July 27, 2010

The How-To Cult of the Wroter

I would really appreciate a how-to-write book which begins with the following disclaimer: “More than likely, you don’t like to write; you just want to be a writer.”

The authors of these how-to-write books generally omit the following disquieting points:

1. Feeling like a writer has nothing to do with being a writer. Self-esteem is the product of repeated failure, self-doubt, honest assessment, and repetition of the proceeding steps. Any direction as to how you should prepare yourself emotionally for the creative moment is irrelevant because the authors of such directions are probably not psychologists or behaviorists and certainly do not know you. How-tos that tell you how to become inspired is as ridiculous as me telling you how to feel on your birthday and then you trying to feel that way. Feelings are your business, figuratively and, if you are a writer of even rudimentary ability, literally.

2. Most of us are not an expert, not even on the subject of our own lives. The relative homogeny of our experience, which is generally articulated by media cliches, gives each of us a false sense of expertise. Most of us, with only a glancing understanding, may feel like an expert on an impossibly broad spectrum of subjects, from the superiority of the American version of The Office, to the presence of life on Mars. Writing what you know is not the same as having something to say.

3. Understanding other writers and their process does little to improve our understanding of ourselves or the world. Unless our aim is to impersonate, we would be better served reading the United States Tax Code than any how-to-write treatise. A writer writes a book about the mystical process of writing for the very pragmatic reason that they need money and are out of ideas for writing anything else. Except Rilke. He gets a pass on his charm alone.

4. We are told that writers must play all of the following parts: writers, editors, agents, publishing consultants, marketers, networkers, and spokespeople. Many how-to books will outline the process of publication and success with breezy simplicity, when in truth the process of publication and success is absurd, capricious, and often unique. Getting published is much like losing your virginity: many people have very specific ideas about how it should go but the moment itself follows no script. Writers must be writers. The market is glutted with great networkers and expert marketers, but there are very few writers anywhere on the bookstore shelves.

Tellingly, many writing how-tos often share a common tone and idiom that is reminiscent of a devotional. It is common for the authors of writing-instruction-books to adopt the idiom of religion (especially Eastern religions which still smack of exoticism to Americans) in their efforts to mystify a relatively simple compulsion which has been learned for generations through the still-simpler process of: 1. Reading great works and 2. Writing copious amounts of mediocre crap.

Based on the evidence of the how-tos, I can only assume that would-be writers are incapable, uninspired, and uncommitted to the task. Apparently, would-be writers must be goaded into the ritual of work, reassured as to their writerly purpose, and cajoled into creativity and inventiveness.

I recognize that all of the above is hypocritical given the frequent content of this blog. I sometimes extoll a process; I sometimes explicate the deed. Don’t listen to me. And don’t buy any more books that tell you how to be a writer. They’re essentially pornography for unmotivated wroters.

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