Picture credit: @memesforwriters

But in praise of writing

But in praise of writing

Artillery Row

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Actually, that’s not true. When I was four years old I wanted to be a football player by day and a police officer at night. When I was about fifteen I wanted to be a rock star — a dream cruelly thwarted by the teeny tiny problem that I had no talent, dedication or charisma. But for most of my life I have wanted to be a writer. Nothing has made me happier than scribbling away about my thoughts and fancies — and, of course, I wanted money and attention for doing so.

Opinion columns have to be among the lowest forms of writing

Now it’s at least somewhat true, and I’m very grateful for the luck that I have had. But somehow calling myself a “writer” makes me cringe a little — and not just because opinion columns have to be among the lowest forms of writing, alongside “performance poetry” and “nutritional information on jars of pasta sauce”.

Do you have any Twitter accounts that reliably make you mad? You know you should stop looking at their tweets, but some kind of morbid fascination pulls you back like a child to roadkill. One of mine is advertised as being that of an author — though I’m not sure if he actually writes books. What he writes are tweets about being a writer — twee little jokes intended to be relatable. “Being a writer is basically just rearranging the alphabet until you get published or go crazy.” “Being a writer means having a story you want the whole world to read, except everyone who knows you.” “If writers spent as much time writing as they do thinking about their story, they would have their trilogy done already.”

Most of the time, these tweets just make me say “no, it isn’t”, “no, it doesn’t” et cetera, though sometimes they are wrong for more curious reasons, such as imagining that “writing” and “thinking” are any more extricable than “cooking” and “shopping”. What really ticks me off, though, is how they both trivialise and dramatise “being a writer” — dramatising it as some kind of constant agonising struggle, as if even toilet cleaners should think themselves fortunate not to be resolving character arcs, and trivialising it because that is so evidently silly. “Writing a story isn’t that hard. The only thing that’s difficult is writing the beginning. Well, and ending, those are always a nightmare. Also, the middle is basically thousands of words of utter agony.” That can be true. It can also be true that words flow like a mountain stream. If writing were like pulling teeth nobody would do it.

Too many people want to be writers nowadays. I get it. It beats calling yourself a “line manager”, or a “junior technician”, or “unemployed” or a “journalist”. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to gatekeep here. You don’t have to be a professional writer to be a writer. Kafka worked full-time for an insurance company and demanded that all his writings be destroyed after his death, but remained approximately 3,481,645 times the writer I am. 

Creative writing students become creative writing teachers without any publications

The problem is people who want to be writers far more than they actually want to write. (As much as writer’s block is real, I think a lot of the “only writers will understand … ” memes about procrastinating are intended to resolve this contradiction.)

This has encouraged a bizarre culture in which everybody hangs around being writers — learning about writing, lecturing on writing, talking about writing and, above all, talking about being writers — and few people get serious writing done. Creative writing students become creative writing teachers without having any publications to point to*. I know from personal experience that writing courses and workshops can be of value. But their ubiquity and scale, and the swift conversion of clients into recruiters, would be called a pyramid scheme in any other field.

Our obsession with “writers”, above “writing”, also enables the politicisation of literature. Western culture wars have deep ideological and material roots, of course, but one factor behind their pervasiveness is how easy they are to talk about. What is a writer’s political opinions? What is their ethnic background? Do they have any problematic tweets? Debating such matters offers quicker bursts of stimulation than the slow, difficult work of reading and writing. 

This week, I found myself absorbed by a mini-scandal in American letters in which a magazine called Hobart Pulp published an interview with Alex Perez, a fiction writer whose opinion pieces I was familiar with. Most of its staff resigned in protest against his iconoclastic opinions. I was getting worked up about their self-entitlement and censoriousness when I realised — and this is entirely my fault — that I had never bothered to track down one of Alex’s stories. Would it have offered such a convenient shot of serotonin? 

The irony is that being a writer has never been a less glamorous profession. The cold and unyielding laws of supply and demand have ensured that for most people there is minimal wealth and status to be earned. Even if you make it, you find that “being a writer” puts you in the same class as Rupi Kaur and Dan Hodges.

Perhaps instead of depressing us this should renew our commitment to our craft. Unless we have truly elite talent, or elite luck, we have to really care about our essays, or our poems, or our stories for creative writing to reap fertile rewards. Only when something of our spirit has been actualised in its most exquisite form can we claim to be “writers” in a lasting sense.

* This article originally referenced the case of Dawn Dorland, who featured in the New York Times’s “Bad Art Friend” essay, but the author has learned that Ms Dorland had substantial teaching qualifications and had published an essay which had since been removed. This reference seemed unfair, then, and has been deleted.

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