Thursday, July 09, 2009

Are You a Writer?

Are you a writer? Am I a writer? How can you tell? What makes a writer a writer? or a Writer? How do you know?

I don't really have anything to say about any of this, as I regard it as a mostly pointless question, so in true contemporary poetry-critical fashion I'm going to take time to say a great deal about it.

Sometimes I know I'm not a writer, not a Writer, at least not what most people think a writer is, or is supposed to be, including writers. Those stereotypes and assumptions go deep. Sometimes I accept the label. Most of the time I could care less. Writing is writing is writing. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. I write for the sake of writing, not for any other reason. Most of the time I write because I want to, not on demand. If there's an audience, it comes afterwards, after the private act of writing for myself. Writers are their own first audiences. I've been a paid, "professional" writer only occasionally. I write because it's the mode that works in the moment, to say what I need to say. I write to explore more often than to conclude.

So, am I a writer?

Egoistically, I'm going to use memoir and self-assessment here to highlight some questions about what a writer is, and who can call themselves a writer, in the hope that by serving up myself as an example, others might see themselves reflected in that mirror. I don't expect anyone else to be just like me, nor should you expect it. If you see some definitions and questions herein about what it means to be a writer, that's the most I can offer, or hope for.



Am I a writer? What does it take to be a writer? To call yourself a writer? What does a writer do?

Here's a few feints towards definition or description, towards inventing answers to unanswered questions:

1. A writer is one who writes.

That's obvious. It's also a tautology: a recursive definition that defines what something is by what it is. It's an answer you often hear, from writers, from teachers of writing. It's perhaps a satisfactory answer, but it's not a very fulfilling one. It doesn't have a lot of meat on its bones.

A writer is someone who writes: but writes what? writes how? writes when? And why does a writer write? Let's remind ourselves of one important, oft-ignored truth: many writers have no idea what they're doing, or why.

Some writers are all about control, about knowing exactly what they're doing, about conscious direction of the pen, about precision and saying exactly what they want to say as clearly as possible. I wrote that way myself, in graduate school, in college, in high school, because in each of those instances my writing had a clear purpose and a clear goal. For any kind of writing that has a clear purpose and goal—that "free writing" does happen, and that it's a valid way of writing. (Especially in your journal, and to help clarify one's own mind on a topic.) But what about writing that doesn't have such a clear purpose and goal? Some writers seem unable to comprehend that not all writing requires a clear purpose and goal; not all writing is consciously directed or intellectually formed. It was while I was in college that the fire to write poetry, my own brand of poetry, was lit; prior to that, I hadn't taken poetry-writing very seriously, and except for a few schoolboy haiku and bad sonnets and mediocre cinquains, I hadn't written any poems at all. Yet I find, now, that I don't write by conscious direction very often, and for me it's not at all about Control.

I know a lot of writers who are very much in control of their writing. They have it well-mastered, and their mastery of the technical aspects of the craft of writing is second to none. I find a lot of that writing fairly dry and intellectual. Gods forbid a syllable should be out of place. In the ever-spinning wheel of the battle between Law and Chaos, such writing falls firmly on the side of Law; but Chaos is life, while Law is often stifling fixity.

Thinking back, I remember how my essay papers were often well-praised in grad school by my professors. But my experience of writing them was often chaotic. The structure of the prose was precise and everything a well-reasoned academic argument could hope to be. But I recall that more than one of them were written at the very last minute, in some cases, even by pulling an all-nighter.

