblance to his more mainstream work, like the Girl Skipping In a Landscape, which I once had the good fortune of looking at in person.
In 2019, there was a buzz in musical circles as Radiohead released a collection of their unreleased work. Even though I am — if I dare to self proclaim — a Radiohead fan, the album “MiniDiscs(Hacked)” did not appeal to me. I quickly realised that the three-quarter polished music would do nothing more than make me want to fall back to Radiohead’s mainstream studio releases; polished with measured evolution in every iteration. Radiohead is one of my favourite musical creators, dynamic, brilliant and timeless. But even their unpolished work wasn’t as entertaining.
In 2020, one day I came home to realise that I had taken almost thousand photographs of a friend of mine over the course of a single day. After I had plugged the camera into my computer, not only my computer was overwhelmed by the sudden influx of bits, but I was overwhelmed as well.
A photographer shoots 20,000 to 60,000 images on assignment. Of those, perhaps a dozen will see the published light of day
I couldn’t dig up the source of the quote, but I remember reading it vividly about anecdotes of friction between National Geographic photographers and photo-editors, good friction, I must add — friction that resulted in some of the most iconic photographs of the last century. That quote was exactly what I was thinking of when I looked at a collection of a thousand photographs. During the shoot, I had some rough idea on which photographs would turn out okay and which wouldn’t. When I looked at them later the same evening, I realised I didn’t like the shots I thought I would like the most. Mildly disappointed at myself, I had gone to bed. Only a week later, when I looked at the same set of photographs, I found the good shots. Those just weren’t the ones I thought I would find to be good. If the same happened a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have just left the photographs untouched on my hard disk and hit the hay. I would have been hard-pressed to create value from my investment. I would have had to get a half-decent photograph from my shoot for interwebs, for the ‘gram. The problem with such a rush in the process is that it impairs my judgement, as it did back then. All across my short & long-lived hobbies, the sheer lack of evolution shows exactly that — an absence of reflection. It took a bunch of lessons in philosophy to make me understand the value of editing my work, and processes, for that matter.
It’s almost a disservice to whatever I am creating if I don’t take the time to edit. Take this letter for example. It started as a bunch of paragraphs, somewhat coherent, but also very raw at the same time. When the inspiration strikes, I don’t skip a chance to type it out on my fancy keyboard sitting in front of a nicely laid out workspace at a corner of my bedroom. I just love the typing experience, and that’s why I do it — mostly. Afterwards, however, I read what I wrote, over and over and edit it until it’s palatable. There are weeks when I don’t do that, and you probably know which ones those are! The usefulness of editing only became apparent when I started to observe myself interfering with me. If I omit the step to edit my work, or ask someone else to edit it for me, whatever I do would become very akin to my photography from two years ago. Unpolished and pretentious, barely consistent but also never changing. I’m not claiming that whatever I produce now is figuratively pure-gold but without the act of editing, I wouldn’t know where to point my sextant next. Being my own editor opens up unconsidered avenues. For example, as I was giving a last read to this very letter before I was about to publish it, I changed more than half of it, and chopped a quarter off. Because my last read felt like I’m a self-absorbed condescending non-creative who is claiming to be a big enough expert to advise you on creativity; I had overstepped! If I hadn’t taken the time to edit, I wouldn’t have seen that. Editing for myself seems to be a natural extension of self-reflection. It almost should never be a raw stream of consciousness — and I’m fairly certain — not even for Jazz musicians. Only when a letter isn’t too incoherent, I’ll press the “Publish” button. If one of my photographs holds up to a degree of scrutiny, only then I’ll publish it. In contrast, the giddiness of having a spark of an idea, or getting an interesting shot almost always impairs me to see whatever I’m in the process of creating.
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Rabindranath Tagore was a global phenomenon, so why is he so neglected? | Ian Jack
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