Written by Tara East
Re-Published May 27, 2019
A World Worth Writing For
Unfortunately, writers’ guilt is all too common. When we are working on a project, we feel guilty that we aren’t doing something more practical or useful – even if that task is nothing more than basic domestic chores. Ironically, as soon as we leave our desk to carry out said useful task, we feel guilty for abandoning our project. “I should be writing!” is the familiar, tedious mantra that plays in every writer’s mind.
Lately, though, I’ve been struck by the other type of guilt creatives suffer from. Perhaps you are familiar with it? The “Is my art doing anything?” guilt.
Part of me believes in art for art’s sake. With so much ugliness and helplessness in the world, I believe there is a place for aesthetically pleasing art. What harm can come from admiring something that is beautiful? What’s wrong with reading fun, frivolous fiction and indulging in the escapism it offers? Then there is the other part of me. The part of me that scorns this irresponsible reader. This placid person who chooses to read the latest bestseller while soaking in a tub of Epson salt as the world burns outside their window.
A vision that spurs the question: how can reading and writing contribute to solutions?
The “civilized” world has never been perfect. For better or for worse, technology’s omnipresence means we can no longer remain ignorant of our imperfection. In the face of these serious and urgent global issues, how can writers contribute to the crafting of solutions? Do their storytelling and communication skills offer anything of value?
Some argue that the publication of books reflecting current global issues is vital. Of course, these people tend to be authors. Ann Patchett (author) recently stated that she has moved away from reading classic literature in favour of contemporary texts. She believes that the accountability and challenging themes presented in recent works have once again made reading a political act.
To contradict Patchett’s point, I recently started reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and I have been shocked by the timeliness of the commentary. Many of Esther’s existential concerns remain relevant today.
“I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.” (31)
“A million years of evolution […] and what are we? Animals?” (87)
This modern classic was published in 1971. A fact that saddens me slightly, as it illustrated how little we have evolved in the last 47 years. As an aside, I bought my copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ from a second-hand bookstore. The previous owner had unlined the above passages (and others) in pencil.
I wondered why someone who loved a book enough to read it with a pencil in hand would ever part with said book. This question was immediately followed by the thought, “Maybe they died?” Given the sombre tenor of these passages/the whole book, and the former reader’s obvious identification with them, I hope their ending was happier than Esther/Sylvia’s … That being said, I was constantly impressed by Plath’s ability to clearly articulate what depression felt like. I’ve never experienced depression (though the evening news does test me…) but Plath’s considered descriptions of Esther’s mental state bridged that divide. I got it.
If nothing else, this is what writers can do. They can communicate ideas. They can shape messy and complex emotions into tidy sentences. They can shatter binaries and expose hidden nuance. They can repackage complex problems into comprehensible forms. But. Is this the only irrefutable claim that writers can make? That they can present readers with information?
As the saying goes, if information was the solution, we’d all be happy millionaires with ripped abs.
You can write about the issues that trouble you, but you can’t make people read your work and you definitely can’t make them do something. While the publication of cli-fi and other challenging literary works are appearing more and more, the market isn’t exactly flooded. (No pun intended).
In a recent episode of The Garrett Podcast, Jennifer Mills, author and literary editor of Overland said that while the magazine has been successful in the publishing of marginal voices, few submissions address our present-day issues like the Anthropocene (humans impact on non-humans). Instead, most of the submissions received are concerned with relationship dynamics.
Is this because readers want escapism or because writers do?
Mills, who has published her own Anthropogenic work, Dyschronia, says that she intentionally constructed a plot that offered little in the way of solutions or action because that is what she sees in society: passivity. An observation that is no doubt reinforced by the submissions she vets.
Information is key. Without it, people may not understand the depth of a problem or how to fix it. Historically, the publication of good writing has played a vital role in the mobilizing of populations and the igniting of revolutions. Within our current culture, the problem is not a lack of information but our passivity and denial in the face of it.
Perhaps this is where our writerly self-consciousness stems from. Words are the tools wielded by skillful writers, but are we simply hiding behind our profession? Perhaps we should accept the fact that the gap between information and action is too wide? That our culture is passive. That a challenging book is likely to achieve little more than a 3.5 star rating on Good Reads. That it is time to close our laptops, start a biodynamic farm, become vegan and trade our cars for bicycles…I’m not being facetious; sincerity rests in this hyperbole.