I recall vividly the process of sitting in my living room, in grad school, writing a 40-page paper on the seminal blues musician Robert Johnson. My thesis was not original, if my spin on it was poetical. I spent a lot of that paper discussing how the same musicians would spend all Saturday night playing blues in the speakeasies, then change their shirts, put on a tie, and play gospel in the churches of a Sunday morning. The music had two sides, one sacred, one damned, and the musicians knew it. The legends around Robert Johnson, that his incredible talent came from selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, was a legend that Johnson himself played up; it's in some of his songs, such as "Hellhound On My Trail." His life and death were mysterious enough that many still ask these questions about him. That night, I wrote all night long, on my old Mac Plus computer. I remember the dawn light coming in through the windows. The music I used to power my writing all night long, that I listened to over and over again, was another, more contemporary example of music that blends the sacred and the profane: Enigma's first CD, MCMXC A.D., with its brilliant and original mixing of Gregorian chant with hip-hop and dance beats. As I neared completion of my writing, I listened especially to the last track on the CD, "The Rivers of Belief." I must have listened to that track 20 or more times through the late night and into the morning. When I finally felt the paper was polished enough, I copied it to disc, and took it to the University Library computing center to print it out. I turned it in in a daze, went home, and collapsed, mission accomplished.

Not exactly an example of a writer being methodical or "in control" of his writing. (I received reasonably good marks on the paper, by the way.)

After grad school, over time I have become a far more intuitive writer. Today, I rarely write until something comes forth. I am undisciplined compared to other writers; I don't put in two hours a day, and I don't write something every day, just to keep in practice. I write when an idea demands I sit down and write. Otherwise, I might go for days or weeks without writing anything.

This essay, for example, came to me as an idea while I was driving around doing errands. That's not uncommon. I get home, I put the groceries away, open up a page on the laptop, and start writing. It might take a day or two to write it all out. Or it might all come out at white heat, and essentially write itself in a hour or two, with little revision. Essays that come out at white heat almost never need much revision. The entire series of Spiral Dance Essays has been written this way, at least one a year for several years.

Many writers might have a definite purpose or plan—a tale to tell, a commissioned article to explain a viewpoint or some facts, an occasional piece needed for a purpose—and many other writers write only when they feel like it, when they are moved to. Many writers have tried to explain what it feels like to have to live with that inner demand or need to write; many of these write because they are fulfilling some inner need, and not all of them call themselves writers.

So, in terms of what writers and readers think a writer is supposed to be, in terms of discipline, of mastery, of intent, I'm not a writer.

It might be added, a writer is one who writes, but a real writer is one who publishes.

That's another common idea, perhaps especially among writers, who after all have a stake in becoming known via publishing. Yet one can name several writers whose fame in the present day is towering, yet who rarely or never published during their lifetimes. (Dickinson and Cavafy among poets, for example.) They were not famous. There was no celebrity, no cult of personality. This truth lights in high relief how deeply contemporary writing has been infected by the celebrity culture, and the various cults of personality.

2. Compulsion, or necessity.

I don't write every day, just to be writing. I don't believe that one must write every day to be a writer, or to write well. For some writers, it's a necessary requirement—but not for all.

The aspect of compulsion that interests me here is the truth that many writers seem compelled to write: that they must write, that it's as important to them as breathing. That expressing themselves through language is necessary, if not always sufficient. If an artist's dominant mode is writing, does that make them a writer? Does it make them a writer, if it's not their dominant mode?

I understand that feeling of, shall we say, necessity, a word perhaps lighter than compulsion. I have felt that way myself. I have often felt the need to write, have dropped everything else in order to capture in the moment what has come forward, asking to be transcribed. In times of strong emotion, I have felt myself reach for the tools of creativity to get it out of myself, in order to preserve it, express it, eventually share it—but also to save myself. There is an aspect to "expression" that is not merely healing, not merely cleansing, but actively necessary for the sake of recovering one's inner balance, for clearing one's mind. There is a salvific aspect to creative work, for the creative person, if for no one else. This is why arts therapy works—the issue of whether the art one makes in art therapy is Art or not is a separate issue.

There are writers who seem to need to journal every day to know for themselves what it is they're thinking and feeling. There are writers whose practice is writing, a self-serving practice only in that it is self-saving. If we sacrifice anything to the gods of the pen and brush and paper, what we sacrifice is our pride and ego. Self-service is often self-sacrifice, when it frees the self from its fetters.

