The Care and Feeding of a Writer

"Being a writer," is a strange thing. I've written about this before, but there's more here. I had a conversation with Caroline about what it means to be a writer and I thought some of the things we came up with were pretty good. I hope I've done a sufficient job of capturing what we talked about.

One of the things that we emphatically agreed upon was the fact that writing, despite being something that we're all taught to do in school, as part of being "an educated person" is not something that everyone is particularly capable of. [1] Not that that's a bad thing. Having said that, because everyone reads at least in some capacity, and most people know how to write, when you tell someone "I'm a writer," or you say something like "I've been working on this novel for about 16 months," you'll get funny looks. Guaranteed.

There are, I think, a few major issues at play here:

1. Because reading is an automatic facility for most people, I'm convinced that laypeople are very prone to misunderstanding the amount of work that any given text represents.

I might even go so far as to say, writing is not something that people automatically think of as "work." I'm going to sit down and spend some time talking to imaginary people in my head who live on a spaceship a thousand years hence, in an attempt and hope that I can productively explore the post-colonial condition in a new and different way, doesn't sound like it should be hard. But it is, and I think much more difficult than the kind of writing that I do professionally.

2. Because most writing education focuses on grammar and extensive reading (which are great things,) the gulf between "people who write" and "people who don't," is often not about writing technically solid prose or not (despite the fact that in primary and secondary education, this is the major p). [2] Rather, the ability to understand something (a process, event, or story) in enough detail to describe with an awareness of an audience is the real challenge.

Indeed when successful, all of the "work" of writing is entirely opaque to the reader.

3. Writing a text (an article, essay, or story, as opposed to a memo or message,) is not something that an individual can--or should be expected--to accomplish independently. You can't tell a writer "go write this story, and when you get back we'll print it." Editors, from the person who says "I need you to write this," to the people who give you feedback as you progress on a project, to the people who prepare a text for publication. You can't do it alone: there are too many conflicting interests at play in the writing of any text that make it challenging for a single person to write alone.

I don't bring these up to complain. Nor do I think the solution to these problems is to "just give writers a bit more respect." Knowing these things about writing, I think we could, quite productively, change the way we educate students to write. It might also, I think lead to some productive reorganizations of how writers and editors organize themselves to get "content" produced.

After a while of talking through these ideas, the conversation produced the following gem, which I simply must share with you:

caroline: you know how everyone has a memoir now?

tycho: yeah...

caroline: you know what I don't care about?

caroline: most people's memoirs

Onward and Upward!

[1]I'm aware this sentence ended in a preposition. Piss off.
[2]I had the longest run of "highest-possible C" grades on my papers in high school English, and while I think I might have managed to average out to a B, mostly, that always felt like an accomplishment. In a lot of ways, my failure to achieve in high school English is probably mostly responsible for the fact that I avoided writing almost entirely in college.
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