Seriously, Though… Some Thoughts on Writers Who Take Themselves Seriously

Posted by @ 6:21 pm on July 6th, 2011

In an interview with The Paris Review, the whole of which is worth reading, James Salter discussed his writing process and how he thinks through his writing at the language level. He said:

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.

Throughout the interview he speaks at length about his process and his influences and how he  deliberately approaches his craft. He gives the impression of a writer who takes his craft and himself as a writer seriously. There is a confidence in his words, and he does not shirk away from being open about putting in the work of writing. Certainly, some of this confidence and self-awareness comes from a long career and the wisdom that comes with being older. He has had plenty of time to be able to articulate his aesthetic and his process. I would also think, though, that given his body of work, and the way he approached the interview, he is a writer who has always taken himself seriously.

Since The Paris Review put their interviews online and I subscribed to the magazine, I’ve been reading the interviews studiously because they are always so richly detailed, perfectly orchestrated, and didactic. One common theme in nearly every interview is that nearly every writer takes themselves seriously. They have different philosophies and approaches to writing. They have different processes. They are mostly humble, sometimes self-deprecating, but they always detail, in some form or fashion, the level of work they put into their writing and the work they put into conceiving their writing. They articulate their influences and how you can see those influences in their writing.  They don’t provide pithy answers about happenstance or treat writing as some casual affair and I respect that, the willingness to say, “My art is not accidental.”

Louise Erdrich was asked if she revises already published work and she was open about how seriously she takes her writing even after her work has been published.

At every opportunity. Usually, I add chapters that I have written too late to include in the original. Or I try to improve the Ojibwe language used in the book. As I learn more or I consult my teachers, I learn how much I don’t know. Ojibwe is something I’ll be a lifelong failure at—it is my windmill. I’ve changed Love Medicine quite a lot, and I wanted to reviseThe Blue Jay’s Dance. For one thing I wanted to take out the recipes. Don’t try the lemon-meringue pie, it doesn’t work. I’ve received letters. I can’t wait to change Four Souls. There are some big mistakes in that.

Asked how having a family affected his writing, T.C. Boyle was also quite clear that he takes his writing seriously.

Having a family has been very good for me (and I hope good for them too). It gave me the stability I needed to begin and pursue a career as a writer. People tend to romanticize the picture of a writer—they want it to be easy, something a genius can just knock off between debauches, because if it is, if it doesn’t require talent, discipline and a lifelong commitment, then maybe there’s a hope that they, too, someday can knock out their own great and stirring work. We have the devastating example before us of the overwhelming numbers of American writers destroyed by dope and booze—Tom Dardis’s The Thirsty Muse is a real eye-opener—and people tend to think that chemically altering one’s mind is the way to inspiration. Maybe it is. But for me it seems counterproductive. I have never written a sentence—or even thought of writing a sentence—without being in the clearest state of mind. This is my life’s work. This is what I’m meant to do, and why screw with it? I think the way to be a writer is to experience things, certainly, and be open to things, but at some point to become dedicated to the craft of writing and to create a stable environment for that writing to occur in. At least in my case that’s true. So having a family and leading a stable life is absolutely essential to any writing I’ve ever done. When I did my earliest writing, I led a pretty wild life, and the writing was fairly spotty. I would write occasionally. Now I write every day, seven days a week, all year long. And it is my life.

In every case, we see the method behind the writing. We see dedication and persistence. There is little magic or mystery involved.

Since Sean posted about the Fugue play issue and the ensuing conversation where Lia Purpura was accused of taking her work too seriously, I’ve been thinking about what it means to take writing seriously and why taking writing seriously seems to be a bad thing. Some of the responses in that discussion gave the impression that all the “cool” kids were pointing and laughing at a writer who respects her writing and the integrity of her work so much that she dares to defend it. Heaven forbid someone choose not to believe everything is “whatever.” I do not understand the disdain for hard work and people who then acknowledge that they’ve worked hard, that their artistic choices are deliberate and considered.

I’ve read Purpura’s response a few times and from what I’ve seen there, a writer who takes themselves seriously is someone who can clearly articulate the intent of their work, how, ideally they want their work to be read, and why they take issue when someone tries to compromise that intent. I find that admirable. When you are a writer who has thought carefully about your work, who has executed that work carefully, it makes sense to be upset when a magazine publishes your work in a manner that contradicts the effort and intent you put into that work. I respect the value of play but I wonder where the boundaries are? Play is supposed to be fun. If everyone isn’t having fun, we’re not talking about play anymore. Now, once I write something, I know I have no control over how it is received. When I send my work to a magazine and they agree to publish it, I know I only have some control over how they present that work. I would have not reacted the way Purpura reacted but that’s neither here nor there. This isn’t about me. Every writer has a right to their opinion about how their work is published. There is a certain expectation that your artistic integrity won’t be compromised when you enter into a contract for publication even if, as in this case, the theme was play. The editors were serious enough to articulate their editorial vision and choices for the issue in question so the “accusation” of seriousness cannot be applied to the writer alone.

I am not a writer with a complex process. I don’t do a lot of research or have too many rules about writing. In a decade, that will likely change. I’m always evolving as a writer.  Meanwhile, I do a lot of my writing in my head and then I sit and write. Sometimes, good things come forth. Other times, not so much and I have to rethink what I’ve written because it’s just not working. I take myself seriously. I take my writing seriously. I write every day. I read every day. I rarely deviate from this. I do not expect anyone else to take me seriously. I don’t take myself too seriously. I work at it but writing is what I do for fun and I have a lot of fun doing it.

Sometimes it is easier to pretend you don’t care about your writing or that you don’t work hard at this writing thing because that seems like the cool thing to do as if you are somehow a better writer, more of a “genius” or wunderkind if you don’t give real consideration to your work. We’ve all done that, sure, but it’s bluster.  In my experience, the writers who talk the most about how little they take their work seriously, about how it’s just words man,  are the most serious of all. Taking your writing seriously is not the same as taking your writing too seriously or feeling self-important. Even if it were, so what? You don’t have to take yourself seriously as a writer but you are in good company if you do. Rarely is great art accidental.

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