Print Edition: April 9, 2014
I’m in the final weeks of my creative writing degree, and I’m realizing more and more that I don’t like writers.
Now before any writers get their pitchforks, let me slide in a disclaimer. First, I should say that I, as a writing student, cheerfully include myself in all the following critiques. Second, most of the writing instructors, mentors, and peers I’ve gotten to know these last few years are downright wonderful people whose opinions and influence have shaped me as both a person and an author.
I have nothing but love for you all, as individuals.
Creative writers as an artistic faction though, are seriously starting to bum me out.
In the past few years, I’ve read too many articles and heard far too many authors who nonchalantly slap labels on that which must define the identity of a “good” writer:
A good writer must be compelled by their story, because being madly compelled creates more of a powerful narrative than an author’s love or intellect ever will.
Good writers must draw primary inspiration from books, for all other mediums are false idols.
A good writer must have something indefinable inside them; something roils in their innards like a horny monster, begging for gratification and validation in the form of prose.
A good writer must, above all else, feel turmoil. Turmoil while they write. Turmoil in their past. Turmoil for years to come.
Turmoil. All. The. Time.
These guidelines? They suck. Why? Because they force the practice of writing into exclusivity. These ideals are instilled in the minds of authors young and old who form private social cliques consisting only of those who brashly follow the same modus operandi.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have no turmoil. Without going into details, my life is pretty much off the chain.
So what’s a guy like me to do? Force myself to feel miserable or guilty about things? Increase my social activism? Binge on reality TV and Fox News so I can write condescendingly about things that make me feel insufferably world-weary?
I’m openly hostile toward the idea that good writing comes only from those who bear an inimitable message that must be written down to be communicated. This train of thought is inherently exclusionary because, if true, those who don’t feel similarly driven fail to meet the prerequisites necessary to write a decent poem.
Even more, I despise the idea that if I genuinely love my work, I must be doing something wrong. I’ve heard so many writers imply, or say outright, that a writer should not love their work so much as they should feel tortured and infuriated by their love for it.
So if not all this, what constitutes a good writer?
Terrible question, but if I’ve learned one thing from my time as a writing major, it’s this: aside from the ability to form a comprehensible sentence or two, the only universal skill I can confidently say should apply to all adequate writers is observation.
The catch here is that writers shouldn’t always observe other writers. They should create for themselves a circle of friends and influences who do not consist entirely, or even mostly, of fellow prose hounds. We cannot afford to be reclusive, because to be a critical observer, you must be a participant. A member. A partaker.
You should watch every movie you can get your hands on to find nuggets of pathos and truth.
You should listen to conversations between old men on park benches.
You should find (several) hobbies outside your notebook.
When it gets right down to it, a writer shouldn’t even be a writer; just a person who pencils things down and lives with an open mind as they watch and learn. Because if writing is the art, then observation is the art behind the art. To quote Louis CK, “Life isn’t something you possess; it’s something you take part in, and you witness.”
This isn’t intended to be a postmodernist’s rant about the elitism of art. Nor is it intended to condemn the lifestyles or strategies of other writers.
This is, however, frustration linked to the ever-pervasive ideology that doing something I love has to be a chore. It has to be arduous and harrowing and compulsory and soul-sucking because apparently, it’s meaningless otherwise.