Member Rara Avis
So many bases to touch, so little time.
Toad, I suspect, is talking about the human desire to excel, which I think transcends the desire to write. We enjoy doing things we feel we do well, whether that be golf or writing, and that leads us to want to do it even better. Makes sense, in a human sort of way. If doing something well makes us feel good, doing it better will make us feel MORE good. More is always desirable.
I have no doubt this is a valid reason for writing, and I'm sure Toad gave it some serious thought. But even if it explains why he writes, it doesn't explain why he chose writing instead of golf. The desire to compete and excel, I think, applies to most human enterprises (maybe all?).
Karen's declared reason for writing is closer to my own reasons, though I would probably tend to be less romantic and more pragmatic. Or maybe I just disagree with the metaphor? Surgeons typically cut out and discard unwanted parts, and I don't necessarily feel that's the role of the writer. More on that, I guess, in a minute.
I suspect writing is little different than painting, photography, programming, math, woodworking, or even gardening (my latest obsession). Each is a way to create something that didn't previously exist. That, too, I think is a basic human desire. It may well be what God meant when he told us man was created in His image. I'm sure I didn't get my belly button and receding hairline so I could look like God, so it has to be something a bit more fundamental. And, like the story of Genesis, I think most human beings feel an overwhelming and life-long need to be creative.
Why writing? Sadly, for many, I think they turn to writing because of early exposure and because it seems easy.
A bad painter recognizes they're bad pretty quickly. A bad writer, however, often doesn't realize how bad they are until they've become much better. At which point they keep going - because they don't know they're still pretty bad and probably won't until they again get better. While that's also true of other arts (I've seen some pretty miserable painters), writing seems to be far more subjective. Brad touched on this, I think, when he talked about the strict rules of golf versus the much more nebulous rules of writing. No one can ever be a better writer than they are a reader, and if they don't see "it" in the work of others, they won't see the lack of it in their own. So, at least for a time, writing often seems an easy way to fulfill our creative drive.
Perhaps that's a blessing, though. I spent much more time drawing and painting as a child than I ever spent writing. I went to college and studied commercial art for two years. But, when I discovered and truly understood the genius that was Picasso, I changed my major to business. I knew I could NEVER shine that brightly, and while I didn't give up my art, neither did I ever again pursue it with the same fervor. I suspect if I really understood writing, in the same way I did Picasso, I'd probably spend a lot more time in the garden. My ignorance is both my salvation and perhaps the only path to less ignorance.
(That's why I believe we shouldn't beat other writers over the head with their own ineptitude. We should, when asked, show them just enough to move them along their path, but never so much as to make the path look ugly and impassable. It is ugly. It is impassable. Most of us don't need to know that yet. At the risk of mixing metaphors, writers juggle a thousand balls simultaneously, and it's inevitable that some will fall. Standing to the side, it's easy to see the balls at the writer's feet. But the writer can't afford to look down. Not yet, not until keeping those other balls in the air become second nature.)
Now, having identified what I think are a few basic human needs that relate to writing, I have to admit that "changing the world" probably isn't one of them. I don't even think it's possible. Of course, the term is a vague one, and maybe we're not even talking about the same thing. So let me clarify a little.
I think we can, and at times should, "rearrange" the world. We determine those things we think are "good" and do what we can to multiply them. Similarly, we minimize the things we see as "bad." In that sense, we make the world different, but then again, that's almost a definition of living. We make the world different by our very existence. Changing the world in the greater sense, in the sense Brad uses the phrase, implies more, I think, than simple difference. And that's where I run into problems. I don't think we can ever bring out anything, either in the world or in people, that doesn't already exist. At best, we can "rearrange" things.
Even then, I don't think we can rearrange the world directly through words. Indirectly, perhaps, but not directly. We maximize the good and minimize the bad by action and example. By doing it, not by talking about it. If we're lucky, if we work hard at it, if we really believe it's important, our words can become a reflection of our example and impact more people than otherwise possible. But that's it. The words only reflect the light, they never cast it.
Brad, I think conversation-stoppers often have less to do with the answers than with the questions. Your original premise questioned the goals of a writer, and that led me to the only answer I know. We have many different goals, many different reasons for writing (and our goals and reasons don't always coincide). To really pursue the conversation further than that, I think we need to move from the general to the specific. We need to focus not on writers, but on one particular facet of writing.
Should writers attempt to influence the language and, if so, should they distance themselves in order to further enhance that influence?
