Saturday, August 30, 2014


There’s no such thing as writing.  All those people called “writers” you see in movies, on stage, in magazines, and all the writing about writers is a hoax.  All the prestige and awards and praise and respect and the money that rolls in -- it’s all a hoax.  When you see the “writer” portrayed as sensitive, exceptional, but an outsider; and then you see him or her pounding on a typewriter or scritching away with a pen; and then you see a big pile of crumpled up rough drafts; then something mysterious happens, the person is wreathed in light and words roll out onto paper.  Some angel steps out and dumps money on a table -- VOILA!   The writer is a young god or goddess.  Better than being a movie star because you don’t have to dress up.  It’s a myth.

Lucy Maude Montgomery pr photo

No one tells you that Lucy Maude Montgomery, who wrote the wonderful and inspirational “Anne of Green Gables”, committed suicide after years of drudgery repeating and repeating the same formula about “Anne” to please her publisher so she could pay bills -- the same as Louisa May Alcott.   My mother said, "Why can't you marry a nice Presbyterian minister and then everything would be all right."  Lucy Maude (same name as my mother) needed money because her nice Presbyterian minister husband was paralyzed with depression.  Louisa May's family was Unitarian, like me, but she was on the same treadmill.  No one points out all the miserable depressed men who went right on being miserable and depressed all their lives, thinking they could self-cure with writing.  It's fantasy. 

France loved Jim Welch.

Recently I’ve had occasion to talk to a young Blackfeet-enrolled writer who attended a famous writer’s workshop.  They didn’t teach him much -- specifically, not the courage it takes to be a writer, the risk, the danger, the level of work that is necessary.  The likelihood that someone will make you into a cash cow and not let you write what you want to write -- even if you’re Jimmie Welch.  Readers want brand consistency.

So what the heck IS writing?  It’s a metaphor.

A complexity of steps and motives are necessary and they are not different from the multitude of small functions and abilities that I frame out as the steps of worship -- which is really just focused intensity of being human.  No math necessary.  No dissection.  No posing.  You don’t even need a computer.  But there will be consequences, unpredictable.  Your unconscious may come out, but not because you want it to.  They call it "acting out."

Writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned.  It might not be saleable or even read by anyone.  A major part of it can be mastered without real public accomplishment happening.  No closure, no turning point, no epiphany or revelation.  No real explanation.  Some of it is found after the writer’s death and other people get rich from it.  Then there are the people who make a living by explaining you even though they never knew you and have no clue about your real, private, secret, dreaming life.

But there’s where it starts, where the sensory world and what it requires for survival, gets through the skin into the body and forms patterns in the mind.  If part of that is learning to read and if the person reads and reads and reads, they will have created a thick network of neurons in the brain that specializes in print, grammar, sequences of story, bits of dialogue, and a lot of other elements.  The thing is -- it’s all unconscious.  You don’t know it’s happening, it’s not on purpose, no one makes you do it, it just happens in there.  

Except for a lot of people, it doesn’t.  The neurons shrug and turn away.  But if their attention is caught by color, shape, line, contrast -- other visual elements that have nothing to do with writing but everything to do with seeing, they might paint.  Or it might be movement -- dance, athletic competitions.  It’s not a matter of choice.  It's choosing to DO it even before you can.  What was that meme going around about how many hours of practice it takes to master something?  Hundreds and hundreds.  It’s all unconscious.  

"Teaching writing" is then a matter of providing the opportunity to learn -- the space, the safety, the materials, the exposure, the time.  Bring your own motive.  Writing is the most minimalist art in one sense -- all you need is a surface and something to mark on it.  You could do it in solitary confinement, orally, by memorizing.  Since the material is life, it is everywhere, but like the water in which the fish swims, the writer has to realize it’s there.

What a person actually does with words might stay spoken instead of marked down.  It’s nice if people will respond.  Some of them might know where to find things you’ll like.  No one CAN tell you what to like, but you can figure it out.  There are things that will keep you from writing:  starvation (not just being hungry), sickness, no sleep, drugs, people mocking and sneering, worry, fear, fear, fear.  Exploitation.  Madness can be an advantage.

So you have stored up sense memories about a place and time.  You feel the patterns of it, you can see the dancing mosaic going on.  You begin to write everything down.  Confusion gets in the way.  Now comes some stuff you can learn.  A good teacher can chop it up so as to explain grammar, usage, sentence structure, stuff like antecedents, metaphor strategy.  Actually, you probably already know it, but it’s unconscious so the problem is figuring out what you already know and learning to manage it: your own internal life.  Learn without self-accusation because you're hitting the limits.  It's a good and necessary thing.

Once upon a time there were people who cruised the country, looking for writing that was marketable.  That’s as gone as writing books on clay tablets with a little stylus.  Those scouts disappeared along with grandma’s apple pie and the nuclear family.  You’re on your own now.  I have no advice.  Anyone who says they do is a con artist.  There is no publishing in the sense we once knew it.  Neither are there bonanzas of money.  There are a LOT of jobs for people willing to write in harness, producing unattributed print that explains, persuades, argues, advises and so on.  You can make a living that way.  (Wikipedia is a scam, getting you to write entries for free.)  Teaching is writing in harness.

Teaching can destroy your ability to write.  It can even destroy your ability to read.  Nothing is more destructive that the contemporary school lockstep through grades and certificates.  Public or private, day-care to post doc.  Writing now is a great numbing glacier of trivia.  It can destroy your soul.

Oh, come on.  That’s over-dramatic.  But that’s the pattern I see.  So, okay, how does one endure the Great Wall of Winter?  Well, there’s this ingenious thing called the Internet.  A blog is as good as a book and will probably be read by a lot more people.  You can illustrate it.  You can’t confine it.  Every published book of mine has soon showed up as a pirated PDF on the Internet, including the book published by the University of Calgary Press.  Copyright is a creature of nations, which are as much threatened and limited as publishing.  Literarily, we’re not far away from “Game of Thrones” except that the Thrones are not nations -- they’re affinity groups and transnational corporations.

In spite of all that, sometimes a hand reaches out to take yours in the dark, sometimes an arrow pierces your heart, sometimes you look up and see eyes as blue as those of newborn kittens.  Then you think,  “How did they do that?  I want to do that.”  So figure it out.  And do it.  Let it be its own satisfaction. 

The last step in this 5-step thing I have going is the factor of sharing with others, the empathy, the reaction, the consequences.  Uncontrollable.  You take your chances.  All this is drastic, but it’s metaphorical.  Hyperbole: exaggeration for effect.  Except I’m telling you the truth and the bottom line is always survival.  Do what you have to.  Smash all mirrors.  Buy more ink or toner.

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