Write To Say Stuff Worth Knowing

I had the following thought, and then went looking for others who had said it before. Wasn’t hard to find:

There are two types of writers, Schopenhauer once observed, those who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.

If you’re young and you think you want to be a writer, chances are you are already in the second camp. And all the advice you’ll get from other people about writing only compounds this terrible impulse.

Write all the time, they’ll tell you. Write for your college newspaper. Get an MFA. Go to writer’s groups. Send query letters to agents.

What do they never say? Go do interesting things.

I was lucky enough to actually get this advice. .. A fair amount of aspiring writers email me about becoming a writer and I always say: Well, that’s your first mistake.

The problem is identifying as a writer. As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. And that end is always to say something, to speak some truth or reach someone outside yourself.

Deep down, you already know this. Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.

No one ever reads something and says, “Well, I got absolutely nothing out of this and have no idea what any of this means but it sure is technically beautiful!” But they say the opposite all the time, they say “Goddamn, that’s good” to things with typos, poor grammar and simple diction ..

So if you want to be a writer, put “writing” on hold for a while. When you find something that is new and different and you can’t wait to share with the world, you’ll beat your fat hands against the keyboard until you get it out in one form or another. (more)

I’ll actually go much further: hold yourself to a far higher standard than merely having something you feel passionate about saying, which many readers will like. Instead, find a way to contribute to a lasting accumulation of knowledge on topics that matter.

Yes, you could weigh in on some standard topic of opinion, one where many have already stated their opinion, and where little progress seems possible. This might make you and your readers feel good. But your one vote will contribute only a tiny amount to long-term human understanding.

You’d do better to focus on a topic where opinions seem to change over time in substantial part due to arguments. Then you could contribute to our collective learning by declaring your support for particular arguments. In this case you’d be voting on which arguments to give more weight. But if many others vote on such arguments, you’d still only make a small fractional contribution. And that fraction might be smaller than you think, if future folks don’t bother to remember your vote.

Better to find a topic where humanity seems to be able to make intellectual progress via arguments, and then also to specialize in a particular subtopic, a subtopic about which few others write. If you can then get other influential writers in overlapping topic areas to read and be persuaded by your argument, you might contribute to a larger process whereby we all learn faster by usefully dividing up the task of learning about everything. You could do your part, and the rest of us could do our parts, and we could all learn together. That can be writing worth reading.

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