Notes on keeping your distance as a writer
There is something to be said for adopting a professional approach as an emerging writer, to style yourself into the role. This includes your dress, your attitude, and your voice both as a person and as a professional. Initially unrepresented except by ourselves, there may be little distinction between our personal and professional voices in terms of how the world hears us.
Like Narcissus, it’s so very easy for a new writer, like myself, to blur creating an online brand for the purpose of visibility and credibility, with the temptation of falling in love with my own reflection. In this sense, tweets or blog posts are reflections, echoes of voice. We shout something out into the world, and we’re very pleased with ourselves when the world repeats it back in approval. It’s so easy to feel wanted, validated by followers.
Or is it? Does it matter what is said or how many hear it? The opportunity for direct and immediate approval has many pitfalls.
You may admire a credible poetess and then look her up to find that she tweets hourly, photos of her supper or her nail colour. Immediately the magic fades. She has succumbed to the common need to be heard rather than delivering crafted poetry from somewhere otherworldly, for which skill we admire her so much. She has dissolved her voice in the fizz of domestic banality, rather than elevated herself up to the heights of esteem. In fact she shows that she is happy to become just one of the mass with arms in the air shouting, “Look at ME!”
A true poet, an artist, surely sets himself apart from the world. This is not the easy way when starting out, whilst keen to be heard. Such an artist must understand but distance himself from the white noise – it’s just too hard to concentrate, or gain an original perspective in the thick of it.
A little hit of self-esteem is surely not such a bad thing. But for every tweet you write, reply, you waste a moment of creativity. We need the precious little time we have to produce, develop…and to dream.
Indeed it is obvious but in pursuing instant but brief popularity you look at your screen and miss the meteor shower above the cityscape, the old woman pirouetting down the street, the laughter of the waves, the pattern of the leaf-shadows that spell out your name and the cars that part in the street to let you pass. Your eyes are cast down, and time passes unseen. Yet the pursuit is addictive, and we’re told it may help raise our profile. To throw us higher into the arena and be seen by agents and publishers.
Despite the improbability of this in an ever more crowded scene, the effect is more profound, for the world of social media boils everything down to reaction, we start to consider smart truncated comments in our heads, and admiration and crowd-funding and by this we may miss the subtlety of personal development accrued by the writer’s lot: the intense solitude of time and creative effort. Such solitude is unavoidable, but it is necessary to become a craftsman, to rise above and grow.
Yes, perhaps I can look at myself in the pool whilst Echo calls asking for more, but without whiling away endless afternoons paddling in the reflections. It is a wrench to pull away and sit in the shadow whilst others shine. But, without the personal creative development that comes from daily grind, discipline, suffering through slow-paced evolution of mind and thought, a name can only slip down the snake’s back, whilst someone else steals her way up the ladder riding on the back of years of substantial endeavour. Sacrifice and belief can only carry us through such a long journey. Luck helps.
The long-term investment of years of work and slog to become published in a language that may not be easily understood is only for the strong of heart. We are not all cut out to be W.G Sebald, Kurt Vonnegut or T.S Eliot. Who of our literary heroes past would have engaged with social media hourly, obsessing with their own reflection and throwing out time easily in this way?
If they had, would Dickens or Du Maurier have been able to produce the volume of original thought and work that they did?
In business, social media is effective but it ceases to be so when the business brand slips into unprofessional behaviour. No one wants to know what the individuals behind the brand think about a TV show, they strive to create and protect a brand voice that has something that differentiates them from the others, this takes hard work. So too, a writer must use social media with caution, as a business might, and reap the rewards without showing themselves up as a little too ordinary. Anyone in it for the fame alone, the prize, will be consumed by the need to prioritise the business, the persona, above the product, the art-form, the magical craft writing itself.
There is an element of Narcissus in every artist. We strive to create a form of beauty or insight that has lasting resonance with our wider culture. At every level, a writer must find his audience. That is where social media may be of use, with caution.
To aim to be a writer of substance, rather than a celebrity, is not easy. We can be lured into situations by the need to write and get paid, the tedium of necessity impinges on our path as we must and should accept most commissions and stretch boundaries. But we can still aim for quality. That pursuit of quality cannot attach itself too tightly to the need for praise. There’s the tightrope.
Ray Bradbury once said, “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you are doomed.”
