Is writing torture? Should it be?

I remember when writing used to be something I did solely for fun, when I would write just to play around with words. I created collage poems out of words and pictures cut from magazines. I tried to make up my own acrostics and crosswords. I wrote stories as a form of play — playing with an idea, a structure, something that someone else had written.

I think one reason I don’t write as much as I used to or would like to is because somewhere along the way, I lost that sense of having fun with it. Is it because I’ve grown up? Is it because I think I shouldn’t do anything anymore unless it’s productive or results in a paycheck, because that’s we are taught to think that adults do. Adults don’t play; we work.

Or is it because I’ve been told over and over again that to be a writer, one must be tortured, obsessed, possessed? Writing is something you do because you have to, not because you want to. Above all, it is not fun.

Probably it’s a combination of all of the above. One thing I do know — I miss writing just for fun. I want that back in my life.

After reading this — Elizabeth Gilbert Versus Philip Roth: Is Writing Torture? in The New Yorker — I have to declare that I completely respect Elizabeth Gilbert’s point of view. She has not lost her sense of fun or play. She can’t believe she actually gets to write as a job.

Doesn’t that seem preferable to the old “tortured artist” routine?

Also worth reading: Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts on writing.

 

The writer’s job…

The writer’s job is to entertain, but there is more. Writers can educate, enlighten, even corrupt. This is why books are often seen as dangerous.

Writers are observers. They want to figure out what makes us human. Why do we behave the way we do toward one another? What is our purpose here? Is there any meaning to all this? Are we in control of our destiny or at the mercy of fate, the environment, heredity or dumb luck?

Writers are always looking. They are constantly:

  • looking back — to understand who we are by understanding where we came from
  • looking around — at contemporary society, culture, institutions, values and beliefs
  • looking inward — revealing interior thoughts and psychology, trying to figure out what makes us tick
  • looking beyond — turning our fears into monsters; realizing our fantasies by making the impossible possible; traveling to the furthest reaches of space, other dimensions and parallel worlds
  • looking forward — extrapolating on the problems of today and following them through to their ultimate ends

A writer’s trick…

I once heard a writer say in an interview that he always goes to a coffeeshop to write. This is because at home there are too many distractions. There are chores to be done, books to be read, snacks to be eaten and so on. But at the coffeeshop, while there are distractions, they aren’t intended for him. If he isn’t there to write, he has no reason to be there. So he might as well write. It sounds like a good trick, one I should try. All writers seem to have the problem of how to force themselves to sit down and just write.

How to have a conversation with a book…

Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick.

Image via Wikipedia

In school as an English major, I learned how to interpret symbolism in literature. Take Moby Dick, for instance. My professor made a point, which I still remember, of how Ahab’s hat symbolized his manhood, which the whale stole from him. He likened that to the scene in Thelma and Louise when the girls blow up the trucker’s shiny big rig full of oil (like a whale, ha ha) and then steal his hat before driving away.

Finding symbols, making connections, trying to guess what the author wants you to know — this is what English class is all about. In studying literature, we are meant to be doing something “important,” which is why we spend so much time discussing what the writer intended and what the text really means. We are taught there is a right way and a wrong way to read literature, that we either get it or we don’t. No wonder so many people get turned off of reading.

In creative writing classes, however, I learned what I already had guessed –writers mostly wing it. They write from the gut, or the subconscious, if you prefer. They don’t think in symbols any more than I, walking through a mall, would see a pair of red shoes in a store window and think, “Ah, there’s a symbol of my lost youth, if I ever did see one.”

Today I’ve come to think of reading a book as having a conversation with the writer. It’s a conversation where both parties are separated by time and space, and the writer will probably never hear my side of it, but it’s a conversation nonetheless. The writer brings a lot to our conversation, of course — characters, setting, plot, theme — but as the reader, I bring a great deal as well. My life experiences, my beliefs and values, my current preoccupations, even what happened to me that morning or what I read in the news last night — all affect how I respond to and interpret what I read.

