Tag Archives: why write

I write for myself (mostly)

In an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”, Tim Kreider explains his frustration with being asked to do artwork for free:

So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.

I also like this point:

The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads. Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again.

I don’t write to make a profit (though I also don’t write to help others make a profit, excepting whatever WordPress might make from the wonderfully few ads on this blog). I write because I want and need to write. I write journals each morning to clear from my mind the recent memories and ideas and reactions that accumulate there, and I write at this blog out of a need to tell, to share, to teach, to entertain. I struggled for a few years with feeling that I ought to be sharing the ideas that I came up with in my journal writing, and then I realized that the journals need to be kept secret. I’ve gotta have a private place where I can write without the fear of what a reader might think of me.

But I also want to share some writing, and so, two years ago, I started this blog and have since been figuring out what of my writings I want to share with others. That’s an ongoing question–I don’t want to repeat myself, and I want to test conceptual boundaries.

But I don’t always make my blog posts easy to read, and while I appreciate readers who appreciate (some of) what I’m trying to do, I don’t necessarily need readers. My writings might at times be described as “self-indulgent,” but this hardly feels like a criticism, since, yeah, it is exactly my self that I am indulging by doing all of my writing. As a younger writer, I wondered what parts of my writing I had that would interest other people; now I’m more interested in writing whatever interests me, and if that interests others, cool, but if not, eh.

In the transition phase between these two positions, I recall reading Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and thinking that King was lucky in that, somehow, what he wanted to write was also something that would sell. Maybe my perception isn’t what King would say; maybe he intended to write commercial works, and at any rate, his memoir clearly points out that his life was not without stress even once he began publishing.

But for me, the best things in my life — my relationships, my jobs, my abilities, and even my ideas — have come to me without me trying to force them. When I’ve tried to force things in my life, things haven’t gone so well. So now, too, I’m letting my writing come out and see what arrives.

And lately I’m understanding my writings as the written, shared interpretations of my experience, of my mind’s voice chatting. The texts I write can be seen as entities separate from my mind, but I’m looking at the connection between the two. I’m taking the perspective that my writings are how I react to and explain the experiences I have subjectively, and which can’t be shared directly with others. (I feel like there may be more to post on this at a later time.)

I know that some people do want to get paid for what they write, and I know that that’s a different purpose for writing than the one I’ve just described. It took me years to learn about myself that I would not be satisfied with writing only or mainly for commercial reasons. I make my money as a teacher, which itself is a satisfying, rewarding profession (and also gives me things to write about), and which allows me the freedom to write whatever I want. This freedom is more important to me than making money from my writing is.

So, perhaps Kreider is correct when he writes that “content” is devalued at this historical moment. (By the way, no one is a “slave,” to use Kreider’s term, if one has the choice not to do work.) But to see one’s art merely as for sale also seems a limited way to think of what art does for us.

UPDATE/SUMMARY (now that I’ve written all this, my point becomes clear to me): Writing for other people, like doing any work for them, means that one gives other what the others want. I want to write what I want, what I’m interested in, and for that freedom, I don’t need to be paid. Perhaps some writers do only what they themselves want to do, and some readers respond to that, but as a writer, I’m gonna do what I want to do whether others care or not — I see Emily Dickenson’s life of not-publishing as a legitimate life for a writer.

We write for others like ourselves

I don’t know why I share the things I think.

I write a lot of my thoughts privately, in journals and notes, and I share most of these things seldom, with maybe only close friends and family members.

But then I also post some of these thoughts online. I also sometimes email ideas or even jokes to my co-workers, many of whom won’t be interested in the ideas or may not get the jokes.

Probably, most of what I say is of interest only to people whose minds think like mine does, and then only a subset of those people will be interested in what I say at the time they encounter what I say.

Communication is hard.

The textbooks say there are three main purposes to nonfiction communication: to entertain, to persuade, or to inform. These are bullshit, of course, for all but the most formal communications; I usually only think “this interests me, and may interest others” before I say or write something to others, and this “interest” might be some combination of all three purposes, or may be beyond those three. I’m not even sure it matters why I say a thing — I may not even be aware of why I express a thing before I say or write it. (After all, we don’t even have to mean all that we say. Or, as happens to me during a free-write, I may say something before I know if I mean it or not.)

And once I’ve said a thing, I don’t know that it matters to me whether others find what I’ve said interesting or not. Sure, it’s fun to make others laugh, or to receive a “that’s interesting” response, but it’s not like I’ll stop sharing things online even when I get very little response.

