Thursday, July 29, 2010

Writing Is Not Misery

This afternoon, driving around town doing errands, I listened for awhile to a National Public Radio program that was a roundtable about writing. The question was asked of a group of experienced, published writers: Why do you write? The question was also asked of the listeners, and any writers in the audience were encouraged to call in with their own reasons why they write.

What resulted was the usual collection of myths and stereotypes around writing—around creativity in general—coming equally from the host's apparently ignorant questions, from the writers pontificating as program guests, and from the many callers. It ended up being an irritating and annoying mess, as usual, in which the usual stereotypes about writers were dragged out and paraded around, where nothing of any real substance was given, and no real insight ensued. (Full disclosure: I did try to call in as a writer, but for reasons unknown was unable to get through.)

Let's face it: Many writers have no clue why they write, they just do it. Why do dancers dance? Why do painters paint? Yet what makes these sorts of writer's public roundtables toxic, perhaps especially to fledgling writers, is how the guests hem and haw around the question, and don't really answer it. Perhaps writers are more prone to fits of self-justification because they are discussing what they do with meta-descriptions: using the same language tools they use in the their creative work, but one step removed. We're writers, we're supposed to be good with words, so we ought to be able to explain ourselves, right? There's a tendency to expect writers to be able to answer the question Why do you write? whereas one would accept in reply a shrug and a smile if one asked a dancer a parallel question.

The thoroughly typical, irritating stereotype about writing that kept being recycled on today's radio program was the usual set of Dysfunctional Writer archetypes. One caller proclaimed that "Great writing comes from miserable people," and the corollary, "Writing is misery." The discussion thereafter revolved around the miseries of being a writer, how you have to be miserable to write anything good, how writing itself makes you miserable, and so forth.

Well, frak that.

At no time did anyone on this radio program have the guts to state the three most important reasons why many writers really, truly, genuinely, actually write:

Because I can.

Because I want to.

Because I feel like it.

Certainly there are other reasons to write. But no other reasons are necessary.

There is no reason why you write except those. It remains a choice. Of course, for some writers, it's a compulsion: they write because they must. There are many reasons for that must, one of the most popular being: "It's as necessary as breathing, and if I don't I go a little crazy." That's a good enough reason, and needs no justification. The choice may be as simple as, I write to scratch that itch, but it's always still a choice. We're not animals determined by genetic fate; because we are conscious creatures, we always have the choice to override our instincts. I choose to write because I can, because I like doing it, and because it fulfills some need to be creative. That need to be creative, of which I have a long and friendly relationship, is the opposite of dysfunctional, and as necessary as breathing. I scratch the itch many ways, by making music, visual art, and by writing. I enjoy scratching the itch, and the itch enjoys being scratched.

Still, the archetype of the Dysfunctional Artist is such a toxic one, yet it keeps getting recycled in popular-culture programs such as this one. One wonders if people really want to subscribe to that idea. Perhaps it's just easier for non-artists to want to believe that "You must suffer for your art." That there's a price to be paid, that the Muses demand blood and sweat. It's certainly the case that even many artists are quick to dismiss as facile even good art that the artists didn't suffer enough about during the creative process.

Today's radio discussion would have been a great deal more thoughtful if the writers tapped as guests had been more seasoned, more secure in their careers and their craft, and had had the guts to not be afraid of offending anyone by saying, "No, wait, that's wrong." Instead of a lot of bland philosophizing based on stereotypes, there might have been a genuine insight.

But then, okay, writing may indeed by misery for you. Fair enough. (Although one wonders why you would keep engaging in doing an activity you know is going to make you miserable. Which leads to deeper questions about why.) But it's not misery for me. And it's not misery for every writer.

So if you want to believe that writing is misery, or that you yourself have to be miserable to be a writer, go right ahead. Your beliefs about the creative process will make themselves come true. But don't make the ridiculous error of proclaiming that, just because writing for you is misery, that writing itself is misery, and that all writers must suffer as much as you do.

