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March 15, 2007

Many People Would Love to Be Writers, If Not For All the Writing

There are mornings when facing the notepad is even more of a burden than usual, simply because its blankness corresponds only too clearly to the state of my own mind. But it doesn't matter. The one thing I have learned after all this time is that it doesn't matter how I feel, that isn't actually necessary to want to write in order to do it. Actually writing something is point of honor -- and usually, after a while, something creditable starts to take shape.

If I've been reasonably well organized about it, I'll have some drafts with me to rework. Or notes to look over. Something, anything, just to get the process started. I have no trust in inspiration and sometimes think that talent alone is greatly overrated. Neither is sufficient.

So it's interesting to read, in last Sunday's Times (London), some thoughts by W. H. Auden on the abundance of young people who declare that they aspire to be writers:

Among this host of would-be writers, the majority have no literary gift. This is not surprising in itself. A marked gift for anything is not very common.

What is surprising is that such a high percentage of those without a marked talent for any particular profession should think of writing as the solution. One would expect that a certain percentage would imagine they had a talent for medicine, a certain percentage for engineering, and so on. But this is not the case. In our age, if a boy or a girl is untalented, the odds are in favour of their thinking they want to write.

When so many untalented people all express a wish to write, the public must be labouring under some strange misapprehensions as to the nature of literature. They must imagine, for example, either (1) that writing requires no special talent but is something that any human being, by virtue of his humanity, can do if he tries, or (2) that writing is the only occupation today in which one is free to do as one likes, the only one in modern society where one can act as an individual, not as a depersonalised cog in a machine, or (3) that writing -- and this idea, is, I think, particularly prevalent in regard to the writing of poetry -- is a kind of religious technique, a way of learning to be happy and good. In my opinion, the public is partially right as regards (2), namely in thinking that the writing of art is gratuitous, ie play, but precisely because of this, their other two ideas must be wrong.

I think Auden was quite wrong on the first point -- that people think talent is unimportant. Rather it's simply that, in most cases, they have no standards, and take the ego's wish for the thing itself.

That in turn feeds into a romanticized notion of the kind of freedom that Auden refers to in his second point: the belief that writing is a line of work in which "one is free to do as one likes, the only one in modern society where one can act as an individual." Well, yes and no. Insofar as this implies indulging certain adolescent promptings towards "self expression," the results are usually pretty awful. The self is material, at least potentially, but it's not an infinitely rich vein. Besides, you have to learn to refine it.

As for the idea that writing is "a way of learning to be happy and good," I can only report (based on a sample base of N=1) that it doesn't seem to work out that way.

Lots of people seem promising at the age of 20. Far fewer seem talented at 30, and fewer still at 40. This is probably not a case of mortality thinning the ranks. Not literally anyway. A number of writers I knew several years ago seemed far more ambitious, more capable, and possessed of far greater reserves of social capital than me. And yet most of them have disappeared, like the cloud left by a warm breath evaporating from the surface of a mirror. No doubt they found other things to do.

Posted by smclemee at March 15, 2007 3:22 PM


Read that phrase in the sentence two from the end as "reverses of social capital"...

Posted by: Jordan at March 16, 2007 10:09 AM

Interesting slip of the eyeball...Chances are they didn't suffer reverses, though, just invested in different and more profitable lines.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at March 16, 2007 10:33 AM

Based on purely anecdotal research, I have to disagree that writers are more promising when they're younger. If someone sticks with it ("it" of course, being all the loneliness, rejection, and cockroaches) until he or she has reached middle age, I think they become more talented, or at least develop a more refined filter. This must be due to the fact that when they were younger they were the few serious, hardworking writers.

Posted by: Adam R at March 20, 2007 5:38 PM