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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

Beware of Writers

By Dan Mulhollen

Of all human endeavors one might take as a profession, perhaps the most useless and unfairly praised is that of the writer. While many people are naturally skeptical about all artists (and quite rightly so) writers are an inordinately perfidious breed requiring special attention. To accomplish this, there are five great myths about writers which require thorough debunking.

Writers like to write.

At some point, usually in the writer's "tween" years (ages 10-12 inclusive), a child is discovered to have a knack for stringing words together. After numerous attempts to find a similar knack in all other professions fails, the child, now past a reasonable age for choosing a career, decides to "give this writing thing a shot."

Many writers try to hold on to this pre-adolescent "happy time," a time when teachers would praise them and read their writing aloud to the class. And as recess was most writers' favorite class, many keep containers of chocolate milk, or other refreshments, nearby. Not surprising, the older the writers get, the more likely their refreshments are to be of the fermented or distilled variety.

That great misanthropic egotist Emily Dickinson is their early role model. But most writers lack her firmness and financially-secure family for this to work. So most fall into the snares of marriage, children, and the love of material goods. Finding "real" work, most writers now abandon this role model, rationalizing that even if the internet could transcend the grave, an encouraging email from Emily Dickinson would not get past their spam filter.

Of course there are people like Charles Dickens and Isaac Azimov, writers with a strong work ethic. Unfortunately people of this sort are so massively obsessive-compulsive that they could not be trusted to hold public office for fear they'd invade a neighboring country. Not really good role models, after all.

Writers like to read.

Writers like to say they read, and know just the right names to drop to get attention. Most, if they read at all, favor the usual potboilers you usually see bikini-clad blondes reading on the beach (but trust me, you do not want to see most writers in a bikini -- blonde or not -- writers spend too much of their lives sitting down, which has understandably negative consequences).

There are a few show-offs, writers who have read Joyce, Proust (translated, of course), and other twentieth century manglers of literary syntax, just to say they have. These braggarts will not admit how many false-starts it took before they were able to get into the rhythm of the prose, which actually makes the reading an enjoyable experience.

The truth is writers like other people doing the reading -- and reading them in particular. They also expect the reader to understand what they meant to say -- no matter how clumsily presented, and see the brilliance and insightfulness of every sentence.

Which brings us to the next myth: Writers have great insights into nature and the human condition.

Okay, writers spend a great deal of time alone. Anything that can be drawn from that fact is the subject of much dreary conjecture. A writer's day is spent daydreaming, magical thinking, an occasional auto-erotic interlude, a few words on the screen, a snack breaks, a few more words on the screen. Is any of this a hallmark of brilliance?

From all this solitude, a writer's view of humanity is certainly different than that of a person with constant human interaction, but is it more insightful? I might say that writing is autobiographical, but that would be misleading. While the protagonist might be a wholly trustworthy narrator, the writer rarely is. He (or she) encodes thoughts and beliefs into words, twisted by both conscious and subconscious filters.

Some writers, realizing the autobiographical nature of their work, take their self-based protagonist to a self-righteous extreme, and instead of an autobiography, you get a hagiography (and not as fun as the actual ones as very few writers nowadays die a martyr's grisly death -- although more than a few are most deserving of such).

But more importantly, writers like to entertain themselves. You'll often recognize writers have certain tendencies with their protagonist, their antagonist, and most importantly with their romantic interest. If a writer always has his twenty-first century love interest wearing nineteenth century corsets, you'd best believe corsets have a pleasurable effect on the writer (whether it's seeing women wearing them or wearing them himself is less clear).

Writers enjoy helping beginning writers develop their craft.

While writers often fancy themselves as teachers, few actually possess the necessary knowledge, communicative skills, and emotional stability to teach. Most published writers, like most beginning writers, think they know it all. The duel of egos which follows usually ends when the student either quits or is expelled.

Reading first drafts from beginning writers is a particular drudgery. Of course, this is not an unreasonable sentiment. Most beginning writers are convinced of their brilliance, while, when viewed objectively, their abilities are clearly, and often painfully, absent. So any criticism, no matter how badly needed, is taken as insult. Pointing out deficiencies is unlikely to help either, for the student is likely to find something published by the teacher, and point out all the mistakes made there.

It is also a no-win situation. Some students learn to be better writers and decide they don't need you any more. Other students don't learn, no matter how hard the teacher tries, and instead of recognizing themselves as blockheads, blame the teacher for incompetence. While they should not, writers tend to take this personally. Writers take everything personally.

There's also the writer's tendency to think universally, as if their opinions express truths all writers hold. As with clichés, this should be avoided like the plague.

Finally: Good writing will always be appreciated.

From about 1900 - 1950 most people used the railroads to travel and every train station newsstand carried magazines with short stories for riders to read on the trip. Often these were devoted to a particular genre (detective, western, science fiction).

This prolonged success made the railroads over-confident and they failed to see how airlines and the interstate highway system would take away their business. With the fall of the railroads, short stories also fell into decline. Sadly writers, particularly those of short fiction, are trapped (at least spiritually) in this "golden age."

A few "name" writers kept the art form alive through the rest of the twentieth century. But whether literature survives is in doubt.

So you have a group of overly-sensitive egotists with questionable people skills practicing a moribund art form because it's all they're good at and believing that wishing it so -- that people will rediscover the joys of reading -- will make it so.

But public tastes are cyclical and things sometimes become so old that they're rediscovered and considered new again. So there is hope.

Oh yeah, there is one more: Writers are also hopeless romantics.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-10-31
5 Reader Comments
02:42:02 PM
Dan - I promise I am not taking this personally... but did I give you permission to write about me?
02:53:37 PM
Ah....what a good read for NaNoWriMo day two. I would have read it yesterday but I was stuck reading Emily email asking for my bank account numbers. After all it is hard to get cash in the afterlife!
06:45:53 PM
I laughed out loud the first time I read this -- some of it rang all too true. Yes, I will only admit to "some."
clearly, r. voza
07:30:23 PM
"So any criticism, no matter how badly needed, is taken as insult."

well said.
clearly, r. voza
07:31:50 PM
almost every emily dickinson poem can be sung to the tune of "the yellow rose of texas."
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