Note: Now having written what you’re about to read, let me give you fair warning. It’s long. But I write posts like this to work out in my own head what I’m thinking, and as such, it can come across like stream-of-consciousness. I’m wrangling with the ideas in real time and giving my real time thoughts. If you don’t want to read that 2,000-word wrestling match inside my brain, then skip ahead to the end where I give my “bottom line” thoughts. You won’t hurt my feelings, promise.
Something I’m always thinking about on one level or another is the meta question of: Why am I writing? With the return after a near five-year hiatus of Flash! Friday, that question became salient again. Why am I writing? What’s the purpose of writing? When writing, what I am trying to get out of it? What’s the end goal?
Before I get rolling, let me do the throat-clearing. I’m just a guy who writes for a newspaper professionally, and does flash fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and political writing on the side. I’m not Stephen King. I’m not even some of these flash fiction writers you see in the #WritingCommunity on Twitter who have half a dozen publications in their writing bio on a story. But I do have thoughts, for whatever they are worth.
There was a Tweet that got some traction about writing that first got me thinking about wanting to do a blog post exploring this more in-depth:
My first instinct, and ultimately what I believe to be a correct instinct, is to find this Tweet egregiously in error.
Let me re-frame the first sentence: The purpose of writing is for it to be shared.
Any artistic endeavor, be it writing or something else, such as painting or singing, doesn’t make much sense to me in a framework where you’re doing it only for yourself. Obviously, virtually anyone doing art is doing it for themselves to the extent of, they need to out of catharsis or that’s their passion or for money and/or all of the above. That’s baked in. I’m talking about seeing artwork decoupled from anyone else seeing it, and calling that a success.
Inherent within art, as I see and understand it, is that it’s meant to be engaged with, investigated, explored, and witnessed. If it’s only for your eyeballs, ears, hands, and mind, what is it exactly? I suppose there are a number of poets, artists, and the like, whose work only ever came to light posthumously because a sibling or a spouse discovered the work, and shared it. But that’s the point, they shared it! It was meant to be seen, even if the artist’s original intention wasn’t within that purview.
Is this a romantic view of artwork and creation? Maybe, but as I will get to, I believe the view expressed by Alexander is actually the romantic view of writing.
Even the definition, to be that guy who looks to the definition, hints at it being primarily for witness:
the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
The emphasis is mine.
To get back to Alexander’s Tweet, and be charitable here, there’s a reason I re-framed the first sentence. He seems narrowly focused on the idea of “getting published” as a marker of success. I would again, go back to my re-framing and perhaps get more specific: The first purpose of writing is to share it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a book deal that marks success. Successes can be big and small, and obviously, a lot of us writers don’t have book deals, but there’s plenty of room between doing nothing and a book deal where success can be found.
To be open about this, I do get snobbish and look more favorably upon books that have gone through the rigmarole of a real publishing house. That doesn’t mean there aren’t crap books that big publishing houses publish or that such gate-keeping has kept out minority voices and under-represented voices for centuries, but the process to get to that point is more arduous than, I wrote something, and now I”m going to put it on Amazon. That also doesn’t mean self-published books are inherently crap. Process matters to me, however, and I trust the former process more for weeding out bad writing.
But now to be less charitable with Alexander’s Tweet, I take issue with the third sentence, “You succeed as a writer when you decide to write.” No? That is the romantic, and importantly, unearned aspect of being a “writer.” That if you endeavor to be one … you are one. That if you call yourself a writer, you are a writer. There’s even a meme about this that I can’t find, but goes something like this:
Person One: What do you do?
Person Two: I’m a writer.
Person One: Oh, what have you written?
Person One: … nothing.
In short (yeah, I know), what I’m saying is, there often is too much coddling, hand-holding and infantilizing among writers by virtue of slapping the label on yourself. That there’s something bold and brave about even thinking about writing, so, plaudits to you off-the-bat. No, you have to actually do the thing first, and the thing has to be good (as a marker of success).
