Writing as vocation, not entertainment

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve come face to face with what it is I am doing. Because I’m not in an MFA program and I don’t have any deadlines, the act of writing has to be one of voluntary immersion, not forced acceptance. There’s a great pleasure in the realization that this is my work, and that I cannot excuse myself from it. If I want to be a writer, I have to write. Like many people, I think I believed that I was a writer, but I never acknowledged it to myself in a self-affirming way. I didn’t think of it as a job. The importance of placing writing on a level with work places it in a position of power. I’m not just a guy who writes; I’m a writer.

That said, I’ve been spectacularly failing myself. I’ve done some work, but it hasn’t been enough to achieve what I’ve wanted. I keep reading really bad pieces in respectable publications like The Kenyon Review and Narrative, and I think to myself that I can do better, but I haven’t done anything. I haven’t sent out submissions since January. At some point in time, I’m going to have to actually do something. No one likes a critic who can’t back himself up.

I’ve been noticing that I can differentiate writers who have been writing for decades between those who’ve been writing for a much shorter time. I read an article somewhere recently (can’t remember who wrote it or where it was) that discussed the style of writing intrinsic to younger writers. Younger writers, this writer said, were only concerned with the self – there was no description of scene or setting. He said that young writers were writing about their feelings instead of what they saw, about how they felt instead of what made them feel. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially, he said that there’s an enormous preoccupation with the self that has become clearer recently. To me, this is most evident in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation.” It is also clear in Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” but Eggers work is, in actuality, a piece of genius, while Wurtzel makes me laugh.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too many good writers lately, because everything I read in publications just seems horrible. There are too many people who are writing, and frankly, I can’t see how they are chosen for prizes and publication. It’s like they’re playing at being writers, but only doing it halfway, so that the end result is a story that gives only half of what it should. I’m instantly bored with most writers under the age of thirty, which makes me sad because I should be supporting them, but I just can’t handle their work.

Here’s a good example of a story that was literally painful to read: Shark, by Rachel Yoder, which was published in The Kenyon Review. Does she actually need to punch us in the face with the fact that the narrator is discovering his homosexuality? There’s an enormous lack of subtlety in that story, and it grated on me.

That’s all I got for now.

4 thoughts on “Writing as vocation, not entertainment

  1. JayTee: I'm not sure why a person's biographical note isn't enough though. The best poetry for me is poetry that doesn't talk about the self as much as it extrapolates from the self to the other. I don't know if that makes sense, but some of my favorite poems aren't autobiographical, though they may seem like it. They are always focused outward.

    Nancy: I'm mainly angry because editors continue to choose sloppy, boring writing over quality work that I know exists out there. I don't mind experimental styles. I remember one of my professors quoting an editor who said that he/she read to the first cliché, and then stopped. That's exactly how I see it, and I wish more editors would follow that rule. I think one problem with some of these journals is that they are using students as readers, and these students haven't read enough to distinguish good writing from bad writing. I'm sure this isn't true for every journal, but it's something that's probably true for The Kenyon Review, as they specifically mention it on their site.

    I could care less if I'm reading a flash fiction piece or a novel, as long as I don't have to see that cliché. And yes, styles are changing, but writers continue to talk about social issues. Junot Diaz? Full-fledged social commentary on the Dominican Republic and the immigrant experience. Margaret Atwood? Definite social commentary.

    I don't think the stories and the social commentaries within them are being separated. I think they are becoming subtler. Tolstoy spends pages upon pages in Anna Karenina, within Levin's storyline, talking about landowners' rights and responsibilities, changing social issues, etc. His commentary is not really that subtle, and the degree of subtlety moves on from there through Diaz, who is a bit more subtle, to Atwood.

  2. i was thinking about this. i think the style of writing is changing, is always changing and we're moving towards more first-person, less descriptive writing. i don't think that's bad, but we don't need novels to occupy the space like it did in the past. we don't need tolstoy to talk about current events, politics, family life as well as tell a good story because we have blogs and newspapers and everything is available so readily. at the same time, i don't think this justifies unsubtle sloppy writing. i think for young writers (like me and you), we ARE angry at bad writing and that anger comes out of self defense. we are angry because we have this feeling of our style that we want to emerge and be recognized and be legitimate. i feel like sometimes i am closed minded to other styles out there because i so want my style to be recognized and legitimized, and until that happens, i think there is a part of me that will be less responsive to, say, more experimental writing, something i don't really do. anyway, it'll all work itself out. keep writing! you can do it!

  3. I was just talking with a professor about this. I think you are totally right about young writers. I'm (barely lol) over 30 and I'm definitely still in the phase of writing about myself. I don't mind it, I know it's a necessary evil. On the poetry side of things, I've noticed that most first books contain a good deal of personal narrative. I love first books because of this. I think it helps to find out who the writer is before hearing what they have to say about the world.

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