The writer has put something on the page, some words. Some time later, I read them. And together we decide what those words mean for us, in that moment when they are read. If I read those same words twenty years later, they may mean something entirely different, and then the writer and I will have a different conversation, even though the words themselves haven’t changed.

All those English classes spent trying to figure out what the author meant by such-and-such an image were probably pretty useless. The point is not to become preoccupied with what the words are supposed to mean, or try to guess the right interpretation. Any writer who’s overly concerned that his readers understand his precise meaning at all times is probably not a lot of fun to read, anyway. I think what’s more important is the meaning that is created between the reader and the writer when the book is read. A novel is not a lecture. It’s a conversation. Or at least that’s what it should be.

Write that novel or not, but treat readers right

So, this article over on Salon.com, prompted some thoughts: Better yet, DONT write that novel. The rant is a response to the annual write-a-thon, National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWrMo, as it’s known around the Interwebs, encourages writers and would-be writers to bang out a first draft in a month in an effort to just get it written.

I do take issue with Laura Miller’s tone in the Salon article. Let me paraphrase: “Hey, amateur writer, anything you produce during NaNoWrMo is going to be dreck, so why even bother?” Here’s why. Every person should feel free and encouraged to express themselves creatively in whatever medium works best for them, whether that’s writing, art, music, crocheting, cooking, ice sculpture, I don’t care what. It’s good for the soul, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re awful or not. Creative expression is something we all need to do more of, and I think it’s patronizing that Laura Miller feels like she has to tell NaNoWrMo participants not to bother their little heads with trying to write a novel.

But she doesn’t want to see that dreck foisted on the world, and I have to agree with that. Still, that’s why we have literary agents and publishers, isn’t it? They’re supposed to be our editorial gatekeepers. That’s why it’s so damn hard to get published. There’s a lot of competition, most of it is awful, and only the best of the best probably eke their way through. The flip side of that is that if you’re a choosy reader, you have a good chance of finding a more-than-decent novel to read on each trip to the bookstore.

Miller also makes an impassioned case for nurturing readers. As a reader myself, I’m on board. But I think the fault lies not with the legions of amateur writers out there, but with the publishers, who I think have gotten sloppy in recent years. It’s not that they’re publishing bad books; on the contrary, I’ve been reading a lot of great new books. But even hardbound literary fiction seems to be riddled with typos and other careless mistakes, which really distract a careful reader from the pleasure of reading. I don’t consider this the writer’s fault, although a writer who can’t grasp the basics of grammar and spelling probably shouldn’t make it far as a professional. Instead, I suspect that publishers are skimping on that lowly, often freelance, most definitely underpaid necessity: the copyeditor. And any publisher who can’t be bothered to pay someone a few bucks an hour to copyedit their books shouldn’t be in the business, in my opinion.

I’m not even going to get into the whole issue of e-books and gouging readers while not even letting them truly own the digital books they publish. I’ll only purchase an e-reader when there are no paper books left to read. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that any book I shell out my hard-earned money for be free of errors. These are professional editors, after all.

But amateur writers, please keep writing your hearts out. I wrote a novel once that’s completely unpublishable, but at least I wrote a novel. I get it. It’s about the feeling of accomplishing a goal, of creating something. It’s not about making Laura Miller read another bad book.

Better yet, don’t write that novel (Salon)
National Novel Writing Month

Why are stories so important?

Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living. — On Stories, Richard Kearney

To be a person is to have a story to tell. — Isak Dinesen

Once the necessities for survival are taken care of, we humans spend more of our free time immersed in story than doing anything else. Stories about things that aren’t true and people that don’t exist, for the most part. Think about it. We watch movies and television; play video games; read books, comics and cartoons; listen to songs; look at art; see performances of plays, dance and operas; and tell each other stories around the dinner table or the campfire. And we have always done this, since we learned to communicate with one another and figured out how to scratch drawings on a cave wall.

Stories are such a huge part of our lives that we must be hard-wired not only to love them, but to absolutely need them. One of the most meaningful and enjoyable aspects of my life is the time I spend with stories, primarily in novel form, reading about events and people that someone else has simply made up. And I can’t really imagine a life worth living without them.

