Writing vs. Writing

A friend of mine, a brilliant poet named Bri Pike, was writing in her blog about the distinction between writing as hobby and writing as serious craft, and I found her comments so interesting I felt compelled to respond. So did another writer-friend of mine, the essayist and memoirist Crystal Elerson. Our resulting three-way conversation, which spanned blog, e-mail, and chat, is so interesting that I want to share that conversation here–with the authors’ permissions–where my students can read it.

This is what Bri Pike wrote that started it all:

It is interesting to contrast writers who write for a living to writers who write for a hobby. [. . .] There is nothing wrong with this contrast but it got me thinking. During my education at Allegheny, UNT, and Murray I’ve been surrounded by people who have or are trying to make writing their life. They are knee deep in academia too, but they spend the majority of their time working on their writing and trying to get published. As a result, these people are very serious and almost obsessive about their craft. I love these people. I’m one of these people. However, I’m running into an increasing number of people who write as hobby and their attitudes are much different. For instance, during her talk on Saturday, [Joyce] Brinkman made the comment that “everyone in the room was a poet” and then she said “writing should always be fun.” I’m not going to lie. I shuddered a little (I know. I know). It isn’t so much that I disagree with her because I don’t. I do think that everyone should be encouraged to write, but I also think that there is something to be said for talent and craft and hard work and I know that a lot of people who “write” don’t want to put that time in. I also think writing should be fun but it’s also hard and gut wrenching and requires writers to develop a thick skin quickly, so simplifying it down to “fun” irks me a tad.

In response, I wrote the following:

While it trivializes the craft a bit, I have begun making a distinction between “writing” and “literature.” Seems like a pretty simple distinction, but I think it’s only now occurring to me because of the long-standing division in academia between creative writers and literary scholars (“composition” being that thing we all have to teach to freshman, which means very few people take it seriously). It took some effort and a lot of soul-searching to get past that snobbish barrier, but I’m convinced now that when I write, I’m not doing it (only) for “fun”; instead, I am trying to contribute to the literature those nose-in-the-air scholars spend all their time studying. “Writing” is something people do for fun: I do it for fun sometimes, just to unwind; and loads of other people do it for pure enjoyment, without regard for what it might contribute to the world; and when I talk about it to my students, I insist that it is easy, that anyone can write because writing is simply putting words on paper. And I’m right. But literature — whether it’s fiction, poetry, essays, treatises, memoirs, stage plays, screenplays, or something else — is extremely difficult, and part of me wishes we could invent a word that better reflects that struggle than the simple “write.” I am a writer, but I am more. What is that?

Today, I sat around after my 8 a.m. class discussing books with two of my students and a student who was early for the class following mine. They wondered if I’d read any Dan Brown, and I balked. “Really?” they all said, incredulous that someone who loves reading hadn’t read The DiVinci Code. “The story is so good!” I said, “I’m sure it is, but I can’t get past the writing. The language — the prose — is abysmal, it’s just awful, and there’s no excuse for that. I just wish these writers spent as much time crafting good sentences as they do complicated storylines.”

But that’s the difference, I guess, between writers and us.

Later, Crystal Elerson wrote a response to my comments:

I work with people on both sides on the line on this, and I often find that I admire what Sam terms as “writers” as much and sometimes more than I admire the writing of literature. And part of it comes from the reasons for the writing. I seriously don’t think Shakespeare was trying to contribute to the literature of his age. I think the man was trying to get paid, and I think many of the greats were the same way. Oh, many took the craft seriously, and they should have, but they were also trying to get paid, not necessarily be remembered for something greater. [. . .] I can’t just dismiss the writing of people like Dan Brown (who is admittedly awful) because he does manage to do what I see so little of in literature, and that’s be interesting. [. . .] Brown does it through a poorly written mystery-thriller, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t contributing to the social commentary that all literature is.

I do agree that there are different sensibilities pertaining to the drive for writing, but I don’t agree that one sensibility is better or more pure than another. That’s hard to accept given what we stake our work on in academia, but then, I think academics are too snobby by far and forget that most of those that have really contributed to literature were not academics — they were, instead, writers. Some were snobs in their own right (T.S. Eliot springs to mind), but others were just out to interpret their world, to communicate in some way, or to just tell a good story.

Amen. However, I decided to follow up by digging myself into a hole:

I see your point, and I should say what I didn’t say in the earlier post: that I don’t begrudge the “writers” their work or their joy in their work. Just because I loathe Dan Brown doesn’t mean I’m not glad he’s out there. He’s part of my whole “you learn as much from bad writing as you do from good writing” philosophy.

And I do think literary writers — myself included — are too snobbish for our own good sometimes. Still, I don’t know that Shakespeare was only trying to get paid. Or Dan Brown, for that matter. I think the writers who do write only for money are hacks — they actively harm the profession in some ways — and I’m (snobbishly) relieved that these days they’re mostly stuck writing porn or bad romance novels.