But my discipline, which is not only my writer's discipline but my general creative discipline, is not to write every day, to do some classic form of "writing practice." It is, rather, to be ready at all times for something to happen. Not to try to make it happen, and never to force it to happen. If I go a week without writing anything, so be it, it doesn't bother me. I don't feel as some writers say they do, that if they haven't written something every day, they feel they've neglected their craft and sullen art. I don't think that writing just to be writing yields anything useful, either to the artist or to the reader.

I feel that necessity requires me to be prepared, but not to be over-rehearsed.

3. The love of words.

Language is your tool, your landscape, your life. Words are your elements. The conventional wisdom is that writers ought to be as immersed in language as dancers are in movement, as painters are in turpentine and pigment.

Many writers talk about how they have always had a special relationship with words. Some talk of how even at a young age they were driven to write, to express themselves with words. I understand this, but I feel an even deeper relationship to music—and poetry is a kind of music, one that uses sounds just as music uses sounds, and has similar elements of melody, rhythm, and repetition. I do not refer only to metrical poetry here; the music I refer to can be found in many other kinds of verbal and written expression as well.

I do understand the pure love of words. When I was in 5th and 6th grades in elementary school, ages 11 and 12, I read through an entire dictionary—for fun. I spent hours poring over the dictionary, learning new words, learning meanings I didn't know regarding existing words, learning usages, teaching myself by absorption the vocabulary of my native tongue. Looking back on that now, I'm grateful to my younger self, for having absorbed so much, freeing me up, now, to write without having to spend a lot of time thinking about its mechanics; nothing stops the creative flow like self-conscious mistrust of one's tools. The advantage of having acquired a useful vocabulary is that it gives more choices, more options for finding the precise word or phrase to convey a specific feeling, idea, and experience.

I don't think of myself as a writer, most of the time. What I see writers, or Writers, do, is filter every experience through the written word. I filter my experience through other modes as well: visual art; photography; music; and others. I see writers turn to words even when words are inadequate to express certain feelings, ideas, and experiences. How do container a visionary experience? Sometimes you can only try to evoke it in others, as some kind of echo or prescience. Sometimes words will serve to do that, but often enough I find that words serve only as the laborers carrying an image, a somatic gutpunch emotional experience that is only diminished by being containered in words. The English language is not very good at all at expressing emotional nuance, or spiritual states of being; it can take a paragraph to say in English what can be said in Greek merely by differentiating between ekstasis and eros and catharsis.

I'm still thinking about the somatic aspects of the writing and reading experience. I've been thinking a long time about how I could articulate what is wrong with some of the dead-ends of contemporary poetry, most of which seem to be disconnected from the body and heart in some way, or focus on the intellect over all other aspects of the reading experience, or focus on craft above all other aspects of writing, or otherwise seem too emphatic about only one aspect of a truly multi-channelled artform. It often seems like I'm the only person who sees this; it's certainly an unpopular critical position. I'm taking my time thinking about it, because when I do get around to talking about it, I'll have to gather together coherently many threads into one weave.

Part of my root sense that there's something rotten in the state of Denmark is that the love of words has degraded into the worship of words. I see this reflected in continual critical arguments over the precise usage of words in which arguments words are used very imprecisely—terms assumed or left undefined, logical steps skipped over, etc. The irony is how so often writers, who one might imagine would be very careful in their usage of words precisely because they aver their love of words, are so incredibly sloppy in their critical discourse, not to mention in their thinking. Allergic as I tend to be towards sloppy thinking in general, and sloppy discourse in particular, I find it particularly paradoxical, and a bit tragic, when writers are so sloppy in their writing about writing. You'd think writers who claim to love words would use words with precision and care all the time; not only in their art, but also in their conversation. This leads to wonder how deeply many writers actually do love words. Perhaps it's a love-hate relationship—but it's much more likely to be simple laziness or sloppiness.

4. Writing is hard work, is distilled experience, is the product of suffering.

To be a Writer, you have to write, but do you really have to do it every day? Must you struggle with it? IS writing really a heroic, herculean task, or is that just good PR? Do you really need to practice your writing to the exclusion of all other activities in life? Perhaps not. There is a line between necessity and obsession, after all.

