Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why write? For whom?

A friend and veteran author/journalist now teaching at a respected state university is trying to answer, for his students, one of the enduring questions about writing. Without elaboration, here is his letter posting the issue, and then a brief answer following. With any luck, some of the students might chime in:

The question: This semester I have tried to teach a course in "creative" nonfiction to a class of creative writing and poetry majors.
The main thing I've noticed is that they say "I write for myself," and compose accordingly. They don't like the idea of having to make note of facts or write in standard, grammatical ways. It's all self-expression to them.
Seeing them drove to ask what I thought. I came to the conclusion that all communication is an attempt to manipulate and that, other than knowing how to write a clear sentence, the most important skill is assessing the minds of readers. In nonfiction, we write to seduce them, it seems. In a sense we write for ourselves--we avoid stories we don't think we'd like--but we also must answer to editors, readers and bureaucracies.
I kept thinking and finally I came up with a nearly sloganized form of this: we are all the prisoners of other people. Writing is an attempt to enlarge the space of our confinement. One has to be wary of the jailer--the reader--in order to get away with as much.
Do you agree? Or am I condemning the "creative" types based on knowing on the naive or mediocre ones?

My reply: I think that "writing for myself" is logically disingenuous. Writing is per se an act of communicating with others. Now, it's possible that one wants to achieve a high standard of artistic merit, either "artistic" based on standards common to the leading theories of the genre or perhaps some additional personal standards. I think an artist who has very high sense of esthetics, for example, may exceed those of the leading theories and that's why artists (including writers) have to above all be loyal to their own sense of what is good or artful. But I don't believe that anyone would engage in any of this without an implied audience. Aristotle: speaker, subject, audience. So there's always an implied receptor. A writer who says it is for self-expression is probably just lying to himself or herself.

That opens the door to what the audience should get, what should be provided, and so on, and that is just basically endlessly contingent.

So what you say that writing is an attempt to "enlarge our confinement" is true, in my opinion. It doesn't matter if it's fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc....poetry in particular requires an audience, same as plays or screenplays. I don't think any form is inherently superior, for that matter. For myself, fiction offers a greater avenue to life-truths by far; but nonfiction is the grist of the world-as-we-know-it.