There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about having done the thing once you do it — most creators, even Stephen King, still get nervous about the wind-up to start, so I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel happy that you started and then followed through — but that’s an odd marker of success to say merely deciding to write is worthy of a pat-on-the-back.
My marker of success is, did people like it? Did they feel something? Not that I did the thing, and now it’s sitting in a folder on my computer. Nobody sees it in the folder. Nobody knows if it’s any good or not. I might think it’s good, but I’m a bit a biased, no?
I do agree with the second-to-last sentence of the Tweet to some degree: “If you read, edit, or do anything to improve, you’re succeeding.” That’s a fair enough idea of success — that if you’re actively working to improve your writing, then you’re succeeding at being a writer. But that’s action. That’s being. That’s self-awareness. And an integral part of being able to “edit and improve” is by sharing it with other eyeballs.
Again, I’m biased about my own work (except for the cliche writer moments where I hate my work): I’m typically going to think it’s good … because I wrote it. That’s why I need someone willing to give constructive feedback to help me improve it.
So with that in mind, you can see why the last sentence is problematic, “The purpose of writing is to create something you love.” We’re all self-interested parties, who are going to love something birthed out of us. That’s why killing your darlings is so hard. That’s why being your own editor is so hard.
That’s why you need to share your work! It’s already baked in that I love it. The point and purpose thereafter is wanting someone to also love the thing I love.
What about publishing?
To get back to the publishing component, and the return of Flash! Friday, let me do a quick recap: Flash! Friday is a weekly flash fiction contest where writers all over the world submit pieces based on a few prompts, and a couple of other writers (on a rotating basis) judge and select their favorite piece. There’s other writing contests or exercises or prompts within the #WritingCommunity I’m aware of, and participate in, such as #vss365. Each day, the person hosting that month gives a new prompt word and you have to create a Tweet-length story. There’s also the haiku challenge I participate in, with the same concept of a including a prompt word within a haiku poem.
If you’re contra Alexander here, and think the purpose of writing is to be published, then what about Flash! Friday? What about #vss365? What about the haiku challenge? In other words, if you’re writing, should you be writing only for the purpose of being published? If so, then those contests and writing exercises wouldn’t fit within that framework.
That’s why I re-framed Alexander’s sentence as, the purpose of writing is for it to be shared. What form that actually takes — a book deal, an article in a magazine, an acceptance in literacy magazine, acceptance in an online lit mag, or in games like Flash! Friday or, as I sometimes do, on my blog — that seems up to the writer, and what they’re hoping to get out of writing.
In all of those cases, under that tent I’ve established, the writing is being created and then shared. It’s also an exercise, similar to a physical exercise one might do. That is, getting into the habit of doing.
I don’t take Flash! Friday, the haiku challenge or #vss365 too seriously to that extent. They’re fun. They’re fun exercises that get my brain in the writing mode. Should I be putting all of my energies toward getting published? Maybe, but exercise is nice, too.
What are we getting out of the #WritingCommunity? What is its utility?
Are things like #vss365 and Flash! Friday perhaps a net negative? More to the point, is the #WritingCommunity on Twitter, broadly speaking, a net negative? As in, people have the correct impulse to want to be nice and supportive of others within that community, and that’s great! I personally love how welcoming the #vss365 and Flash! Friday communities are and the familiar faces I see.
But! We also want to become better writers, and continually improve, and we can only do that with honest, and importantly, constructive feedback (it’s worth emphasizing constructive). Fawning praise can run counter to the objective of becoming a better writer. Quite literally, you could be in a bubble (the writing community) of misleading praise. That’s why it’s important to have someone that will be honest with you.
However, the sticking point I see is that Flash! Friday and #vss365 aren’t quite the venue for that. In other words, on Saturday after the stories are posting, I’m not going to start commenting on stories I took issue with, and offering a, “Hey, here’s what you can do better next time, and this didn’t quite work.” Same with #vss365.