But why are stories so important to us? I don’t think there is any one reason. It seems to me that stories are so necessary because they serve so many critical functions that enable us to survive and thrive as humans, all at once.

First of all, what is a story exactly? It’s as simple as the anecdote you tell your spouse at dinner about the jerk at work and what he did, or the lurid events relayed on the local news. There’s a reason we refer to both of these as “stories.” A story is essentially a series of events on a particular subject related by a person to an audience.

The first function of stories, I think, is to escape the humdrum, routine nature of life. Life, we hope, is long, and often quite a lot of time passes between significant events happening. During that time, we do the dishes, brush our teeth, go to work — all of which is not that interesting. A story collapses these events, leaving out the boring bits. Through story, we can pretend to be somebody else or go somewhere else, without taking on the risks or expense ourselves. We can even do the impossible, like travel through time or explore the universe. Kids play pretend from a very young age, and through various kinds of stories, we never really stop.

This escape factor makes stories highly entertaining. They pass the time. They’re fun. The fun factor enables stories to fulfill their other functions. One of the most basic functions of the story is to teach. We use stories to quickly and easily learn facts; research shows that we retain facts more readily if they are related in narrative form. But stories also teach us how to be.

Human cultures have always reinforced societal norms via storytelling. Through stories we communicate to our children (and to outsiders) how to act toward one another, what we value and what is possible. Stories preserve our own history and culture, passing it along in a form that’s easy to remember to the next generation.

We use stories not only to learn but also to speculative, to pose questions and then find solutions. What would happen if we made contact with an alien race? Stories help us explore all the possibilities. What would be the consequences of cheating on your spouse? Stories help us understand that hypothetical situation as well. When we tell stories about ourselves, we are imagining all our possible futures and, we hope, helping ourselves choose the best ones.

Beyond just speculation about what might happen, we use stories to answer the great unanswerable questions. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? What does it mean to be human? Stories bring order and meaning to the chaos and randomness of life. A story always has a beginning, middle and end, which is very satisfying to us, since we don’t know how our own personal story will end. And our lives are really a search for our own story, aren’t they?

Finally, stories connect us to one another. Even though we know they are fiction, stories elicit powerful emotional responses in us. While we are immersed in a story, we can see the world through someone else’s eyes. We can know what it’s like to be a poor boy in Delhi or a slave girl in 1700s Virginia or the Queen of England. Sharing our subjective experiences through stories enable us to connect and empathize with one another. By sharing through stories, we are better able to live together.

Because stories can elicit powerful emotional responses, they are powerful tools. They can be used to persuade people and change societies, and they have — with good and bad results. That’s why criticism of stories is essential as well. Our endless discussion of stories — on the Internet, around the water cooler, in other stories — is really an intrinsic part of the storytelling process, as essential as the stories themselves. We should always distrust those who try to suppress our stories — any of them — or our discussion of those stories.

What would happen if we encountered an alien race that did not tell stories, that didn’t even understand what stories were? Would we be able to communicate with them, or relate to them? Hmm, perhaps someone should write a story about that (if they haven’t already).

For more:
The Pleasures of Imagination (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
The Importance of Story (Heroes Not Zombies)

Thoughts on publishing & the digital age…

I have been following all of the conversations about the future of publishing, particularly with regard to e-books, going on over the past few months with interest. I thought I’d share some of the more interesting conversations I’ve found, as well as some of my still-nascent thoughts on the whole kerfuffle.

I have a bit of an inside view of publishing — 10 years out of date, but it’s not an industry that changes very quickly — and it’s not a positive one. I love books and writers, but publishing, as it exists today, seems like a necessary evil. It is too big, too cumbersome, too costly and too reluctant to change. Their business practices, which didn’t make any sense years ago, seem woefully out of date, wasteful and expensive today. The industry is ready for upstarts with new ideas to come in and turn things upside down.

When the world is changing around you, you either adapt or die. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know someone will come up with it. And that’s likely who we’ll be buying books from in the future.

Please to read more on this: