Friday, September 16, 2005

What are you writing for?

This morning I came across an interesting post over at Ray Rhamey's Flogging the Quill. I don't know whether Ray saw my Wednesday post, but his appears to be an answer to it; especially when he says:
So you just write, right? Follow your instincts. You're an artist, after all.

I don't think so.

Ray's a smart guy and you all should be reading his excellent blog, but I'm sticking by what I wrote. One need only practice an art to call herself an artist. There's no requirement for her to produce "good" work. Don't we all know people who continue to paint with oils and watercolors even though they believe they'll never sell any of their work? Why is it not okay for writers to satisfy their creative urges without regard to whether the world sees their contribution as important? Why do we believe that writing must always be justified by publication?

I don't doubt that Ray sees quite a lot of awful writing. Listen to his frustration:
Why, I ask myself again and again, do these dedicated, hard-working people fail to learn what they desperately need to know about the craft of storytelling before they spend all those hours writing?

If a writer's primary goal is publication (and there's certainly nothing wrong with that), then zeroing in on craft makes perfect sense. But if a writer's main aim is to express herself in a creative way, then cramming a lot of "writing rules" down her throat can suck the joy right out of her writing process. And then she'll give up.

Sure, we all want to be published. But if you knew you'd never be published, would you keep writing? Don't worry--there's no wrong answer to that question. But if your answer is that you'd keep writing, then it's you I'm hoping to encourage when I say don't get bogged down in studying the rules. They will not ensure publication. In fact, if you allow them to leech the joy from your writing, I believe you'll find the rules will effectively prevent publication.

My advice, like Ray's, is colored by my own beliefs and experiences. I write for the fun of it. Publication has always been a secondary goal. So when I advise people to "just write", I'm encouraging them to revel in the process. If a writer loves writing, surely she's more apt to stick with it. If she loves what she's doing, she'll be eager--not feel constrained--to assimilate knowledge of the craft, which will both increase her joy and improve her writing, nudging her closer to publication.

To approach writing with a strong focus on mechanics requires a tremendous amount of intelligence and discipline. After months of reading Ray's blog, I believe he has both. But I don't. And that's why I'm going to party on, rasing my glass every few minutes to shout, "No rules! Just write!"


Bonnie Calhoun said...

Knock, Knock....Plant police...while your raising that glass, pick up another one with a little water in it...Augh, augh...not that one...a Water glass and give orchid baby a little smigen of a drink. If she does the backstroke, it was too much.

Anonymous said...

I think I may disagree with Brenda, and that's probably because I see writing as something that 1. can be a mode of expression, such as a journal or poetry not intended for publication and 2. writing as a hobby to get creative juices going and 3. writing as an art or as a profession.

Writing as a profession or art to me is a whole different horse than writing just for fun or private personal expression. When I use the word "writer", I'm thinking of someone for whom writing is either a conscious attempt at art within a context that has a whole history, or of a committed attempt at earning a living with the creative use of words. Both require that one learn a specialized set of skills (ie craft).

If I write just for fun, just for me, and don't care if it's sloppy grammar or readable or structured in any way, then I'm a person who likes to write, but I'm not a writer. A writer cares that what they write be more than merely spewing words out to get feelings or ideas across. The writer as artists cares about freshness, about engaging a unique voice, about the architecture of a work and the beauty and power.

If I study prose and drama and poetry and essays, on my own or formally or in any way that is an actual attempt to learn and grow in writing; and if I consciously work at improving my narrative flow; if I study the mechanics of plot and developing characters; if I read critical analyses to understand why this works for this master writer and that works for that master artist, and what, maybe it even means to be a master writer; if I do my work consciously with the goal of entering the established writing community, of being published and making money; and if I set an objective to keep improving and selling and being a voice among voices...then I'm a writer, artist or professional.

Just cause someone likes to apply prettily colored paint to a surface doesn't make them an artist, IMO. And just cause someone whittles a duck outta wood every week, that doesn't make them a sculptor.

Picasso and Michelangelo, born to be what they were, nevertheless had to study how to use brushes and chisels and learn from established professionals. They may have doodled and dabbed from infancy, but they still learned and practiced and worked at it with zeal and gusto and sweat.

And yes, just my opinion. :)

Which doesn't conflict with Brenda's advice to enjoy writing and just write. :)


David Bridger said...

I think if someone dabs pretty coloured paint onto a surface, intending it to be a work of art, then it is art and the dabbler is an artist.

Same goes for scribbling words: if the intention is to write, then the scribbler is a writer.

Whether or not the product is good is a different question, and that's where - for some artists and writers - craft comes into the picture.

Some gloriously gifted people can communicate brilliantly, using their natural talent only, without concerning themselves with rules and stuff. I sit at their feet and listen to their words with wonder and admiration.

Others really need to use craft. I know - I'm one of them.

I write because I want to. Need to. Have to! The ability to communicate is a gift from God, and I use mine within the medium of the written word. He gives me the talent, and the free will to do with it what I wish.

What I wish is to be a good and faithful servant, so I try to use this talent to its best effect. Whether I'm writing something for publication, or a letter to a friend, or a memoir that no-one else will ever see, I always want to do the best job I can do. I can't help it. I simply want to be the best I can be.

So I study craft, and I apply what I learn to the best of my ability.

But that's just me and that's just how I have to do it. My way isn't The Way. There are probably as many ways as there are writers.

That's why reading is a delicious pastime, too.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Mr. Bridger, says
about reading is a delicious pasttime,[to me] better then ice cream ;-D

Sela Carsen said...

I think Mir made some good arguments about the segmentation of writers and their various purposes. There are plenty of people who enjoy writing. The cold fact is that the majority of them are, objectively and subjectively, not very good at it.

But never in a million years would I, or most anyone, suggest that people stop writing just because they're not good at it, though. It may serve some personal purpose.

However, between Mir's 2 and 3 is a vast sea navigable only by learned skill (which takes great determination) AND raw talent. One is the boat, one is the sail and without both, you can't get all the way across.

I just blogged about this myself, although in a somewhat more profane manner than some may be comfortable with. Caveat lector if you follow my link.

Anonymous said...

I will wholeheartedly agree that reading is much yummier than ice cream--even if that ice cream has hot fudge and whipped cream on top, which is a heckuva a lot of concentrated yumminess. I am currently experiencing the yummy Mr. Gaiman's NEVERWHERE... :D

Anonymous said...

The hot Fudge maybe but NO whipped cream, on the ice cream!
I'm reading The Rhythm of Life by Matthew Kelly, and it is a very good book! hey Brenda where are you !

Julana said...

I'm with Bonnie. Check the orchid.

Brenda Coulter said...

Sheesh. You people. The orchid is fine. So far. (It usually takes me at least a month to kill a plant.)

pacatrue said...

Hmmm... Writing better than ice cream. OK, yeah, I feel a lot better when I'm done writing than reading ice cream. OK, and I guess that when the writing is going really well, I can't tear myself away. But mmm ice cream with hot fudge and yummy peanuts and maybe some caramel too.

This is a tough call.