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Writer questions

Tuesday 3/14/23

Writers often fail to ask themselves the most basic questions that ought to be central to whatever it is that they're writing.

Almost every time I read something now--and every time I look at fiction in a literary journal--I find myself asking questions like, "What is the point?" "Who is this for?" "Why is this necessary?"

Those are questions that any writer should be asking themselves when they write something. When they think about something that they might write. It's rare that I encounter a piece--and it never happens that I encounter any such fiction--where I read the work and have answers myself to those questions.

To give a nonfiction example: I see all of these pieces that are essentially rewrites of what one can find on Wikipedia. That's where the author obviously went to get information. The piece will be factual. That is, it will just state facts. This film came out in that year, this player began his career with that team. These facts won't be interwoven into a larger framework of new ideas; they'll be the whole of the piece. There are no ideas in the piece. There's nothing compelling in the language. There is nothing to make a person think or feel. It's Wikipedia, but with a byline, or a name on the cover.

So I say: What is the point? Why write this when it offers nothing more than what one can get from Wikipedia? If I can get the whole of what you've written in your piece or your book from Wikipedia, in the same language, why should I also want to get it from you? What purpose does that serve? What is being said is already out there in the most public, open of all information platforms. So why do this?

The answer is because that person has no ability. Nor do they work to get better at what they do. They don't attempt to locate and develop ability.

In the publishing system, the work is always irrelevant. Work doesn't run, people don't have jobs, they don't win awards, because their work is amazing. They have those things because of other things. Who they're friends with, whom they're connected to, related to, what their gender is, their skin color, their sexual orientation. And, also, how ordinary and mediocre they are as writers. Other people in the system--who are insecure, with good reason--prefer to surround themselves with people on their level. That they recognize as on their level. Not above. The latter is threatening.

What you end up with are writers who never ask themselves the basic questions that are fundamental to writing anything, because there are no standards of quality or expectations of actually giving anyone something worth reading and that answers those questions. When you give people only one thing, with no other options, and no other tiers of quality, they accept that thing out of habit. It's the environment; people are products of their environment. They are not strivers; they make do with what is around them, and when people do that, standards change--they can become nonexistent. Bad habits are big life, because bad habits can define who we are. We just fall into them. Then they're no longer bad habits--they are a status quo. A cultural status quo, a personal status quo.

The same goes for readers with their reading environment. Thus, readers, change, too. They devolve as readers. They go away from reading. They read less. They read with less attention and thoughtfulness. Their standards diminish. Everything becomes a blur of mediocrity. Put it this way. If all the food in the world went away, and there was only white bread at the store, people would go to the store and get the white bread. It would be all that was left. That would change them. Change what food itself was. The experience of consuming food.

I see entire books--there are so many music books like this--that are essentially Wikipedia entries. I can look at who that author is and I know their relationship to the editor/publisher. I know why they got that book deal. I can look at the other factors. Those are the things that put them forward; it's not the writing, because their writing is in that white bread category. It's no different than most writing. But some people have to get the deal, get the awards, the gigs, and for that to happen, the selections have to be about other things than the work, because it's really all the same.

It's a very selfish way to write. The reader is not taken into consideration at all. Writing is asking yourself what you're doing for a reader. It's about them. Not about you. Not about your ego. What does this do for a reader? How am I adding to their life? Their day? Why should they read what I have written? Because it's by me? And I'm this color, and this gender, and I've been in these places? Because I am nothing else, have no talent, live my life as a scam and series of handouts which I've always just been given, and this should continue on here?

Then there is fiction. AWP just wrapped up. Mostly, it is people with no ability gathering in a cavernous space and enabling each other. It never happens that I see fiction right now that is written for anyone. That has value for a reader. It is written for that person with the MFA--not other people with an MFA, but the writer writes it for the writer. Why is it it written? I'll tell you. It's their access-pass. It's written because it allows them entrance into a community where the enabling is rampant. Where there are no real standards. Where, frankly, reality is locked out, as best as these people can keep it locked out. One can delude one's self, be encouraged in that delusion, and never have to do anything so onerous or important as writing a single damn sentence that anyone would actually want to read. And one can have power, too. Over other people that such a person would like to avenge themselves upon because they're able to do what that other person cannot. And just power to feel important, because there is no strong sense of self, no redeeming identity, no apparent talents on ready display. Power--at whatever level it can be gotten; and it can be so petty--becomes itself a reason to live, because it is also a way to avoid reality and scratch a very sad itch, with no ramifications, because no one really cares given that an industry has pretty much made it that way now. You won't be held responsible. It's like driving drunk late at night, with no one out, no one to see you, and you can clip as many mailboxes as your drunken ass desires and wake up in a post-blackout fog in the morning, and do it all again come evening.

Very little needs to be produced. It's actually far more important to talk about what is produced, or could be produced, or how hard it is to produce. These people share memes with great regularity about the writing life and how hard it is to write two sentences, followed by some bad, unfunny joke. "How writers say their work is going vs. how it's really going."

It isn't hard. Not if you have talent. Not if you work hard. Not if you are a daily writer who puts in hours every day. For years. Not if you're someone who asks the above questions, and is then someone who automatically answers to those questions. Has them ingrained in who they are as a writer.

This community is going to lock out anyone who is not like them--which is to say, an actual writer who is not a mere box-checker who writes things for people. With value. Who doesn't care about a dysfunctional community. Or the reindeer games. Who wants to compete with other writers. To be the best. To get better every day. To compete with the writer they were yesterday to be better than that writer. A writer who lives in service to readers and who always has myriad answers for each of the aforementioned questions.

The better that writer is, the truer that writer is as a writer and as an artist, the more they'll pose a threat to that community. They pose the threat of truth. The threat of tearing at the stained, rotting fabric of that community. They pose the threat of holding up the mirror. They pose a psychological threat.

Not only is that person not welcomed, they're feared, they are detested, and there become fewer and fewer writers who are like that, because it's not in our nature to always be met with resistance--for very twisted, often immoral reasons--and to keep going. To keep fighting. To seek for solutions. To seek to lead and inspire. While we ourselves stay at it, put the time in, the energy, the work.

Who is going to do that? It's one out of many millions of people who will do it at all. Then you have writers who are not writers writing or saying they're writers or getting the gigs and the awards, etc. People who leave something like AWP and are already talking about the next one. Who gives a fuck? What are you writing? Who is it for? Is it any good? What is its value? What does it add to human lives? How much do you do it? How much do you produce? What are finishing now? What are you starting next? How are you getting each day?

Very few writers ask themselves those questions. So why do what you're doing? Or, why pretend to do what you're doing? As I said, I think there's a different breakdown--though there's overlap--with fiction and nonfiction. But it's very rarely done for reasons of writing so that readers may read fruitfully. Very rarely.

Ask yourself those questions. If you don't have an answer, do something else. Writing isn't about your ego, your desperate need to be able to call yourself something because you otherwise lack an identity. Then you have bigger problems. Focus on them. They can be solved. But not without honesty and courage and doing the work. Doing the work is as far as you can get from being enabled.

Have an identity. Be a person. A real person. Be a writer. A real writer.

Ask the questions, do the work.

If the work is any good, if it is writing done for the real, right purposes, it will provide those answers. The answers do not take the form of being in a club, nor any of that other rubbish. None of it is real.

But good writing, done for why it should be done, for whom it may be done, is always real. That's what actually matters.


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