Writers Wednesday: The High Calling of a Writer

French writer and journalist Ernest Daudet (18...

Ernest Daudet Writing (via Wikipedia)

To embark upon a lifelong commitment to making black marks on a white page is a high calling. After several months of jokingly answering the question, “what are you writing” with, “anything people will pay me to write”, it has dawned on me in a series of epiphanies that that is a complete denial of the very things that drew me to this way of life. I thought that I loved words, for their own sake, and the sorcery of marking them accross a page would be enough to satisfy me. When we give ourselves over to creating, it is inevitable that we begin with several months or even years of hammering out what that means before we really get into our stride. During that period, and I am not out of it yet, there are all sorts of blind alleys to go down, but it is all grist to the mill – part of the long road of self discovery and renegotiation that is absolutely necessary for art to happen.

I have learned that I don’t love words for their own sake, I love truth, and stories, and communicating, and connecting, and putting the good stuff out there.

So here are the things that genuinely excite me about writing; the things I need to come back to again and again:

The Public Office of a Scribe
I see a writer’s work as having continuity with the scribes, amanuenses, bards and chroniclers of history. Living, as they did, in an age when literacy was rare, they performed a public duty to record and describe true accounts, to elevate the imagination through poetry and to teach with words. They held a public office and served society with their pens. The burden is still laid upon writers, even in a digital age when anyone can do it, to be unselfish and to add value to life through their work.

Here’s an apt description of the scribe from the book of Ecclesiasticus:

“He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients, and is concerned with prophecies; he preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of parables; he seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs and is at home with the obscurities of parables. He serves among the great and appears before rulers; he travels in foreign lands and learns what is good and evil in the human lot.” (Ecclesiasticus 39:1-4)

How’s that for a job description?

It Is All About Truth
The written word can be used to cover up and to reveal, to tell lies or to exalt truth. It is so tempting to sacrifice integrity when there needs to be money in the bank at the end of the day. I gave up full time nursing to give more time to writing but as I described to a fellow writer the kind of projects I was taking on in order to try and make ends meet he said, “you gave up that for this? I think you’ll get more from nursing.” To be honest, it is one thing to serve others with your pen, but I have learned to be more careful about who.

Reading and Writing Against Loneliness
There is a moment in the film “Shadowlands” where CS Lewis encounters a student in a book shop who appears to be stealing. Later he confronts him:

“I happened to be in Blackwell’s the other day… and I saw you borrow a book.”
“No, steal. I stole it. Most of these books are stolen. They’re written to be read. At least I read them… which is more than most people do.”
“So you read differently to the rest of us, do you?”
“Yes, I do. I read at night. It’s the only thing breaks me concentration. All night sometimes. When I start a new book my hands are shaking. My eyes are jumping ahead… Does he feel the way I felt? Does he see what I’ve seen? You know, my father used to say… He was a teacher like you. Well, not like you. He was only the village schoolmaster…”
“What was it your father used to say?”
“We read to know we’re not alone.”
“Would it help if I made you a small loan?”
“Yes, I expect it would, if I wanted to be helped.”
“I see. Good-bye.”

For all of us, the written word has been a companion, for me, more than anything else, this has been the great comfort it has offered, “I am not alone”. If for no other reason, I have always written to let others know that they are not alone.

Links:

The Written Word is Pure Sorcery – an earlier post about the magical aspects of the craft.

Writers Wednesday: Announcing a Blog Carnival – still seeking submissions from fiction writers who would like to be featured on this blog next Wednesday.

Benjamin Myers – On Writing: Thirteen Theses. Sums it up quite well.

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8 Responses

  1. Really nicely done Seymour. & I’m thinking along similar lines myself. I might come up with a post like this in a couple of weeks time when i’ve clarified my goals and desires and things.

    • Thanks, Becky. Bottom line is you gotta write with integrity and use your words in the service of what you genuinely believe in. I feel much freer since I made a quality decision to stop writing drab copy for other people and stuff I didn’t care about. I still believe you can be a commercial success, writing from the heart, but that can’t be the motivation alone. I’d be interested to read your thoughts, too 🙂

  2. Also…. preach it!!

  3. I find this interesting because I write for diametrically opposite reasons: putting down my thoughts and feelings in the hope that they will reach out to people who identify with them so that I feel less alone.

    I guess that the reality of most internet writing is that it’s more like shouting into a very large, empty bucket anyway: given that there are about 3 comments posted for every 4 blog posts on wordpress then you wonder what the proportion of time spent writing to time spent reading across the blogosphere really is. On a similar cheery note, I guess that that bucket isn’t going to provide me with much company, but on the other hand the bucket’s not going to be especially comforted by your writing 🙂

    Finally in this stream of consciousness, you really should read Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami which is about a freelance writer who quite cheerfully compares his work to the business of shovelling snow: “It takes no great effort to find work in the giant anthill of an advanced capitalist society. That is, of course, so long as you’re not asking the impossible… speaking conservatively, I’d say half the material I wrote was meaningless, of conceivable use to anyone. A waste of pulp and ink…” and so on. It’s a motif that runs through the book as a meditation on the role of created needs in order to justify meaningless work in an essentially purposeless society. I should add it’s more cheerful than it sounds. Anyway, please keep on with the “It’s all about truth” ideal, we need some people who are driven by that one.

  4. Hey, Dan,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post so I feel less alone. I have radically changed the emphasis of my writing work, recently, in a way that is not massively reflected by this blog at the moment. Web writing is going to be less than 20% of what I am doing although things like “Milk Monday” on this blog are an exercise in using the pen in the service of things I believe in that, as it turns out, don’t feel like shouting into a bucket at all. The posts have generated plenty of interest and forged new links with like minded people.

    I have been struck by the meaninglessness in a meaningless world thing and it has inspired me to make some decisions about the projects I am giving my time to.

    I’ll check out the Haruki Murakami piece that you refer to. I think most writers are aware of the snow shovelling aspects of the work, there is a huge amount of useless nonsense but the creative process inevitably involves that – it is absolutely necessary to push out that 98% fluff in order to make the 2% of good stuff that really will change the world, or make a small path for others to step on on their way. So keep it up. Art is long!

    I should comment on your blog more. I do read it but, like most web users, I click on before I have really digested it and often feel like my brain is a bit fried with the question of whether I should be more worried about the things you are exercised about or not.

    We plug on. Would be good to interface, sometime soon …

    Cheers!

  5. “I love truth, and stories, and communicating, and connecting, and putting the good stuff out there.”
    Spot on!

    Great stuff Seymour. I might say as well that I’m writing through things to explore ideas, to explore myself and maybe also to say something and to express something?

    We change as we write, our writing may even change us. In hindsight everything is different and we can’t turn-back time. As we read we see other people’s mistakes, how they change and how their own journey progresses… we share a little bit in someone else’s humanity.

    • Thanks for commenting, James. You say some good stuff and I think I agree. Writing is a bit of a mirror to ourselves, sometimes we’ll see on paper what we don’t see in the mirror, even – so it is often about self-discovery. At the bottom of it all, though, we seem to agree that it is about making that connection with another human …

  6. […] Posts Writers Wednesday: The High Calling of a WriterMilk Monday: Dairy in the Days Before Pasteurisation and RefrigerationFriends Who BlogVegetarian […]

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