Sorry, I just can't seem to find it in myself to suffer as much as some might want me to. Not for my art. Not for any reason, really.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I write because I can’t dance. And sometimes it does make me miserable. I was a helluva lot more miserable during that three year long bout of writer’s block I had fifteen years ago. It made me appreciate my gift/curse when it returned. I suddenly got a taste of what it must be like for many people who have no creative outlet – my parents for example – and it was horrible. I suppose the difference there is that they’d never been creative – you can’t miss what you’ve never had – but I can’t imagine them never thinking: I wish I could … whatever.

I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: a writer is someone whose natural response to life is to write about it. We’re more comfortable when things are translated into words. The problem with words is they’re limited in what they can convey and that’s one of the main reasons I get miserable because I know before I start that I’m going to have to make compromises. But all art is like that, a subset of reality: writing takes away the pictures, art takes away the sounds; music, dance, photography, sculpture all select bits of the real word and leave the viewer/listener/reader etc to fill in the blanks.

3:36 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree with your definition and description of who and what a writer is. (And you know that I don't call myself a writer anymore, being aware that my natural response to life is not primarily to write about it. As often as I do, I also don't.) And I agree, strongly, about the limits of words. And I feel that running up against the limits of words is both the strength and the weakness of the art of writing.

I disagree that all is a subset of reality, and takes away from reality by leaving things out. Of course art DOES leave things out—otherwise it would be a mere synedoche. But my experience of all these artforms is that they enhance and deepen my experience, and when I turn back to "reality" after experiencing the art my experience of "reality" has also changed. Art can be life-changing by giving us an experience of more-than-life.

For me, "misery" is a strong and problematic word in the context of art-making. Making art doesn't make me miserable, although it CAN remove any otherwise present misery. Art-as-therapy, art-as-release is not art's only purpose, though, nor even it's prime purpose. Even though I am very aware of the limits of words, I do like to use words precisely, and "misery" just isn't a word that describes any of this for me. "Misery" connotes something lasting, even existential, a long-term suffering around an activity or its lack; and making art just doesn't make me feel that way.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

By leaving things out it enables us to focus. Real life gets very crowded sometimes.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah. Although I'd add that it allows us to focus on the essentials, on the telling detail, on the necessary elements.

One the lessons of teaching myself to draw, over the past couple of years, is that the artist must choose what to depict, and what to leave out. The telling detail is enough to evoke the entire scene. You can't put in everything, and you don't need to try to do so.

I'm not at all interested in the currently fashionable style of photo-realistic drawing, in which one labors for hours or days to get every detail absolutely visually correct. As in poetry, I have little interest in endless reworking. A quick capture of the essence of a thing is the end that attracts me. I find the photo-realistic level of technique excessive and uninteresting, especially when you view it side by side with Japanese brush drawings, which can evoke so much in only a few strokes. I mean, I'm a good photographer; so if I want that level of detail, I'll make a photograph, not a drawing. There is something absurd about the school of photo-realistic painting; something obsessive and peculiar.

11:35 AM  
Blogger C. H. said...

amen, art!

3:16 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks. :)

6:43 PM  
Blogger me said...

Check out this discussion,

P.S: I highly enjoy your blog ... Best Intentions. Take excellent care of yourself, your blood transfusion got my heart skipping few beats.

3:51 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comment and the link to that discussion. I see a lot of beginner poets there, if I read between the lines correctly.

The "Why not?" answer was the one closest to what I'm getting at here, I think. There were several writing-as-therapy answers, and one very interesting writing-is-empathy, i.e. writing-as-a-healer answer.

Writing as a healer rather than only for one's own healing—that's a good reason. One I can relate to. I get that response sometimes to my own art, for example, more than one person has asked me if I intended a healing to happen through my art or music, because they felt it was happening to them. I have to honestly answer that I had no conscious intention of putting that into my art; but if it's there, I'm all for it.

11:20 AM  

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