I don’t, and can’t, know how others really feel about my sayings or writings. Very often, when we’re around others, they don’t want to receive my “sayings” or “writings” at all — I’m learning that some ideas and messages fail to be interesting when I ask a person to read them in front of me. We need silence, separateness, for these things. We need to encounter certain messages when their authors aren’t around.

And then, as readers, how are they to respond? They may respond with a positive comment, or a critical one, or no response at all. Some of the things I’ve read that have had the most influence on my thinking are things that settled in over time, that resonated and stayed with me for months. Eventually I may write a letter to that author, saying, well, what? That “your work has been influential to me”? That’s nice, but … but what if what authors really want is my money rather than my praise?

This may be why promoting a piece of writing, or maybe promoting any artwork, seems kinda silly. (Here’s an example of someone trying to promote Bruce Springsteen, which seems difficult. How can you argue someone into sharing your taste?) An author or marketer can promise that a book is a thrilling read, or an incredible story, or is thought-provoking — but the reaction to an artwork is ever and always particular to the reader. Some readers may feel thrilled or provoked, while others are not. It’s to this first group I write, I guess, and yet, I may be writing to those who are similar to me in outlook, in thinking habits. I want to write to others who aren’t like me (maybe so they will better understand me?), and I want to read the writings of those who aren’t like me, so that I may understand a different perspective, and yet, if the writer and reader are too different, there may not be the basis for communication. I tend not to like reading self-help or positive-thinking books (as one of my brothers does), and that’s just not something I’m gonna connect with. It feels too different (it doesn’t share my philosophical values and/or assumptions) and I’m not gonna learn from it.

And I find myself feeling this way, at times, around some of my small-town neighbors, who are much more engaged by football, hunting, and Polaris jackets than I am. Of course, it’s not that I couldn’t do these things myself, but from an early age, I’ve sorta seen (whether from an emotional need or an intellectual disconnect, or both, or a nature-and-nurture combination) myself as different from those I grew up with, and so I have avoided small-town culture (such as it is) on principle.

So I tend to make friends with others who avoid small-town culture, many of whom have left the small towns (thus I’m a little like Gonzo the Great in the first Muppet movie, who says he’s gonna try to become a big film star but not in Hollywood. Also, I’m someone who references both Unte magazine and Gonzo the Great — not that that makes me a great person, but that these references come to my mind naturally, it’s not always easy to communicate with others who don’t catch these references, don’t share at least some of my patterns of mind). This makes me aware that most of my neighbors don’t give a crap about my interests — as Annie Dillard says, writing is beyond the pale — and it makes me wonder whether most writers felt understood outside of a small group of other writers.

Watching a PBS documentary about James Baldwin the other day, I realized that most of the people praising him were fellow writers, rather than people from society in general. No doubt there were even people in his own family who didn’t like everything Baldwin wrote. (Baldwin says he became a writer against the wishes of his father, who wanted Baldwin to be a preacher, which he did before becoming a writer). If our neighbors and families don’t appreciate our ideas, our talents (and why would they, other than out of “tribal” pride? Just because we live near someone or share DNA with someone doesn’t mean they’ll share our mental life.), we need to seek like-minded others, and we will be valued by those whom we value, those by whom we want to be valued.

Of course, this narrowness would seem to question the whole idea of fame, and even, for writers, being canonized. Being liked by those who are already like us doesn’t seem like such a worthy accomplishment. It could be all accomplishments are bullshit, of course, as they are either A) easy/natural for us to do, or B) mainly accidental (being in the right place at the right time and simply reacting), and C) our value, our dignity, as human individuals can’t rest on accomplishment, anyway.

Maybe wanting to share, wanting to be understood, even wanting acclaim, are just emotional or psychological needs that can’t be further dissected.

I write because I find the engaged-in-writing mind to be very satisfying. I share writings with others because, I guess, of a hope that others might feel they can, by reading, recognize or commune with a like-mind, a like-mind that stretches their understanding in ways their minds are ready to be streched — and that I would likewise benefit from having my writing be meaningful to others.

I feel I need to end this post, thought I don’t quite feel I’ve broken through to a deeper idea or understanding here. That happens too, sometimes.

