On One Hand

January 18, 2007

The Right Writer

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:08 pm

I saw a poster in the office for the CU Department of Writing and Rhetoric that said “I write to know what I think.”

I think that as Americans, in a culture where career and identity are everything, a lot of people write because they want to “be a writer,” to adopt that image. Becoming a successful writer has a lot to do with marketing, resume-building, and putting together a reputation and, if you’re lucky, a fan base. It’s about being in the right place in the right time, luck, being a part of the writing community, and of course, talent and skill.

I prefer to see writing as producing something that others may ultimately benefit from. A writer has to provide a service. Writing is about sharing your experience in a meaningful way; think of this: you’re asking readers to take time out of their finite lives to read something that you wrote, to be essentially fixated, for a time, on an entirely one-way conversation coming from you. It’s geneally considered “rude” to talk and talk and not listen, for good reasons, but when someone is reading something you wrote, that is essentially what is happening. Readers don’t get to share themselves when they read your book, to achieve a sense of immortality through being known to others, or to experience the catharsis of letting their feelings out. They give you their time and don’t get any back. That’s a lot to ask, so I think the deal is only possible if they get something out of it that is genuinely novel. The right kind of writer wrote it, not because he or she wants to be a writer, but because the words needed to be said, and no one else was saying them. Free speech was not written into the U.S. Constitution because writers have a right to have that career, it was written into the U.S. Constitution because the sharing of truths that free speach entails is vital to the progress of a society and benefit to everyone.

Producing writing that is a genuine service to readers is something I struggle with, at this age, because I am 21 years old and don’t have much to say yet that isn’t already being said somewhere in the world. I am 21 and have not had a host of uniqe experiences yet – my deepest encounter of human suffering might be a romantic breakup or a failed exam, which almost everyone has faced before. For a Creative Writing class exersize I just wrote (and posted) an essay about my own name, which is about as self-serving as it gets, which I don’t think benefits anyone unless they happened to laugh at some of the funny parts. I desperately want to be “a writer,” probably in the old American image-is-everything way, and I struggle to think of what I really have to offer. Do I really have any input that is entirely “new” or “unique?” Anything I can muse or reflect on here is probably being shared by other writers somwhere in America.

I think people in minority polulations stand to offer the best service to others through writing. They have unique experiences that can be shared, and it helps to build up a community in a positive way. Mexican Americans, for example, provide a service by writing their experiences into stories that can emotitonally and intellectually support individuals and their growing culture as a whole, which is currently seriously underrepresented in literature. Their writing also expresses the needs and experiences of that community to the greater population. I, a white, middle-class person, would love to read the account of a person who came to America by fleeing across the barren Arizona desert on some modern version of the Underground Railroad, or the account of a Hispanic person who was born and grew up in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in New Jersey, where the clash of cultures doubtlessly challenges identity. Sandra Cisneros, as one example, functions as a writer because of her experience as a female, Hispanic American, and though I’m sure she has plenty more to contribute than her minority status, her writing is just a little more necessary because of the unique angle it comes from. Other communities in such a position to share an unknown (to us) world would include Muslim Americans, Muslims anywhere, GLBTQ people anywhere, people suffering from AIDS or other diseases, or anyone searching or questioning for self-identity or truth while caught up in an often-suppressive new movement like Evangelical Christianity or some political ideology that is bound to its own culture.

What experiences do I have that are novel? I could write aboug being gay, and I often have. I wouldn’t be the first to do that by any means, but I might still have a perspective that is new. Could a focus on that work?

It turns out, that’s something that I struggle with. My sexual orientation honestly just isn’t a huge part of my identy – I barely think of it – and I don’t have any serious gay male friends that aren’t guys I was dating at one time. I have no reason to reach out to “the gay community” for “support.” My only gay friend is my roommate and I thought he was straight when we moved in together – and he isn’t connected to a gay culture either. I think it would be inauthentic to try to pose myself as some “gay author” when I identify more deeply as “liberal” or “college student” and spend my time with others who identify as such. I find it more meaningful, and accurate, to mention sexual orientation in passing, which is how my sexual orientation actually effects my life. Yet it seems that gay books and magazines are the best places for me to try to sell what I have written.

I once had a (straight male) editor of a local magazine, who was trying to solicit me to write something for him, tell me I should write something about “the gay community in Boulder.” I didn’t know how to tell him that I’m not really in “the gay community” and I’m not really sure if one exists in the way that he might imagine, though I don’t know how I’d ever find out. Ultimately the piece I wrote for the magazine had nothing to do with sexuality at all.

One way that sexual orientation has effected me differently from practically anyone else I have met is through the religious crisis I went through while I was 15-17 years old, and as a deeply spiritual (and agnostic) person, spiritual writing is something that appeals to me particularly. I think I can say something of meaning in that area. But is there a market for what I have to say? I don’t know – there certainly is a huge market for New Age or Theosophical type stuff but I couldn’t in good faith evoke a mystical, psychic type spirituality that I don’t beleive in. My spirituality is that I think about the “meaning of it all” a lot but don’t have any answers, and people who read spiritual books do so because they want answers. I am a permanent “seeker” and don’t beleive I’ll ever find anything. Most people align themselves with beleivers and non-beleivers, and don’t want to hear from someone on the fence.

Who knows. I would love to be any kind of writer, but to get there it may be necessary to sort of sell-out and publish whenever and however you can, even if it isn’t that profound or new.



  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. That said, reality is cruel.

    Comment by randomcha — January 18, 2007 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

  2. I don’t think that for someone to be a successful writer they have to have had a completely unique life, or insane life experiences. It is how you write about them that makes them novel. For instance one of my favorite writers is David Sedaris…his experiences are not that unique…but the way he writes about them makes them SO SO SO unique and hilarious..tons of people came from weird families and went to speech therapy and went through drug addiction and had weird neighbors and felt like an outsider but the way you write about it can change everything.

    Comment by swtfxofaddrm — January 19, 2007 @ 3:04 am | Reply

    • Well I know, that’s sort of what I was talking about… if you can explain a normal experience in a way that is novel and new enough that it offers something to the reader, it’s a good thing. Making them laugh is one way to make it worthwhile, which David Sedaris does with his dysfunctional family. As long as you’re providing a service and not just serving yourself, you should be a writer.

      But what David Sedaris (who I love) does takes a LOT of skill. I can only dream of being there someday. In the mean time…

      Comment by ononehand — January 19, 2007 @ 8:36 am | Reply

  3. have you ever read any of natalie goldberg’s writing books – you might find them useful.

    writing, of any sort, is an act of communication. so there’s what’s trying to be said. there’s what is said. and then there’s what is received. and what is heard. in terms of control, I think the writer has it over the first step and to a lesser extent, the second. from there, it involves the reader, the context, the place of reading, and god knows about how many other variables.

    and I know it sounds cliched, but write about what you know, what your experiences are, what you have lived. write about what you have to tell. write about what it is that gives you the strength to write and write about what you want the world to know, not what somebody somewhere wants you to write.

    write what you want to read. and read. read. read. then write.

    Comment by foucaultonacid — January 19, 2007 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: