Beyond genres, writing as a way to live

I earned twelve dollars and fifty cents this week for explicating Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” when I substituted in a high school colleague’s literature class for 25 minutes. I made my money by discussing the ornate crassness of lines such as “worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity.” I wondered aloud to the students why anyone would attempt to argue, to logically reason, someone into bed — has such a thing ever worked?

The next morning, the poem came back to mind, and I wondered if perhaps Marvell had been playing a joke — if the whole poem were some clever attempt to state in high style what is essentially a pick-up line.

Lately I’ve been wondering if all writings, maybe even all artworks, that are made intentionally for unknown others to read (as opposed, say, to writings done in a journal or letters written to a particular friend) are, in some sense, made to impress others, to show off, to build the writer’s reputation.

An assertion: All writings that are created in order to be published are written self-consciously; that is, these texts are written with the author’s own reputation in mind. Even as I write this blog post, I’m aware that it will give readers a sense of who I am as a writer, how competent, how interesting I am.  (Yes, I suppose that I sometimes write poems without intending to publish them, and if they turn out well, then I’ll publish — but before I decide to publish, I think about how the poem will make me look — pedantic? loony? genius?) So writers are always “on” in their published works in the way that actors or politicians or other professionals are “on” whenever they’re in public.

But being aware of, and wanting to build and protect, our reputations can make it hard to be honest, hard to be our most-authentic selves. When writers only publish their final drafts, they seem unapproachably perfect to novice writers. Perhaps writers want to seem perfectly brilliant and not like the flawed and/or boringly normal people we are. Certainly, not every thought that comes into my mind is worth telling others. (I’ve had to block certain Facebook friends who commit this artistic and anti-social sin.) But when we can let go of our self-control as writers and be spontaneous, we may also write things that are beautiful and that are wiser than we normally are.

I’m reminded of a st0ry Natalie Goldberg told in one of her books (I’m not sure which, perhaps “Wild Mind”) about giving a public reading of a text that she had written just a few hours earlier, a text that was basically a first draft, a freewrite.

Now, I don’t mean to say that all writings should be first drafts, either. This is a concept I struggle with, though. If I write for publication only things I already know, I risk lecturing others/being pedantic, or just as bad, being merely clever in an attempt to entertain. As amusing as The Onion is (and this story gets a little too close to my truth), it also strikes me as the mental-nourishment equivalent of eating frosting. And while the idea of writing Onion stories seems fun at first, it later comes to seem like some level of hell where everything one writes must be snarky. (My own Onion story suggestion: “Onion writer would just honestly like to be taken seriously.”)

Of course, I’ve set up yet another distinction — writing for oneself vs. writing for others — and most distinctions are arbitrary, temporary — are tools for thinking, left behind when no longer needed.

And so I write. I don’t want to write to meet a publishing purpose, so many of which seem needlessly restrictive. It may help marketers to establish genres and categories of art, and it may even help some readers to orient themselves, but dividing up the magazine rack by topics, and the bookshelves by genre, suggests limits on what counts as “real writing” that I accepted for many years.

I thought that what I wrote was valuable only as long as others would find it interesting — that is, I thought I had to carve out of my writings only those short bits that would fit into established, marketable categories. It has taken many years for me to see the arbitrariness of these things, and to understand that an artist is free to (and maybe ought to) challenge the common ideas of categories, of purposes, of value. Realizing that the standards against which so many things are judged are also arbitrary helps in that when we are creating something new, there can be no standard against which to judge a new thing, so there’s no wrong way to do it. Standards, forms, and genres melt as the confections that they are when exposed to the cleansing rain of creativity — to use an overwrought image, but eh, why not? Part of the fun of writing is the chance to use language fancifully sometimes.

I’m also aware that this is the second reference in this blog post to a sugary substance — this was not intended, but when these images (of the frosting, the confection) came to mind, I went with them. Perhaps this reveals something about my mind — but maybe all writing that is not intentionally-and-arbitrarily limited does reveal the writer’s mind.

But it takes a mind to tell stories — things and events do not tell their own stories. Every written thing is the product of someone’s mind, someone’s consciousness, someone’s mental voice (however one wishes to conceive of this). I had an experience of seeing students moving down a hallway yesterday, and my interpretation of their walk was that it was more of a shamble, almost as if they were cattle being herded ahead of the cowherd-teacher driving them. Of course, all of what I’ve just described was a mental phenomenon — I’m not lying, but I’m telling a story that exists only because I’m telling it. Nothing in the world outside my mind compared these students to cattle. But perhaps my description communicates to readers and perhaps interests and/or amuses them — and the reader can’t share my experience, but only my words.

And my words, too, must be interpreted by readers before they’ve communicated anything — and I hope my words and ideas could benefit others. But I know that I write to benefit myself. I write because thinking and writing are how my mind operates in my life. Some people craft furniture, some dance, and some of us write. Some of us see students walking like cattle and feel a need to say that, and then we are amused by the description alone.

Whether or not anything I write ever becomes widely known doesn’t really matter to me. But I write what I want to write, when I want to write it, and somehow this satisfies my mind’s need.

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