Is there any person out there who, given the opportunity to meet Steinbeck in person, would tell him that writing “Of Mice and Men” was a self indulgent waste of time? Why couldn’t he have spent his time more usefully in the selfless service of others as a doctor perhaps, or a teacher? Of course no one would say that because his books have become classic literature which we value as great works of story telling. John Steinbeck wrote books that reflect our culture back at us, that tell us something about human nature that we might not have noticed before or at least not have examined in the same way Steinbeck did. He has captured a particular period of time in history so well that reading his works may make you feel parched and desperate. He is a master writer who has received both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes.
Yet at some point in Steinbeck’s life he was not a master. No one is born a master at anything. He may have had an innate talent for observation and for using language to advantage but there was a time when he was just another little boy learning his letters and scribbling out his first crappy attempts at fiction. He may have met with encouragement early on from his parents and his teachers or perhaps they merely humored him, but one thing is certain: he wasn’t writing publishable works from the first magical moment he discovered a love and a drive for writing. No one does.
Over the last few years I have become friends with a number of writers, mostly still unpublished, but a few who have already distinguished themselves in one way or another. One thing I’ve noticed is that many of us at some point have someone in our lives who thinks of our writing as a quaint little hobby or, much worse, a self indulgent waste of time. There we are scribbling away in our personal journals doing nothing but navel gazing and frittering our time away. I’ve noticed this attitude especially with regards to blogging. I’ve heard so many comments made about how bloggers are just narcissistic people writing crap that no one cares about anyway and maybe they should get a life and stop whining into the public universe or sharing their pitiful small lives out-loud. Such attitudes are toxic to me and I know they’re toxic to other friends working hard to improve their writing, working hard on their projects, working hard to become the writers they want to become. There is only one way to become a great writer: write all the time and never let rejection make you quit.
I mentioned this a little bit in my post “The Old Guard Versus the New Guard” – that blogging is like journal writing for many people. Most writers spend a lot of time writing their thoughts and observations in journals before they branch out into bigger projects with either fictional or real subjects beyond their own lives. Even after a writer embarks on the serious work of writing a novel they often need to let the extraneous riff-raff out of their heads in a less formal and quick way. Usually they will write out this crap in a private journal or if they feel benefit in sharing their whole process publicly (as I do) they will put it on a blog. This kind of writing is a tool for getting at the good stuff, the universal subjects and stories. Maybe it isn’t mind blowing but it releases the steam that gets in the way of the mind blowing stuff.
Blogs themselves can be a writer’s main medium and anyone who doesn’t think great writing can be found on blogs hasn’t read enough of them (or at least the right ones). I respect the medium not just because I personally use it but because both well respected established writers and unknown talented writers have used it to share their best with us all.
I strongly object to trolls suggesting that any form of writing is a self indulgent waste of time. The answer is: every form of writing has the potential to reveal something fresh and new or something heavy and vital. Every writer is potentially the next person to influence your mode of thought, your view of the world, or the next person to lift you up from the bog you’re drowning in and give you enough oxygen to survive another week in a life you’ve grown weary of. Entertainment brings happiness, enjoyment, relief, laughter, perspective, and hope. It doesn’t matter if a writer is working on genre fiction, chick-lit*, non-fiction, self help, literary fiction, or children’s books – there is value in it all. We need it all.
When someone talks about my own writing endeavors as though I’m being precious and self involved I tend to think they have no understanding of what it takes to write, or what faculties one must use to take observations about life and make them available to others. Are writers self obsessed? Maybe some are because they’re inherently like that as a person but writing isn’t self obsession. Perhaps it seems like that to some because a writer must internalize everything they experience and see and hear and observe. It must all go through the filter of their own mind, be held up against what they know and compared to what others seem to think they know, and this all takes introspection. What some obnoxious people call navel-gazing. You can’t write with depth if you can’t see into other human hearts and you can’t see into other human hearts if you can’t first see into your own. You can’t write about people outside yourself until you have learned to understand the human spirit and you can’t write about other humans’ spirits until you have come to understand your own. So yes, everything a writer writes must first come from their own experience and knowledge of themselves and this takes some focus on one’s self. This is what journals are for. This is what blogs are sometimes for. Exploration into one’s self leads to exploration into others.
Writers provide introspection for the world they inhabit. They offer a shortcut to empathy, to other people’s shoes, to other people’s lives. For those uncomfortable examining themselves too closely, or who were taught that examining yourself is somehow the work of the devil, books offer endless opportunities to get to the end result with less work, without having to look in your own soul. If you don’t like where a book takes you you can blame the author. You get the reward of introspection with none of the risk.
Writers reflect you back to yourself. They see, they internalize, they take notes, they evaluate, and they present their findings and their findings are about all of us to some degree. Writers are always writing about themselves but the best ones, the ones that become what they have worked so hard to become, are also writing about YOU. Maybe it isn’t always kind or balanced. Maybe it isn’t what you wanted to see. Maybe it’s so private you have no idea how anyone could have seen you under your skin. Maybe you finally see the beauty in yourself that you never thought was there. Writers are reflecting the world back to itself.
Are all writers going to be great? No. That’s the bald truth. Some will give up before they reach their potential. Some don’t care enough. As with all things in life there are levels of skill and not all of us can be Steinbeck. I know I’m not! I don’t care. No matter where a writer is on their individual path and no matter how far they will end up taking that path- writing is a valuable way to spend time. If nothing else writing may show you to yourself and if you are illuminated you will see how you might change for the better or you might actually see yourself in a better light than you had before. Writing is a valuable exercise for everyone, especially writers. That crappy little story you wrote in eighth grade may be the seed of something extraordinary that needs time to emerge. Time, and many many hours of writing.
Every writer writes a ton of crap. It’s how you get to the good stuff. You just have to keep at it. Every day. I believe that every writer has something brilliant to share, something completely individual. If they will only keep at it. Maybe not a Pulitzer prize winning novel, but maybe a story or an article that will inspire someone else or bring someone some laughter and light. In such a dark world as we are living in now, a little light in a person’s day is a great gift.
Ignore the people who imply that you are a nothing person wasting your life scribbling piffle. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe they don’t like to read. Maybe they’re jealous that you enjoy your path so much. Maybe they are envious that you have something so engrossing to keep your mind puzzling and busy through the tedium of a nine to five job. Maybe they are bitter because they wanted to be a writer too but someone convinced them it was a self indulgent waste of time.
Ignore them. Listen to yourself. Listen to that calling that has drawn you forward your whole life. Keep at it on the tough days and enjoy those days when you absolutely feel it in your bones – those stories you know only you can tell. Don’t worry about how far you’ll get or how good you’ll become. Just keep striving and know that your endeavor is vital to the evolution of humankind. Art, music, and storytelling are how we have moved forward out of survival mode into self awareness and into enlightenment.
Keep writing. Ignore the trolls.
*I absolutely loathe this name of the genre it represents – I think it’s belittling to the authors who write it as well as to the people who read it. However, I don’t get to name fiction genres and this one is widely recognized as books that mostly women enjoy and the implication is, also, that it’s all light fare. Which it might be, but I object to suggesting it isn’t valuable or that those who write it are only doing so because they don’t have the chops to write something heavier.