I’m in two minds as to whether writers want to be helped. Part of the satisfaction that compensates for the innate insecurity, that is typical of a creative writer’s existence, comes from the sense that writing is one of the few areas where the creator of the work can have complete control. Of course, that happy state only lasts until one encounters agents, editors and the like who have a tendency to want to ‘shape’ one’s manuscript because they ‘know’ the market.
I’ll refrain from further comment at this stage while I go and kick the cat, or otherwise work off my frustrations. I’ll just say that a good editor is hard to come by; and a ‘good’ agent is a contradiction in terms. I’ll also add that I have benefited from considerable help in terms of introductions and other lucky breaks, though whether the advice I received re my actual writing was helpful is something I’m less sure about. If you write hard enough and long enough – and refrain from excessive indulgence in alcohol, and wild, wild women, that inner voice will come. And you would be wise to trust it. And you should note that my choice of the word ‘excessive’ allows a great deal of latitude.
On to the hard part.
Q. Why is writing so … difficult?
This belongs in the What-is-the-meaning-of-life category, and I’m not sure that many people do think it’s that difficult given the number that have said to me: “I’d love to write a book if only I had the time. In fact my friends are constantly telling me that I should because I’ve had such an interesting life.” The Taser was invented for such people. If you are not so equipped, a well delivered epithet is considered a socially acceptable response to such idiocy.
The current American Way of life is based upon consumption rather than production. Add in lousy schools, and a corporately controlled environment (meaning that corporations now control EVERYTHING including our politicians) and a reasonable Martian might reasonably conclude that an independent cast of mind is not encouraged. In short, most of us are so manipulated, conditioned and programmed from birth that our ability to cast a fresh eye on things, and translate that perspective into words on paper, has been driven right out of us.
The system doesn’t want us to think because to think is to question the status quo – and that threatens those who benefit from it. The consequences of such mass cognitive failure show in many ways from the generally poor quality of American conversation, to our seeming inability to discuss issues of any complexity, to our obsession with celebrity, to our acceptance of demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Gen Beck and Sarah Palin, to our unhappy habit of engaging in unnecessary and expensive wars, to the decline of this Great Nation. Instead, most of us rely on prejudices and clichés, and talk at each other rather than engaging in genuine dialogue; and we avoid exercising our minds as if the practice was somehow unclean. In short, instead of cultivating well trained minds, the American system produces conditioned conformist consumers who go through life being intellectually bottle-fed rather than thinking for themselves.
The consequences of this sustained assault on our innate cognitive abilities are self-evident and far-reaching. But the specific problem, where writing is concerned, is that good writing requires an active, well honed, well informed mind because original ideas are the raw material for what is a highly complex decision making process. And if your intellect has been allowed to atrophy, because you have spent your life being distracted by manufactured entertainment, trying to rev up those little grey cells to construct an original thought, let alone translate that into written form, is extraordinarily difficult. Which is where we came in.
Writing would be less difficult for most of us if we learned to do it earlier and practiced more; and if we used it as the excellent intellectual exercise that it is. But we don’t. Instead we instituted the multiple choice question, arguably the greatest threat to cultivating a thought prior to Bill Gates’s introduction of PowerPoint.
I’d like to add one further soupçon that occurred to me today as I was enjoying a walk on what was a truly beautiful day - and watching the activities of the local Anti-Gang Unit (their uniforms were labeled that way just in case the unmarked Crown Vic didn't make the point). Somehow I get the feeling that many of us are losing the facility to really observe our surroundings. It’s hard to appreciate the subtleties of life when one is driving, let alone with the radio blasting away, and half of one’s mind focused on texting. I’m not against cars, radios, iPods and mass entertainment in general – I positively love the radio - but I just think we’re using such marvelous devices to excess right now and might benefit from a sense of proportion.
Fortunately, there are many bright people around who are exceptions to what I have just written – and, naturally, they all buy my books (and you are one of them) but I have a horrible feeling that my basic thesis is accurate where the population as a whole is concerned. I would like to be proven wrong. It may be going through a bad patch, but I’m very fond of this quirky country.
To be continued…