Neither venues are writing workshops.
As writers, we also tend to be readers who know what we like and don’t like. I’m the same way, and I can “judge” that fairly quickly.
Having been in the #WritingCommunity for more than half a decade now, I get the sense that a lot of writers came into writing through the fantasy genre. It certainly seems like the predominant genre. I’m not opposed to fantasy, but the best fantasy is hard to get right (there’s a pun there). And when fantasy, and really any writing, is done poorly, it stands out.
When it comes to #vss365 and Flash! Friday, and even stories that appear in these online lit mags, there’s plenty of writing I don’t like. And I would have quite strong opinions on why I don’t like that writing, and why it doesn’t work for me.
Frankly, there’s a lot of writing I don’t like — and again, part of that is the fantasy genre is hard to get right for it to appeal to me — but which will get overwhelmingly positive feedback or be among the “top” #vss365 stories. Or writing that gets formally accepted for publication that doesn’t land with me.
Like I throat-cleared earlier, I’m just one guy. I may vehemently think something is bad writing and a bad story, but it clicks with others, whether the others are those liking and retweeting a story I didn’t like or accepting it for publication. After all, even publications from the small ones with WordPress blogs calling themselves The Lavender Literary Press (I don’t think that’s a real one) up to Penguin Random House are one person or multiple persons’ opinion of what’s good writing and a good story and what’s not.
Heck, even when we are in the submission game, we don’t always listen to those opinions. If we stopped after one person’s opinionated rejection, a good piece of writing might not see the light of day and be shared.
Overall, I don’t see the Flash! Friday or #vss365 venues as the place to give constructive feedback. If the person came to me and asked me to read the piece, then I would do my honest best to give constructive feedback. If I was asked to be a judge, then that’s also different, as now you’re telling me to read and write feedback with a critical eye.
But unsolicited? No. I would much rather comment on the pieces that I did like and tell the writer I liked what they wrote. If I don’t comment, it’s possible I thought it sucked or didn’t work. And that’s okay, too. Maybe it does actually suck. Maybe someone else authentically loves it.
Here are my bottom line thoughts:
- You have to actually write to be a writer, whatever it is you’re writing. That seems like an obvious point, but if we’re being honest, there’s too much coddling within the writing community that argues otherwise.
- Success as a writer means different things to different people, and I’m not staking a flag on what success means other than to say the short version: That people like it. I shared it, and they liked it, however that sharing happens, and whatever venue that takes.
- Constructive feedback is vital to grow and learn as a writer. Again, emphasis on constructive — just as it’s erring to overly praise something, I think it’s also erring to be too harsh.
- To answer the question I raised earlier, the #WritingCommunity, Flash! Friday, #vss365 and so forth, are net positives. The writing community, and those contests and exercises, are inviting, and offer the opportunity to share writing. As long as it’s not taken too seriously in either direction, and you’re heeding the third item on this list, then I don’t see the harm.
- As I’ve previously written, be humble, be open and be listening. I’m open to anyone’s perspective on my writing. Sure, I might give more weight to one person or another, but that has nothing to do with how I carry myself. In other words, there’s a middle ground between coddling and snobbishness. Yes, I said I’m snobbish about publishing houses, but giving more weight or credence to a book that’s gone through a traditional publishing house, still doesn’t reflect on how I carry myself, I don’t want to be a snob, which means I never want to look down on others, no matter where they are in their journey. If they’ve had no publications or 50 publications, self-published or otherwise, I’m open to their opinion and their writing. Success is great, but it going to your head is not. That’ll eat you alive as much as a lack of success will.
What kind of writer would I be if I didn’t finish this meta and mega post about writing with a cliche quote? But hey, it happens to be the quote at the top of the blog from Ernest Hemingway:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
To be a writer, you have to bleed.