Quality means that you have written three novels over years to produce one that may be published. You have strained and trained and developed your heart and your hand. Praise may come, but there is no guarantee. We must strive to write in a vacuum of approval, so that we are not constantly desiring it, in order to remain true to our calling, and to produce incremental skillful writing that together forms a whole coherent body to our name.
All very well. But how do we live day to day? Publicity and exposure allow us to gain commissions, guest blogs and plump up our CVs. Art is business. Everything is seen in terms of fiscal value. It’s the world we live in. To stand apart and take risks outside this model is dangerous, but then many talented artists and writers died penniless. Each poet or writer must strike the balance according to his or her own endurance. We must each manage our business of writing with decisiveness, rules, and boundaries. This is one positive action: a disciplined consideration of how we engage.
Then there are the questions of style, vocation, and commitment. If we look at historical literary figures such as Ted Hughes, W.G Sebald, Bukowski, Woolf, Iris Murdoch and Thomas Hardy to name a few, we note that they were serious writers in that they did not stop writing come payment or put down. Serious about their role, their legitimacy. Unable to stop the flow of their pens. It is easy to forget that many writers were not always wallowing in the glory of fame during their life-time. Nevertheless, those who maintained a style, and consistency of output fortified and augmented their reputation in the long run. Serious does not mean dull, it means committed. Many literary figures formed a myth of themselves by presenting a comprehensive canon to the world. This body of work lived up to their myth, often after their own death and beyond.
Literary entitlement is no longer limited by distinctions of education and birth. The internet is a great leveler. But there are decisions to make as new writers about our conscious consideration of the levels of our integrity, our balance of engagement with the world at large. The benefits of social media allow self-publication and the chance of exposure, publicity and reward. It’s anyone’s game, a lottery. In the pursuit of the game we may offer too much of ourselves, and become vulnerable and needy. Plus the temptation to waste time is a convenient distraction.
Are we talking here about the cultural shift of writing as a vocation, against it being a popular career choice? Do we all need or deserve to live by our writing? Value and price are not the same thing.
Looking at my favourite contemporary authors, Alan Garner is a serious writer and so too Haruki Murakami and Alan Moore, who keep a healthy distance from the media. And so they maintain their artist perspective, and take up a role as extra-ordinary voices of our time. They continue to work hard into old age, striving to get all of their rich craft out into the world in a race against time. They are skillful and have dedicated years to the art of writing, paid their dues. I note the insular, single-minded vision of these men to create their own myth through their collective body of work as a whole, and stand behind the genius of that work, rather than in front of it. No one said that there was not a price to pay.
Certain successful writers have historically embraced mainstream institutionalism, or rejected it. Philip Larkin refused the title of Poet Laureate, so Ted Hughes was offered the mantle instead and so enjoyed benefits such as fishing at Balmoral and dining with Royalty. It must be hard to preserve principal, and refuse fabulous acclaim – if it is offered. Alan Moore has shunned film adaptations of his graphic novels, promising any financial gain earned through them to go to the artists he collaborated with, rather than him. There is a conceit even in refusal. But it is worthy. Alan Moore the writer-magician is left untarnished by elements he can’t control.
Each decision we make along the long road of our writing careers may have bearing on our body of work. They shapes us. We are judged by our writing. But we are also judged as writers, as men and women of integrity – or not. Our behaviour and tone in the public eye colours both our work and the public’s perception of it. We are all tested and measured by our online presence and media profile, whether we acknowledge this or not.
In fact our behaviour may outshine our work if it becomes the more frequent and consistent manifestation of our minds. It is certainly part of our legacy. For this reason our writing and development must be prolific and robust, a shining diamond of many facets sparkling in new and dark corners of imagination. This allows the writing to speak for itself, to find a voice louder than any careless comment, or popular frippery.
We must seek to preserve the core of our good work so that our written voice is not white-washed by casual commentary on the banal. We must voice blandishments less often than our poems and stories are offered so that the diamond is not revealed as so flawed that it is too alike all others, and of little worth. Perhaps a little self-esteem comes at great price, and we should ration ourselves.
And here I am, holding myself out here as a clever writer here to tell you this, unpublished, and eager to make a go of it by subsidising my creative writing with commissions or comments. But they are all part of my history, my aspiration to succeed without knowing how except to keep trying, developing writing, honing my craft.