I think it's inevitable that writers WILL influence the language, but I suspect (with no supporting evidence) that it's a mistake to try doing it intentionally. Society, and by extension the language that connects individuals into a society, is too complex (chaotic) to ever fully understand. Injecting our influence may seem like a good idea, but I seriously question whether anyone has the wisdom or insight to understand the ultimate repercussions. If language tempers thought, as you and I both believe it does, then the thoughts of a single writer are but small pieces of a much larger puzzle. And so should they remain.
What you are suggesting, I think, has a parallel in the "Politically Correct" movement discussed in other threads. Nigger is a nasty word. But the minute we outlaw if from our language, in a very valid attempt to outlaw it from human thought, we open the door for outlawing far more. I agree one hundred percent with the principles behind the PC movement, but have seen very little wisdom in its implementation. Controlling the language, whether through activists or writers, is a very dangerous thing.
Fortunately, neither activists nor writers have that power. You may never again hear nigger spoken in the boardroom, but it remains rampant on the streets. Society accepts the changes IT wants, and only very slowly. Individuals may influence, but rarely control, and I personally believe attempts to do so carry grave risk, a risk to the individual's integrity when they fail, coupled with a risk to society should they ever succeed.
And yet, in spite of that, writers unintentionally influence our language and thoughts all the time. Socrates almost single-handedly shaped Western civilization, Shakespeare's words have become common English phrases, and the Big Brother world of Huxley has become a backdrop for modern society that we all recognize, understand, and fear. Such influence is inevitable.
That kind of influence would be far more dangerous, though, were we unable to return to the original sources for a deeper understanding of what the writer really meant. Anonymity is another word for lost knowledge. If the writer is seeking power, disassociation makes a warped kind of sense because it severs any link to questioning the original words. Personally, I don't think that is the goal of writing. That's the goal of propaganda. This also, I think, ties to my earlier point in another thread about the impossibility of separating credit and responsibility.
And, yes, credit for a writer's work is occasionally going to include some of that much maligned fame and riches. But that's okay, too.
Fame and riches for the writer is much the same as tenure for the professor. Both provide a very necessary freedom to take risks, to sometimes march to a different beat than is expected. The writer needs that. The professor needs that. And society, I think, very much needs that.
Of course, not all writers take advantage of that freedom. Too many write the same story over and over, constantly trying to relive their first success. One of the things that most impresses me about Stephen King is not his writing (mediocre), not his story-telling (much, much better), but rather his willingness to step outside his past successes and try something wildly different. He can do that, and still carry a phenomenal audience, only because of his fame.
Those who write so they can be rich and famous are doomed to failure. Those who want to be rich and famous so they can write have a chance. And, personally, I think that's the way it should be.
Maybe Ellison was right, but I think the sense of dissatisfaction he described can surface in different ways. For me, writing has always been less about changing the world than about explaining it. Sometimes, I try to explain it to others, but usually I'm trying to explain it to myself. I think maybe this is the similarly Karen and I share, though I can't really liken the process to surgery (expect perhaps the exploratory kind).
Life has this nasty tendency of happening too fast for easy analysis. Every Big Event in our lives should be followed by an intermission, but that's rarely what happens. Instead, the curtain is always up, and it seems like we're never given the chance to learn our lines for the last act, let alone for the next. And for some of us, at least for the greater portion of our life, every act is a cliff-hanger that propels us at break-neck speed into the next act.
Words come more slowly. They give me the chance to relive pieces of my life in slow motion, with more thought and reflection than was possible in the living moment, and when I get it just right, those words can bring new understanding. I can see not only what happened, which is usually all that life gives us time to see, but also WHY it happened. And when the light is shining its brightest, I feel I can extrapolate that understanding into the might-have-been's and the yet-to-be's.
Understanding people and their motivations brings me satisfaction. Tracing a line between cause and effect brings me pleasure. Like Toad, I continually try to improve my efforts, in the hope such improvement will lead to greater satisfaction and pleasure. Like Karen, my focus remains on my own life, though often hidden well within the province of fiction, and the impact of my words is an internal force. Much of what I write is never shared, and I would probably be largely happy with that notebook, pen, and lots of cute little squiggly lines. (We should note, I think, that our reasons for writing and our reasons for sharing can be very different creatures.) Like Brad, I believe language represents a power and responsibility, and like Brad, I dislike ambiguity.
Maybe changing the world is a good reason to write for some. But not for me. It would take a heart far stronger than mine to withstand the inevitable failures, and shoulders far wider than mine to bear any possible success. I find the struggle to change just myself, undertaken largely through written explorations, more than sufficient to occupy the remainder of my life.