It is true that the grandiosity of the world’s problems is overwhelming, but none of these issues occurred in isolation. We are all driving cars, drinking takeaway coffees, shutting our mouths instead of speaking up, lying to our kids about where the steak on their plate came from and buying caged eggs because they’re a dollar cheaper.
We need to do better. We need to do something.
Writers can offer solutions in their weekly columns and fiction. They can encourage readers to re-evaluate their opinions and behaviours by holding up a mirror. While a single blog post cannot change the world, our combined voices do have the power to shift culture.
Together, we can aspire to create a new culture. A culture that carries re-useable cups, that walks to work and eats ethical, sustainable food. A culture that votes. A culture that allows minorities to have space without slipping into fear that they are ‘taking over.’ A culture that questions why education hasn’t changed in 150 years. A culture that swivels its gaze away from the individual to focus on the collective. A world that is less about stuff and more about substance.
That, my friends, is a world worth writing for.
How to Produce Art when the World is Falling apart
Sir Philip Sidney stated that poetry was “the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk little by little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges.” Ezra Pound believed that “The arts, literature, posesy are a science, just as chemistry is a science. Their subject is man, mankind, and the individual.” And yet, still, sometimes, we struggle to justify our creative practice.
If you’re in the middle of a personal crisis, it’s unlikely that you will have the energy or the mental bandwidth to produce art.
If you stop to consider big problems like climate change, terrorism, refugees, our shrinking job marketing, rising house prices, the privatization of health care and a multitude of other issues, sitting down to work on a short story or novel can seem self-indulgent and pointless.
What good is a novel when the world is falling apart?
It’s important to acknowledge these feelings of inadequacy because simply ignoring them won’t do anyone any favours. However, it’s equally important that artists continue to produce work despite this feeling of inadequacy. Art itself may not be able to solve our complex, incomprehensible social, economic, political and educational problems, but artists must continue to use their skills and ability because we need art, even if the world is falling apart.
At their most basic, novels provide a space for escapism and entertainment. At their best, a novel can inspire us into action by forcing us to confront our own behaviours and beliefs. We may ask ourselves why we do the things that we do, whether our behaviour is contributing to the solution or to the problem, and how can we change for the better both individually and as a society.
Stories don’t have to change the world. If you want to write stories for the sole purpose of escapism, both for yourself and your reader, then that is an honourable use of time. We need a little escapism. We need books that we can read at the end of a long day; books that offer comfort instead of further confrontation. It’s okay to read funny books or adventure stories or mysteries. Not only is it nice to escape into a different world with different people and different problems, it is also nice to see those problems get solved.
Here’s the thing though, even nice books have value beyond mere entertainment. Whether consciously constructed or not, narratives contain the observations and reflections of their author. They are stories about people living with other people. They contain insight and knowledge about human behviour, our relationships with ourselves and others, our desires, strengths, and weaknesses. A novel is a response to the experiences an author has had and the observations they have made. They contain magic, and though this magic is unlikely to reverse climate change, novels can still teach us something about ourselves and the world we live in.
Novels have purpose.
A well-crafted and thoughtful novel that asks hard questions may not alter the general public opinion, but it can cause a shift within a reader. You may choose to write a dystopian novel based on scientific fact about where we’re heading environmentally, or you may write a speculative fiction novel about what the world would look like if women became infertile (The Handmaids Tale – Margarett Attwood), or if we intentionally used clones as a means for organ harvesting (Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro). Stories such as these act as a type of role play. They allow us to ponder and explore potential future spaces. If we continue to remain passive about particular issues, what will happen? Additionally, they provide a container for our personal and social fears. Not only is the writer able to unburden themselves, but it also allows the reader to experience their innermost fears while remaining within the safe, imaginary confines of a story.
The world may have a lot of problems, but when has it not.
If you’re still struggling to justify your need to create
art, perhaps my final point will convince you. When we look back on the type of
art that was produced at any given moment in history, we can see the prominent
concerns of that time through the themes, structures, and styles that are
repeated across different works by different artists. We need to write stories
that capture this moment in time. That explore our societal concerns. That
showcase our collective psyche. Artists need to make their contribution to the
historical record because we have skills that scientists and politicians don’t
have. We can take incompressible problems and present them in a consumable
format that will make you feel something, and that is a very special skill
Why Writers are so Obsessed with Process
Whenever two or more writers find themselves in a room together, there are a handful of topics that inevitably bubble to the surface: money, publishing, current projects, favourite authors, latest reads, and most importantly, process.
