On writing

I am a sucker for essays about writing and reading; so, thanks to this pointer from Jenny, this morning, I have the pleasure of reading this wonderful essay, full of interesting thoughts and ideas (though slightly jumpy at places):

Reading, writing for a reader, and being read, are intimate acts, and there’s something about trying to articulate what you’ve done that can flatten and reduce it, horrifyingly so.Some writers choose the written word because they find it difficult to speak directly; many writers are in love with solitude. Whichever it is, good writing should resist interpretation, summary and the need for applause.

A lot of writers, of course, work as teachers, for money, pleasure and distraction. It has been said that at least two percent of the population is writing a novel; apparently that number is rising. There’s been a gigantic increase in the number of writing courses available, both in universities and other institutions. Many of these students can only become teachers themselves, and I am sceptical of professional creative-writing teachers. The most helpful teachers are usually “real” writers who see working with students as part of their work.

Scarcer is practical and realistic advice for young writers, particularly about how difficult it is to make a consistent living. Any artist has to exist in some functional relation to the real world. Of my students, the film students are the most knowing and pragmatic, since to work in film at all is to be faced continuously with questions of budgets and time. Writers are mad and promiscuous, if they’re lucky; they make people up for a living, give them something to say, enter their minds, toy with them and often ruin their lives. One might like to think of oneself as a realist, but a good proportion of the important world is insubstantial, being made up of dream, fantasy, paranoid projections and the imagination. The only figure which comes close to showing the whole chaotic caboodle is literature.

But if a novel is concerned with numerous voices, and wants to keep them in play until the dispute is done, an essay is a monologue, a form of direct speech, and a whisper at that. The essay is as flexible a form as a story or novel; it is amenable to most forms of content. It can be as intellectual as Roland Barthes, Adam Phillips or Susan Sontag, as informal and casual as Max Beerbohm, or as cool and minimalist as Joan Didion.

Unlike academic writing, the essay is usually written for the general or “common” reader rather than for experts or students; for someone in a deck chair rather than at a desk. There should neither be footnotes nor much information in an essay; as a form, it is a meditation rather than an act of persuasion – though Robert Louis Stevenson’s fine essay “An Apology for Idlers” has encouraged me, as it should, towards a greater indolence: “Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.”

Do read all of it; nice one!


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