Anyone else — and this revises what I’d written earlier — seems to feel their work contributes something, however small, to literature. Else, why publish? Why engage in the literary discussion? Shakespeare, in particular, seems to have had a profound sense of his place in literature, or he wouldn’t have spent so much effort revising and re-revising his already money-making plays.

So I suppose my earlier distinction was one of purpose: “writers” in the generic sense are people who put words on paper; “writers” in the serious sense are those who hope to participate in, if not add to, literature. The rest — those who write purely for fun and with no other purpose but personal pleasure or financial gain — are at best diarists or masturbators, at worst Hallmark employees. Which is fine, too. So long as they don’t pretend to do easily what we do with great effort and seriousness.

Later, I also wrote that Dan Brown challenges a dogmatic view of literature held only by academics. And since academic, literary writers make so much less money and receive so much less public recognition, as opposed to the wealth and fame of “popular” writers, I might prefer to argue the opposite: that our snobbery and elitism is part of our constant struggle to challenge if not the dogma then at least the popular norm of Best-Sellerism.

Not to be outdone, Crystal responded with this well-reasoned treatise:

I have a theory that the reason academic and literary writers receive less recognition and less fame is because their works are often less interesting. Oh sure, they can craft a sentence that will knock your socks off, but 1,000 of those sentences with no sense of pacing, plot, or character interest makes for a boring book. The book might be gorgeous, but it isn’t interesting on anything but an academic level, and that’s just not going to reach and move a wide audience as much as a book that has all that plus the elements of interest.

We once had a brief discussion on plot where you felt plot was easy and that’s why our professors didn’t spend time on it. I didn’t say anything at the time because I had to many other things going on, but I disagree. I think our professors don’t talk about it because they don’t really understand the nuances and intricacies of plot. I don’t think they really know what it takes to weave stories together and make them one coherent piece on anything but a superficial level.

[. . .]

I do think we have different levels of seriousness, but I think those levels are evident in both literary and popular genres. The literary writers who don’t allow themselves to grow and use popular conventions aren’t as serious as the ones who do. And the popular writers who don’t take craft and character issues seriously are just as guilty of limiting themselves and their work through a different kind of snobbery.

So, of course, I responded:

I think I consider pace different than plot. Plot is the story — the outline of events, or the structure, into which pace is implicitly built — but explicit pacing is a separate craft. I don’t think plot as a bones-of-the-story issue is something than can or should be taught, except as understood through extensive reading (I wish grad school included a designated Reading as Writers course, rather than assuming it as part of all courses). But I do think we can teach pace, and I think we can best learn it from poets — their use of specific language in a specific order, the places and reasons they break their lines, and so on, that has more to do with pace than anything we might point to structurally. But then, I’m one of those people who finds the language of a story at least as interesting as the plot; in fact, some of my favorite stories/novels involve inanely mundane, eventless situations that are fascinating precisely because the language exposes their underlying beauty. If I can do this without denigrating comic books (I’m a big fan and used to be a collector), and if I can do this without being too tied to any hard definition of “better” as an absolute judgment, I think it’s something like the difference between a comic strip and a Van Gogh: the comic strip tells a better story, but the Van Gogh is better art.

All of which is to say, I think the literary writing is more interesting than the genre fiction, for the most part, but I also understand that this is my perspective, my preference, and I constantly have to remind myself — or let others remind me — not to expect the same reactions from other readers/writers.

Later, in a chat, Crystal and I engaged on a more point-by-point debate, teasing out the details of our perspectives: I wrote that one of my biggest hang-ups in writing is my obsession with adding something of value to literature. I set too high a standard for myself, and I sometimes forget to let the writing be and enjoy it.

Crystal said, “When I began writing, I had no notion of adding something to literature, but as I’ve moved through grad school, I’ve developed it, and I think that development has been detrimental to my overall writing because the idea that my writing must have value adds a pressure to the writing and takes away from the freedom of expression.”

To which I responded, Noun or verb? I believe the frustrating paradox is that such concerns do benefit our writing (the noun, as in the words on paper) even as it inhibits our writing (the verb). Or, for the shoirt version: our writing (noun) benefits while our writing (verb) suffers.

Crystal agreed, pointing out that “without the freedom in the writing process, I worry that the end product suffers. However, I see no reason not to let those concerns creep in during the revision process. But for our current consumer society, we have to make a story interesting enough to catch the attention of the readers, and more readers read genre works than literary works for a reason. [. . .] If they like romance, mystery, sci-fi, and fantasy, then the craft needs to embrace those conventions to draw the average reader in to the literary conversation.”