The classic stereotypes of the Writer are mostly very negative and destructive: The emaciated writer starving in some coldwater attic apartment, writing as if possessed until exhaustion and malnutrition kill them—after which of course their fame will be eternal. Or, the cliché that writers are hard-drinking, hard-eating, alcoholic, bestial, brutish and loudmouthed in person—many are—even as their artistic products soar to sublime levels of beauty. Some writers have the titanium constitutions to pull this off; others, imitating them, die off from natural selection. Or, the idea that bad behavior is forgivable in the Poet because the Poet lives at a fine peak of emotional intensity and is only accidentally an ass. While there have been great poets who seem to generate drama around themselves, who thrive on high intensity living, there have been an equal number of poets who lived quietly, almost monastically, certainly inoffensively except for might be in their poems.

The bottom line assumption here is that writing is damned hard work, and you'd better be tough, or you won't survive it. This is beyond a macho stereotype, it's a Wounded Artist archetype. The assumption is: not only are writers fucked up, it's that they are fucked up that allows them to be writers. The recursive illogic of this stereotype is manifest. As though great writers must be self-destructive, or deeply wounded, to be any good.

I repudiate all that. There are plenty of writers for whom neither bad behavior nor self-destructive behavior was true or necessary, who wrote from within generally good mental and physical health; who perhaps did not apparently suffer as deeply as other writers, but whose works have endured. There is something in great writing, something musical and focused, that transcends easy categorization, and deprives most stereotypes about writers of any real weight.

I think often how some famously dysfunctional artists and writers, had they been able to overcome some of the darknesses pulling at their heels, might actually have been better artists than they were. What they might have accomplished, we cannot know. Their better angels never had a chance to fly before they augured in.

There are indeed writers who chose not to exorcise their personal demons for fear that this would offend their angels, or their muses; but it takes a great knowledge of one's own inner workings to be able to wisely chose. Do self-reflective introverts therefore make better writers? Again, we can find many examples to the contrary.

The point here is that, while it's true that suffering has often produced great art, it is not guaranteed to do so. Many wannabe writers get stuck on the trappings of addiction or woundology, and it kills them rather than turning them into Real Writers, whatever that is.

5. Words have an acoustical presence, not just a written presence.

Language is more than writing. It's actually more than words, too. Language is also performance, in that how we perform the various modes of speech and writing also convey sense and sensibility.

Writers need to be more aware of the performative aspects of language, precisely because such awareness will improve their writing.

Language is contextual—except when written—because in a conversation one also reads tone-of-voice, posture and body language, and other non-linguistic parallel data streams. Language is rich and deep—except in this medium of pure written and read words. The great writers know the limits of the written word, and some of their greatest effects are solutions that pull us into the reading by getting us past the inherent limits of the purely written word.

At various times in my life, I have been fluent in two or three languages other than my native tongue. I don't claim to still be fluent, as I have little opportunity anymore to maintain fluency via exposure and practice. I can comprehend two or three other languages adequately. I have vocabulary, if not grammar, in a few other languages. I once totaled up the languages I have studied, either directly or because I was studying the arts and culture to which a language was native, and the total was around eleven.

I have an ear for language. I learn a language in part by listening to the way it's spoken: cadence, rhythm, pitch, tone, phrasing. This is the way a listening musician learns language: via its musical characteristics, in phrases, rather than by rote vocabulary practice.

I have artistic technical vocabulary in some languages that I feel are more nuanced than English can be. "Love" again, is more clearly described in Greek, which has multiple words for multiple states, while English lumps them all under one undifferentiated "love." Japanese has an artistic vocabulary describing natural processes and their effects upon art materials and products that is far more subtle than English. Indonesian/Malay has tow different words for "we," the first person plural, depending on whether the speaker is including the person being spoken to in the "we" or not. If I find myself needing to go to another language to explain things more clearly and simply than English can, that raises doubts about the force of language to describe anything accurately, ever.

