The social media venture called medium.com has two ends — one end is paid professional but pretending not to be, and the other end is wannabes who are not writers and not paid. What the platform amounts to is a kind of grinding stone that entices people into producing content. The covert point is not to make them writers. The point is for the site owners to have grist for their mill — timely prompts for their own writing or possibly commissions for their own friends. What happens to the writing and the writers is entirely beside the point. It’s just stuff to fill the publication: reader bait. Readers equal advertising equals income. The useful thing about people who can’t write is they that are always reading in an attempt to figure out why.
Most of the stuff published is arguing about what good writing might be and since writing is about as definable as porn, the argument never ends. One person feels that only a cry from the heart counts, the next one values only steely conformity to a formula. The third is so incoherent no one knows what it’s supposed to be. Mostly all this stuff reveals that there are a lot of people out there who are seduced by the “idea” of writing, who fall for the juju of religious revelation, Gutenberg, and a thousand scribbling wretches in garrets who became famous after death. The flip end of this — the repelling pole — is parents. An abiding and terrifying prospect is the gray conformity of the Fifties, mediocrity, the middle class. One of the appeals of writing is that it represents rebellion, even as it tries to conform to standards of previous writing by yesterday’s rebels.
Go to http://www.storygrid.com/got-live-if-you-want-it/ where a couple of guys dialogue over writing, a specific manuscript. The story doesn’t interest me, but I am sometimes interested in the dialogue about it. It goes to a meta-level that’s pretty useful. Here are some quotes from Pressfield:
“. . . You constantly are at the edge of what you know and what that means . . ., it’s constantly scary and you’re constantly trying things you don’t know how to do. When you’re trying things that you don’t know how to do, you fail.
“So you constantly are in a place where you’re doing something that you are going to fail at. . .
“The second thing [is] deliberate practice, and this is where so many writers don’t have this.”
“If you’re feeling good all the time about your creativity, you’re doing it wrong. You’re . . . not pushing yourself into unknown territory, you’re doing something that’s safe, you’re not getting true feedback on things and so you need to put yourself in a position where that you can get that bad feedback. Because that’s the only way we can learn.”
Many people who think they are writing from deep within their soul are merely doing self-talk, that chatter in one’s head that is meant to reassure but often echoes old critics from the past. As in Method acting, it’s important to be able to access moments from the past in order to draw on them for details and also to grasp intense moments of emotion. But then the artist leaves the reality and uses that information, possibly reconfigured in quite a different way. Presumably, one is a more secure and informed person that readers will be delighted to learn from.
Of course, part of the delight will be about the skill of the sentence, the jolt of vocabulary, the seduction by images. One editor said she only wanted to acquire “beautiful” writing but that’s childish greeting-card level aesthetics. Candy-minded. It will rot your morals. How many haiku moments can a reader absorb in the pursuit of plot and meaning?
Obversely, recitations of suffering — esp. minor passive misery — can lose us all in despair. Surgical analysis, microscopic dissection, and the strong medicine of social reform are called for. Uproar, outrage, are often vital. But terrible shocking language is an antibiotic that is losing its power out of overuse. When little kids walk by trailing Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, the epithets have been diluted beyond usefulness.
Nevertheless, scientific and anatomical metaphors hold their power. Consult Lakoff and his friends for an array of comparisons and reminders that come from close observation and causal relationships noted in those little journals writer-wannabes use in coffee houses. I shouldn’t make fun. It worked for Thoreau. It’s more natural history than data-grid, but I like that.
Something inevitable but not always comfortable governs writing, so that most readers can deduce the outline of who the writer really is, even what sort of child is down at the center, despite all attempts as assuming a role, a disguise for the arsonist, the assassin, the cannibal we all are in the right circumstances. Writing cannot help being self-revelation.
No matter how clever a fabulist a writer may be, to turn away from the shifting reality of other people on many levels is to ignore the powerful shaping of time and place. Observers have noted that some writers can present the world they know best from an outpost where distance gives them a bit of clarity, like writing about America from England. Maybe even a yearning for situations that were toxic and dismaying at the time, because toxins can cause extravagant drug visions and dismay can be the motor of change. Well, motive anyway.
Sometimes the narrator steals the story, lining out a point of view that engages the reader even if the purported speaker is an animal or a slow thinker or unreliable. We’re always curious about other people we don’t really know: the wicked, the traumatized, the addicted, the ones whose brains work differently than ours. Everyone is fascinated by Einstein’s brain, to the point of thin-slicing it as though it were deli-meat, as though its dead molecules would show how they interacted in life.
The other end of that phenomenon is people who think they already know how things work and refuse to consider any other point of view, becoming so vehement that they will taboo, stigmatize, and even criminalize to the extreme of capital punishment whatever doesn’t conform to their ideas. This is as true of people outside of any culture as those who kowtow to the neighbors. Writing that can reach those people is at the level of religious conversion. It is what keeps the human world alive and growing.