Funnily enough (I wrote back), I think she and I are up to similar missions, but from opposite ends. As I saw it, Crystal wants to bring some literary sense of craft to bear on popular, genre writing, and I want to import some popular genre elements into literary fiction. Crystal corrected me: “Actually, I want to do both, because I think both fields could benefit. And I’ve thought that for a long, long time.”

Conveniently enough — and I swear this wasn’t arranged — Bri rejoined the conversation at its end and somehow managed to neatly tie everything up. For me at least. Crystal may slip in a final word of her own. But for now, Bri has managed to say it all, and to do it better than I, at least, could manage:

What irks me about [Stephen] King, Dan Brown, and authors in that vein is that they don’t make me work for the plot they weave. Perhaps I’ve been in academia too long, but there is something about reading Faulkner and not only enjoying the beauty of the language (and if you want to talk intricate plots, he’s your man) but also working towards something larger, an enlightenment of sorts. I don’t get this from Stephen King very much nor do I get it from J.K Rowling (please do not hurl imaginary toads at me all you HP fans) and I think that’s why often I read those books once through, think ah, that was fun and never look at them again. Whereas I’ve read The Great Gatsby about ten times.

I think it is for this very reason that academic fiction and poetry is not read more. I don’t think it’s because it’s “boring” in the classic sense; I think it’s because quite frankly people don’t want to work for it. Hell, let’s be honest, a lot of people don’t want to read period, so picking up Faulkner or Steinbeck or James is not even something that’s on their radar. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading Harry Potter, but part of the reason I love it is because I don’t have to think about it.

With all this in mind, there are signs that people are willing to give academic literature a shot. Oprah (yes, I know) chose Steinbeck’s East of Eden for her book club and then last summer (I think) she put three Faulkner novels on her list, which opened a whole new literary world to women (men too) all over the country. I think through craft comes meaning and that is what a lot of popular fiction is lacking, which is why writers of academic literature haven’t thrown themselves off a cliff yet.

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4 thoughts on “Writing vs. Writing

  1. Well, I’m a little late in responding to this, but Google just served it up 8 years later. I’m sorry I don’t know Brie, but I think I’ll Google her. I wish I had some context around the quote she is attributing to me. Like where I said it, would help some. Please know that I am never one to disregard the value of craft, or hard work. I admire those who pursue studies and work that advances the knowledge of writing, its history and its craft, but I do confess that even in the mist of tearing my hair out in a revision process, I still find poetry to be fun. Working with words provides me one of my greatest enjoyment in life, and I believe people should direct their lives in such a way as to produce the highest level of enjoyment they can. I do say that everyone is a poet, because I believe poetry is the most concise, powerful and hopefully memorable writing humans can do, and I believe each individual is unique and can express that uniqueness through poetic writing. There is a lot of poetry I don’t want to read, but that doesn’t mean that writer shouldn’t enjoy the process of this self expression. What I like, and/or admire or not in a writer, has nothing to do with my appreciation for their exercising the ability that only humans have been granted. The ability to write.

    1. Well that was a blast from the past! Eight years? Wow. It’s almost embarrassing to see the laziness in my blogging way back then, all that rambling and all those (now-corrected) typos.

      I don’t precisely recall, all these years later, but I think my friend Bri was at the time still in her MFA studies at Murray State University, so perhaps the comment she quotes was from a reading/lecture you gave at Murray? I should point out that Bri actually didn’t disagree with you (“It isn’t so much that I disagree with her because I don’t”). I think your comments were simply a springboard to an idea that had been niggling her for a while.

      It’s also interesting for me to revisit this old conversation among some of my old writing and grad school pals because I’m seeing how my own perspectives have evolved. I still mostly stand by what I wrote in this discussion seven years ago, but I’m now much more lenient toward popular writers and at least a bit less snobbish regarding the distinction (if there even is such a thing) between literary and mass-market fiction. (Poor Dan Brown — I gave him such a drubbing back then.) Such is the perspective that experience affords. Back then, I was just a few weeks away from defending my dissertation, a novel I had poured myself into and struggled to make as meaningful and literary as I could. That book looks like the result of such a project — it is messy and pensive and ponderous and stuffed with meaningful allusions — and it’s still sitting on my bookshelf at home and nowhere else. Seven years ago, I had not yet learned to unlearn the things I’d latched onto in grad school and find my own way into my own writing. I had not yet learned to let go of any preconceived notions about “literature” and “literary merit” and just enjoy my writing, to simply write the books I most want to read and make them the best I know how to make them and then let the rest fall to the audience. Or, to borrow your words, I had not yet learned to direct my life (and my craft) in such a way as to produce the highest level of enjoyment I can.

      So thank you, Joyce Brinkman, for this review of my path as a writer!

      Oh, and if you’re having a hard time Googling my friend Bri, try her full name: Brianna Pike. She’s a hell of a poet and a hell of a teacher, and she’s a dear human being. You’ll like her. 🙂

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