I also have a kinesthetic sense for language. I have studied martial arts, a few body-posture-engaged alternative healing modalities (for example, Alexander Technique), and the insights I've received, as a writer, from such non-verbal communicative modes have been enormous. I genuinely believe that studying martial arts made me a better writer, because it simultaneously expanded my awareness of the surrounding field while also focusing my attention on what really mattered. One of the big lessons in art-making is learning what to leave out, and the sharpened focus and awareness I acquired through these physical studies has helped me better sort through the chaff to find the wheat. I think that most writers spend too much time in their heads, and ignore what they can learn from their bodies. The exceptions to this trend become all the more vivid and memorable, when encountered. (For example, Isabel Allende's book Aphrodite.) I can attest, too, that the wrist-stretches I learned from martial arts have effectively delayed or prevented carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis.

I find poetry to be unbalanced when it claims too much for what words can do. I find it odd how writers so often try to hide from writing's dirty little secret: That, in fact, words have severe limits, and there are some common human experiences that simply do not yield themselves easily to being put into words.

6. Are writers what you think they are?

Probably not.

Many writers could tell you how the reality of writing is not like the images one sees in the celebrity media of successful famous writers living the high life and hobnobbing with the party set. Most of the time writing is grunt-work, hack-work, a struggle. A lot of the time, there's no reward at all.

There is very little glamour to the act of writing itself. I think one can make a serious case that writers would do well to avoid the trappings of glamour and celebrity, after the act of writing, lest such distractions kill a writer's artistry and objectivity. A little anonymity is good for writers, because it allows them to engage with the world, unobserved, unremarked-upon, and thus more able to soak up new experiences and situations. I think the rise of the celebrity news reporter was one aspect of how real news reportage has become mere infotainment over the last two decades.

Could you spot a writer on the street?

Don't fool yourself: probably not. There's no badge, no uniform, no particular set of tools that would give away a writer if you met her on the street, or chatted with him in the grocery store checkout line. Except for an occasional thoughtful or watchful look, most (non-celebrity) writers are anonymous in their daily lives.

7. Writers have a lot of biases about writing, because they care about it.

Granted, so do artists in other media. Dancers tend to be biased about the dance; architects about architecture; musicians about music-making.

One thing I always find amusing is how so many writers seem unaware of their own biases about writing. I suppose it's forgivable because it's merely unconscious. Yet I've actually heard poets claim that poetry is the "highest" artform because it's the most abstract, being made up of words, which are symbols for abstract thought. But music does many of the same things, artistically, that poetry can do, and doesn't need words to do it; so is not music more abstract than poetry? Only a poet would claim that poetry is the "highest" artform.

This is the bias I am talking about. I often get yelled at, by writers, for pointing it out. Some writers are unwilling to see it; others seem to be incapable—they just can't comprehend.

I think most artists that work in only one medium miss important things. They develop biases because they engage with art-making, with expression if you must, via only one creative channel. There is tremendous pressure on young artists to make them focus on only one art, one set of skills, to become the best they can at that, and ignore the rest. As though people were capable of doing only one thing well. I suppose for some people that's true. But it's not universally true.

My artistic mentors and role-models are all creatives who have worked successfully in more than one medium. Some are writer-artists, others composers-artist-writers, others sculptor-painters, others writer-photographer-filmmakers. Several of these mentors seemed able to overcome the limits of their primary medium precisely because they were aware of its limits, having spent significant time working in other media. Being able to get "outside" your artform gives a perspective unattainable from the inside, no matter how talented or crafty one is, within that medium. It's a matter of perspective: just as travel broadens, artistic travel to "foreign" artforms gives one insight into one's own "homeland." I think writers who never undertake this kind of artistic travel risk becoming parochial at best, and prejudiced at minimum.

8. Writers write for the reader, under a social if not always commercial contract.

This is usually wrong; see. item number 2 above. Yet it's a myth readers carry about writers, which some writers get infected with. It's called, at its best and most successful, "storytelling that pleases the crowd;" at its worst, it's called "pandering." Writers need to know that readers can tell the difference. Readers may not be as book-smart as writers, as well-read or as well-educated in the uses of the language, but readers are savvy. I think it's a matter of writer's honor to respect the reader, and not treat them as either stupid or ignorant—don't over-explain or become pedantic—and therefore to do your absolute best work that you can do, on each given piece of writing, at any given moment.

