Being a writer, or really an artist of any kind, is difficult in myriad ways. Besides the lack of money, because the arts are continually undervalued, you have the constant rejection, and the relentless plague of self doubt. If you’re an accountant, you do your job: you prepare a balance sheet, you make financial statements for a company, but that work is not tied up with the accountant’s internal thoughts and feelings. The balance sheet does not carry a small bit of the accountant’s soul with it. There is no place where the personality and beliefs of the accountant are incorporated into the work she produces and sends out into the world.
This is not the case for writers. Everything I write has a part of me attached to it. This is why rejection of a piece of writing or a bad critique of a book can be so painful. It is as if those are judgements of me as a person, or at least a part of me.
The other thing about writing is that there is no one way. People can point out what they like and what they don’t like. You might judge writing by correct grammar and punctuation, the conventionally correct way the words are used, but others may find such things unimportant, even insulting to the concept of good writing. Another person might like highly descriptive writing, while another finds such writing unpalatable. No one can pin down good writing. No one can say: write like this. Every writer writes her own way. That’s the way she must write. I suppose the way can be improved on, to some extent, but a writer’s voice is hers. To try on another’s will ring false in even the most amateur of ears.
A person can love John Steinbeck’s writing and Ben Okri’s at the same time and yet they are so different from each other, like a good steak and a glass of exceptional wine, each lovely but not comparable at all. Still each is considered good writing. Each can exist; they do not compete on any direct level. They are too different for that. This is how writers and writing are. This is how short stories and novels are. They are different and unique. They are diverse. The way the tools: the words, the grammar, the punctuation, the ideas— are expressed, can never be replicated. Each piece of writing is pulled from the writer carrying bits of skin and blood, microscopic portions of the writer’s DNA, the scent of their thoughts and history. This is important. It is maybe the most important thing about the entire art form.
Good writing cannot be captured in a net. It is not if the writing is ever published. It is not if the writer collects accolades and slips of paper posing as judgements on excellence. In the end, good writing is about truthfulness to that unadulterated voice. Good writing is about honesty to the story. Good writing should not look outward at who is viewing the process, who will judge the end-product. Good writing must hurt a little bit. And good writing must be like a fingerprint.
I believe this, I do, and yet it is hard to close out the world. It is hard to read a beautiful book and not wish that you could write in that way. To read a short story and not feel as if you will never find your own words to create such loveliness. To not be discouraged and pushed off track by the world that feeds your writing.
We all want to be seen as a success. The problem with writing is the definition of that word. I suppose that is the problem with all of the arts. We need to find a way to adjust our own minds to accept that success comes in so many kinds of packages, with so many kinds of labels. For writers, the packaging is as diverse and as ever-changing as the people we meet and the days that pass. The writing should only be judged against yesterday’s writing, against the truth, against the elimination of all false gods. Judged for the clarity between writer and reader so that the truth of the story can be recreated in the other’s mind.
It’s a difficult road this writer’s road. Take it with caution and be a little bit kind to yourself if you veer off in the wrong direction. Maybe it is the right one but only it has been waiting for you, that certain person to walk its way, to wear down the grass and clear the thorns so that the magic waiting there can be found.
(This first appeared in my column It's All Write in the 28 September, 2015 issue of Mmegi)