Addition:  Several years ago, my wife and I were swimming at a glacial lake in California when we saw a man tell his children to wash their hair with shampoo in the seemingly pristine water. He said something preemptively defensive about how the environmentalists wouldn’t like them using shampoo. We couldn’t think of anything to say to the man that we thought would work to change his mind and his actions.

Not that this was a big deal — it was just shampoo, not toxic waste — but this incident has come to mind lately as an example of how it might not really be possible to argue someone into changing his/her mind. People probably have to be receptive to other viewpoints, willing to change their mind, or else they get defensive and more-resolute in their views. Perhaps arguing a point, trying to convince someone of your point of view, only works when the audience hasn’t already decided one way or the other, like our jury system. Both sides in a trial try to convince unbiased jurors — if the plaintiff had to convince the defendant, or vice versa, in order to bring the trial to a conclusion, surely that’d make decisions more difficult.

Writer’s High: Are Writers Having Enough Fun?

I’m gonna stake the claim: Writing, the act of doing the writing, is fun, and writers who aren’t having fun may be doing it wrong.

I find something enjoyable, fulfilling, satisfying — in other words, fun — about the act of letting my brain-words flow out onto the paper. Sometimes even editing and rewriting can be fun — fun not in the light sense of how eating ice cream is fun, but fun in the sense that being engaged in writing can completely absorb my attention and help me forget my worries (including any ego-worries about whether anyone will read what I write).

The reason I write is because I like to write. I write because it’s fun. Of course, not every single thing I write is fun; sometimes a person has to create a text to match an assignment or to fulfill a purpose in having an effect on a reader. But when I am writing on my own, I feel no need to write for anybody but myself.

Perhaps, Dear Reader, you’ve read enough of my posts to have already sensed that I had this priority. While I do appreciate knowing that readers have found what I wrote interesting or valuable, I don’t primarily write to appeal to readers. I don’t want to think about others when I write. (Richard Hugo writes: “Never worry about the reader, what the reader can understand. When you are writing,
glance over your shoulder, and you’ll find there is no reader. Just you and the page.”) I want to think about what I find interesting. I want to be free to go wherever my writing and my thinking lead me. If that also interests others, OK.

And writing whatever I want to write is glorious. The things I write — journals, notes, blog posts, etc. — help clear my mind of extraneous concerns and concepts, but they also teach me new things — I have insights, epiphanies, that help me see the familiar world in new ways. It’s pretty terrific — it’s actually heart-poundingly exciting at times. I’ve had writing experiences (not yet with this blog post!) that feel transformative, transcendent, experiences that are beyond my normal daily mindset. Perhaps this is like “runner’s high” for those who use our minds rather than our legs.

I knew I liked to write but I got some insight into why after reading this essay by Alan Shapiro, in which he talks about the value of having one’s attention fully absorbed into one’s writing.

I recently posted a three-year-old piece I had written about fame, and I knew the desire for fame was juvenile. But since posting that, I’ve realized that fame may be actually the last thing I want if I just want to write. Publishing and promoting a book, giving readings, trying to make more money from writing — these are all things that actually take away time from my writing. If what I actually love is just the writing, I may not want to be famous, or even publish my work in any form more complex than this blog. Here are my words; I don’t need to have to do anything more.

It’s possible that some of my desire to be a Famous Writer comes from having taken literature classes where the teachers revered the Wise Writer and we read his (almost always it was “his”) writings that were canonical, revered (another attitude I had to get over was thinking that these earlier writers were special, were doing something truly Great. But there’s no need to think of them that way. They were just writers, putting words on paper, as I do. Some of their works are highly valued by others; some weren’t. I recall reading somewhere Whitman’s opinion that his frequently anthologized “O Captain! My Captain!” wasn’t his favorite work of his poems). In wanting fame, I must be partly thinking that if I become famous, my works would live on (to be assigned to students who’d rather be choosing their own reading materials).

But of course, worrying about one’s legacy is complete bullshit. What will I care whether people read my works when I’m dead — I’ll be dead! My time for writing is while I’m alive, and writing is one way in which I love spending the life-time that is allotted to me.

There’s a famous quote by Sam Johnson — “No man but a blockhead every wrote, except for money” — but this makes sense only if one doesn’t actually like writing. I love it enough to do it for free. I’m not saying I wouldn’t accept a hefty advance from any publishers reading this blog who find it brilliant beyond belief, but I’m saying that an advance is not my goal.

But I can’t control that. What I can do is use what free time I have to get the deepest satisfaction I can from writing, and that satisfaction comes from just doing it.