You can never predict what your readers are going to like, so don't waste your time trying. Just do your honest best with what you have. Your love for the writing will bring the reader along with you. Your engagement with doing the best you can do with your craft will be seen, and responded to.



Finally, everything I've said here is wrong. While others might imagine that I believe I could have the last word on this topic, I never do.

Of course I'm not a writer. Not by many measures that writers and readers assume matter towards defining what a writer is and does. By the standards I keep hearing from workshop leaders, professors, and critics, I'm lazy, unprofessional, an amateur and a dilettante. ("Amateur" is an epithet I'll cheerfully accept for myself at any time, for its connotations of beginner's mind, which I do try to practice.) In so many ways, I match none of the ideas and clichés about what is supposed to do and be.

Yet, grudgingly, I would accept the mantle of writer. The archetype that fits more naturally, for me is Teacher, rather than Writer; or perhaps Healer. Yet, I am a published writer. I can even claim to be an award-winning writer, although I doubt you'd ever have heard of the awards my writing has won, even on the national level. It doesn't matter. I can, if cornered, forced to submit, and generally hectored until responding, be coerced into some minor confession of my worst sins and their sonorous retributions:

I am, in fact, a writer.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

A writer is someone whose natural response to the universe is to write about it. Whether he writes daily on not is academic. I write quite sporadically at the moment but I am a writer to the very core of my being. I agree with what you say: "Writers ... filter every experience through the written word." That is true. Even when I'm not physically putting words on a page in my head I'm translating what I see into words. I narrate my life to myself. So in that respect I 'write' constantly.

A fascination with words comes through familiarity. I used to listen to music but it wasn't till I began composing that I began to appreciate what I'd been listening to.

Writing is not such a struggle - that's a poetic notion. Where the struggle comes in is when you realsise that "words have severe limits" as you put it. It's like building a house out of Lego bricks. It's not a real house but viewed from a distance is gives an impression of reality.

I don't get the performance thing at all. Never have. Words exist on the page for me. I have a fellow who wants to make a short film based on one of my poems and I sent him a short audio sample to see if the quality was good enough for his purposes and the voice that came through the speakers was so alien to me. (It's been many years since I've recorded myself.)

Everyone thinks their mode of expression is the best one. I couldn't possibly express what's going on in my head in dance and I look at dancers and just see people prancing around - it has no meaning for me other than that. But for a true dancer, the kind of person who can't sit still for five minutes, that is how they have to express themselves. Who's best? Is a fork better than a spoon?

I only really think about readers as far as my blog is concerned. I'm very aware that I'm writing for an audience there but nowhere else. Unless you count me as a reader.

On the whole I pretty much agree with eveything you said. I have no ego about being a writer and I think those that do are pretentious. Being comfortable with being a writer is no different that being comfortable being a member of any minority be it being a Goth, a gay or a member of the chess club at an all boys grammar-school. Of course one's heart should go out to those gay Goths who go to grammar-schools.

1:02 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

This gave me endless pleasure and lots of laughter (especially that second paragraph). Nicely done.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, that's all very well said. I think you might be more of a true writer than I am, from your description of your process and experience. I understand your viewpoint about the performance aspects; which just underlines my feeling that you're more of a writer than I. But then, everything I do is filtered through music, which I readily admit makes me more of a composer than a writer. That's not a new insight, and no real surprise.

Lots of rich thoughts in your comments, lots of which I understand and agree with. I can't manage to reply to them all just yet. But I thank you for them, and my responses are likely to percolate up, eventually, in other essays.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, John—

As someone who is a writer and teaches writing occasionally, I thought of you a few times during the writing of this. I'm glad it tickled you, therefore.

Sometimes it's rich to deny who we are, as a momentary way of getting at a topic sideways. You know?

9:47 AM  

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