If you are new to creative writing and developing your craft, an interest in other writers’ habits is understandable. We’ve all been a beginner at some point in our lives and we all know that the best way to develop our own skills is to learn off someone who can do the thing that we want to do. Of course, it’s also advisable that you actually practice the craft you intend to become good at.
If you want to learn the piano, you go to a piano teacher. If you want to learn another language, you take classes or buy an audiobook. Whenever a known author is interviewed, questions regarding their process inevitably arise. You could say that ‘Tell us about your writing routine’ is the literary equivalent of talking about the weather, but this frivolous question serves as more than a mere icebreaker because within this small request lies a myriad of even smaller questions:
- Do you write in the morning or at night?
- Do you write longhand or use a computer?
- Are you a pantser or a plotter?
- Where do you prefer to write?
- Do you aim for a specific word count, page count or a set number of hours each day/week/month?
- Do you research before, during or after the first draft?
Writers have a lot of questions when it comes to process, but this fascination is not limited to newbies.
Two years ago, Charlotte Wood, a successful and established author herself, released her book The Writer’s Room. Here, Wood has curated a myriad of insightful interviews between herself and some of Australia’s best-known authors. Though the content of each conversation varies, Wood always encourages her interviewee to talk about their writing process. Though some authors respond to such probing questions vaguely (perhaps because their process is loose or frequently changing), others describe their rigid or elaborate routines in fine detail.
These conversations were initially only available online. However, the interviews were so popular that the publication of a print edition became viable, which proves just how hungry writers are for this conversation. We don’t want to read these insightful interviews on our laptops and forget about them, we want a physical copy that we can highlight, dog-ear, and return to again and again whenever we need a touch of guidance or inspiration. Writers not only love talking about process, they love reading about it too.
Despite the almost cliché nature of the topic, writers continue to ask each other questions about process. Fortunately, we’re also happy to answer them. Sometimes these answers are dull and predictable, but sometimes they are surprising, ingenious, and entertaining. By exposing ourselves to other writer’s approaches, we may gain insight into our own creative routine or learn new techniques that can be adopted into our own practice.
Our continuing obsession with creative practice is driven by our need to understand how writing works. We’re all looking for a way to articulate what can sometimes feel like a very mysterious and fickle practice. All artists struggle to explain how they transformed an idea into a creative artefact. This discussion of process helps give shape to what can otherwise be perceived as an almost mystical unfolding.
That being said, the question of process also contains a subtle and self-conscious subtext: “Is your process better than mine? If I adopt your habits, will I become a better writer?” Deep down, we all hold the same subconscious belief: there is a secret to writing, we just need to find it.
However, discovering this secret is impossible as every author has a different answer. Lee Child writes his Jack Reacher novels without an outline and without revision (jerk). Stephen King is a panster too, but he typically produces three drafts of each novel and prefers to write at home. J.K. Rowling using outlines and writes where and whenever she can.
In terms of hours clocked, Maile Meloy, Kate Morton and Steven Pressfield stick with two to four hours a day (typically in the morning). Others like Chuck Wendig, Dani Shapiro, and Margaret Atwood keep standard working hours, starting at nine in the morning and finishing at five in the afternoon.
Despite advances in technology, we are still weighing the pros/cons of longhand vs typing. Jackie Collins writes all her books by hand, as does Quentin Tarantino; two names I never thought I’d see in the same sentence! Joe Hill writes his first draft by hand, but then edits the work while typing the second draft, and J.K. Rowling has experimented with both longhand and typing.
Every writer’s process is different, and yet we keep asking the same question. We keep searching for some kind of hack in the hope that there is a hack. We want to hear a clever sound bite that promises an easier way to get inside our own story. One simple tool or word of advice that will guarantee our success.
No one wants to hear, “just write.” No one wants to hear, “if you do the work, the work gets done.” No one wants to hear, “finish writing the novel, edit it, email it out and maybe you’ll get published.”
When asked about her own process, Elizabeth Strout recounted a conversation with her neighbour who had just finished painting his apartment. When she’d finished gushing over this domestic accomplishment and complimenting him on the tremendous achievement of painting an entire apartment by himself, he replied: “There’s no magic to it.”
The same can be said of writing: there is no magic, you just do it.