Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer…Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page. –Zadie Smith
I’m going to say something that’s a bit controversial: there’s a deluge of terrible writing on the internet. What I love about the online space and the advent of digital technology–the democratization of voices and the ease in which unknown greats can rise above the din and find shelter with a receptive audience–has also given way to the sense that everyone who has a piece of virtual real estate can call themselves a writer and live this carefully curated “writer’s life,” replete with a gleaming laptop, unsullied notebooks, and a weathered coffee mug. I never quite understood this notion of a romanticized writer’s life because when I attempted such a life it was rife with financial anxiety and the paralyzing fear that I wasn’t any good–I always thought I was second-rate. While there are so many resources devoted to the art of making one a better writer by refining some of the technical aspects of the craft, for me the art of writing is simple: you’re either an artisan of language or you’re not.
There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character tries to explain his enormous gift:
Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.
Writers can dissect the process of how they architect and develop characters, scene and story, but ask them how they’re able to create music with a strange combination of words and they go mute. How do you explain that you’re able to see the world and translate it in a way that moves people? That there’s beauty in the arrangement of words, how a writer’s able to describe an object or emotion that puts someone else’s heart on pause. Writers are downright surgical about how and what they write, and every one of them will tell you that they write from a compulsive place, from a desire to tell a particular story. They don’t write because they want to, it’s because they have to. And while a writer can study craft and technique, at the end of the day you either can play or you can’t.
Last year I was in a slump. I witnessed mediocrity get rewarded with microfame and book deals. I watched brilliantly-crafted novels go unnoticed in favor of poor fiction with its grating, overwritten prose and characters void of complexity. I read a lot of lists and scrolled through what seemed like a labyrinth of quizzes, wondering, does anyone feel anything? Are we simply a character in a sitcom? Are we reduced to a top-ten list that’s meant to define the whole of us? Are we happy with this? Are we content with art that is compressed, regurgitated and made to go “viral” with a string of keywords and a nonsensical image? (I harbor a desire to torch anyone who doesn’t use this word sardonically). I read scores of blogs written by people who care only to publish a book because it would bolster their “brand,” as opposed to having a fervent desire to create art, to tell a story that will leave its indelible mark.
Basically, I read a lot of shit on the internet. A towering inferno of it.
And yes, mediocrity has always existed and has always been rewarded (I would argue not as handsomely). And yes, life is cruel and unfair. And yes, great writing will always, inevitably, find its place in the world. But it’s hard, as someone who writes tough, dark books and reads them as passionately as I write them, to know that this democratization has also opened the floodgates of shit, and it’s upon the reader to sift through the rubble to find what’s meaningful. To see that which is good. Also, I wonder whether we’ve been exposed to so much shit that what we think is good is no longer? I don’t know how to answer any of this–I just wonder.
Illustration Credit: John Alcorn, via
Last year I purchased and read a lot of books. Many of which were remarkable. Many of which were shit. I’d nearly given up hope (call it end-of-year dramatics, and I acknowledge my proclivity toward it) and then I started the year off reading a succession of good fucking books that made me feel the way books should–they gave me hope.
Likeable characters bore the fuck out of me. If I want a shiny, happy life I only need to scroll through popular Instagram feeds rather than spend 300 pages cuddled up next to it. I read to get uncomfortable, to learn, to gain perspective and be transformed in some way. And reading has made me a better writer, not simply for the techniques learned from authors I admire, but for how good books drive me to go deeper with my scalpel until there’s nowhere else to go. If given the chance to write from the perspective of a nice girl who gets her heart broken and perseveres or from one of a sociopath, know that I would choose the latter. I’m fascinated by people who harbor a degree of darkness, characters who are flawed and complex. These are people who have been through war and are still dressing their wounds. I sometimes like novels that are unresolved or bleak because sometimes this is life, and the reading of this gives one wisdom, makes them see the world differently.
After I read Sonya Hartnett’s What the Birds See, I joked to a friend that I should move to Australia because they would be receptive to the kinds of books I want to write. I’m fascinated by children, how they’re untouched and innocent, and I’m even more fascinated when I see them interact with adults, because adults always find ways to ruin the worlds children have built, brick by brick, intentional or unintentional. There is no Santa Claus, that overheard argument, the parents who fall out of love as quickly as they took up lovemaking like cross stitch–Hartnett writes about the vulnerability and breakability of children. I set down her book and nodded my head and said, these are the kind of books I always seek to write: dark, elegant, fragile and visceral.
I followed Harnett’s novel with My Brilliant Friend–the first in a tetralogy of Neopolitan novels about a lifelong friendship–and consumed it so voraciously that I immediately ordered the second two books. Next up is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women–more tales about eccentric, beguiling and flawed, yet beautiful, women (notice a pattern?).
Terrible writing will always frustrate me, but I’m trying to train myself to sift through and discover the voices that seek to shout above the din of listicles and storytelling that solely serves as a traffic-driving authenticity device. But this is often my flaw–I’ll fixate on the shit at the expense of what’s really good and pure.
Work in progress, people. Work in progress.