SOCRATES: O Meno . . . [Plato runs off at the mouth for 149 more words, and then finally sorta answers the question with]. . . I am certain that if you were to ask any Athenian whether virtue was natural or acquired, he would laugh in your face, and say: 'Stranger, you have far too good an opinion of me, if you think that I can answer your question. For I literally do not know what
virtue is, and much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not.' And I
myself, Meno . . . [another 83 unnecessary words.]
MENO: No, indeed. But are you in earnest, Socrates, in saying that you do not know what virtue is? And am I to carry back this report of you to
SOCRATES: Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have never known of any one else who did, in my judgment.
--Meno by Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett
I don't like Plato, so I did take great pleasure in deleting 232 words from that excerpt. It was just so we could get to the point before all of us qualify for AARP. Where Plato is concerned, one always has to wade through a vast sea of his schlock before even catching a glimmer of one tiny pearl o' wisdom.
Now let's forget about the source and examine the point that the old fussbudget probably considered wholly fictional anyway: the matter of virtue. And because everything is about writing anyway, let's take a look at writing virtues.
To me, a writing virtue is like the right of way when you're driving: most people believe it belongs to them, or they "have it." Right of way, however, can only be yielded to us by other drivers. Same thing goes for virtues. They are the qualities about us and our work that other people in the biz recognize.
Most of the time writers think they write nothing but crap, which I think (in moderation) is good for us. A decent amount of virtue denial keeps us interested in looking for ways to improve our craft. When a writer starts believing their own hype, however, the work always seems to suffer.
Almost every editor I've worked for the last six or seven years has said one virtue I have is that I always deliver a very clean manuscript (aka one with hardly any errors.) It doesn't sound like an especially valuable writing virtue, but from my POV any work you save an editor is a very good thing. I've had a couple manuscripts that were so error-free they went direct to copy-edit in first draft. Which always made me a little suspicious and rather nervous (I'm not perfect; somebody must have missed something.)
It's also not a natural virtue; I'm not a great speller, and I never cared enough about grammar to pay attention when I should have in school. I had to teach myself how to edit my work, and it took years before I learned how to do a decent job proofing a manuscript. I'm always happy to hear an editor's praise, but I still remember the days when my manuscripts were so not-clean they looked like I wrote them at a mud drag.
Nor can I expect to hold onto that virtue forever. Currently I'm being plagued by Forgetful, one of the seven gremlins* of menopause, and I keep making really stupid spelling
All the other writing virtues attributed to me by others are nice, but I don't really believe in them, or think they belong to me. Whatever I've written in the past is history, gone, over and done with. It's not that I'm an ingrate who can't take a compliment (most days); it's plain old terror. Complacency scares the hell out of me. I can always improve and get better at something, but I can't do anything if I stagnate or spend all my time preening.
I'm only as good as my next manuscript. If I can request any writing virtue, that's the one I want.
Now it's your turn: what virtue (writing or otherwise) do people say you have? What's the one you'd most like to earn? Let us know in comments.
*In case you're wondering, the other six gremlins of menopause are Bitchy, Rashy, Sweaty, Sleepy, Weepy and Psycho.
Excerpt from Meno by Plato was found over on Project Gutenberg.