Jocko Benoit's Writing and Pop Culture Spot

Perspectives on the arts and popular culture from Jocko (Jacques) Benoit. Scattered thoughts on poetry, books, film, television, and other cultural intersections.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Writing: The Fairy Dust Factory Turned Sweatshop


The book I’ve been reading the last few days is How To Be Idle, by Tom Hodgkinson. Maybe it attracted me because I’ve been particularly busy lately and I wanted a reminder of what it’s like to not be. Don’t get me wrong – I, of all people, don’t need any lessons in being idle. Just ask my mother. Or any of my ex-girlfriends. In any case, the book has reinvigorated my outrage over the grand plot (according to Hodgkinson and many past literary greats) to make us all feel guilty when we’re not working. Mind you, I tend to be one of the exceptions. When I’m not working I tend not to feel guilty so much as, well, great.

In fact, one of the reasons I like to write is that I’m still an amateur at it – meaning I’m seldom paid for my writing. That means that any time I sit down to write I’m playing hooky from work. It’s an act of defiance – mooning at the pedestrian life of jobs and careers. And it’s no accident that so many writers have felt animosity towards work. Work takes us away from that which we find most rewarding. It is the enemy. That doesn’t mean that the discipline of writing is an enemy. Discipline and sometimes forcing oneself to write when one doesn’t want to can be a good thing. Sometimes we resist writing because the act of creating a poem or a character or even a passage of dialogue can draw out things in us we are trying to avoid. (A poetry sweatshop – an off-the-cuff writing session alone or in competition with other poets – can really open up the creative pores sometimes.) And on the practical side, there is a skill to writing and it does help to keep in practice.

But the problem is that work has been steady infiltrating the mindset of writers over the last century. Things began to go sour, in my opinion, when most people in western society learned how to read. Big disaster for writers. Soon anyone who could read and write felt they could be real writers. What had once been considered a craft of a very few has been democratized. What happened next is only my conjecture, but I think writers started feeling defensive. If anyone could write, then how do we separate the hoi polloi from the true geniuses? If one could be trained to write, then genius was presumably within the reach of anyone who was willing to put enough time into writing.

And that was the way out for writers. Time, effort, perseverance, work. Soon writers were talking less about the inspiration for a poem or novel and more about the many drafts it took and the many many submissions of their manuscripts before acceptance. Screenwriters regularly recommend doing a dozen or so drafts of a screenplay before you even think of showing it to an agent. Even though writing had been stripped of its importance as a result of widespread literacy, it could still earn respect if writers simply changed the way they and their audience saw the endeavor. Call it work and people will nod in understanding and respect.

So we saw the emergence of workshops and writing programs, writer’s retreats and sitting in front of a desk every day whether the words come or not. I assume this was meant to both earn writers some respect and to dissuade wannabes from even getting up in the morning. Now the writer is someone who has to tough it out like everyone else and put in so many hours a day. I wonder if Montaigne felt that way writing his incidental essays on philosophical and everyday issues?

Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that a smaller percentage of writers are from the once great leisure class. There are more working class writers out there – pugilistic Hemingways getting up every day with bloody minded determination to dominate the paper canvass. And many of them want to make their writing seem as natural as possible and therefore less impressive to the average reader. (But if you’re going to do that amount of work, I think you should make your writing seem like something unattainable by mere mortals. Something approaching magic.)

These developments make it hard for a lazy person like me to make it as a writer. I, like Hodgkinson, prefer to sleep in. I prefer the excitement of the first draft of a poem to the constant picayune rewrites that follow. I prefer to think of writing as meaningful play. A game where we all learn something by the time the last period falls. I think all forms of work should aspire to become what writing used to be.

But the paradigms have shifted and left me behind. All I can offer to other writers is that when you get up with first light to begin your work day, I’ll stay in bed a little longer and dedicate at least a few minutes of dream to you.

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