Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Conflict: Writing and 'Realism'

What follows is a long, meandering essay on why I haven't been doing what I should have been doing for the last 23 years. Not that I haven't been writing from time to time, but I would stop writing just as I started to hit a good stride. Between "realistic" pursuits, I would write a half-dozen plays, a hundred poems, or several decent short stories. Then, I'd feel like a failure, since I wasn't selling my works, and I'd slink back towards the "realism" that required putting creative writing aside.

Professional (and pro-ish) writers are, by nature, unrealistic. They have to be, since writing leads to a successful career about as often as portraiture, ballet, or professional sports. If you don't imagine yourself good enough to earn a living, you aren't going to keep writing — and writers write. You need a stubborn sense of pride and the hubris to imagine someone is going to recognize the value of your words.

You might not assume a financial value to your words, but you assign them some sort of value. Maybe you write to teach, to persuade, to entertain, or to "change the world" in a grand way.

When someone tells me that he or she writes for "the self" and some manner of (low-cost) personal therapy, I cringe. Really? You write just for yourself? Then it is a hobby and you are not a "writer" in the way I use the word. To me, a writer creates for an audience. Maybe it is only one other person, but there is an audience.

I used to tell my students that writers are engaged in conversations. Leave it to college students to point out that you can have a conversation with yourself (silently, ideally). Still, my point is that writing and all forms of communication are transactions between people. Writing is an interaction with some sort of goal. Maybe the goal is simply to reinforce traditions and good feelings (epideictic rhetoric), but there is always a goal when we communicate.

For professional writers, your words must attract not merely an audience… but an audience willing to pay for your works. Talk about an absurd dream: earning a living as a writer.

I've ended up meandering around writing, because I've constantly allowed myself to be "realistic" about the potential to earn a living as a writer. While some of my classmates never stopped writing, never accepted that they needed "real" careers to pay very real bills — including student loans — I kept trying to earn money, at the expense of being a writer. So, of course, I succeeded at failing and being unhappy. I would have been much happier being unrealistic. I couldn't have failed as a writer any more than I did in other pursuits. Realism drains creativity.

When I headed off to college, my goal was to be a journalist. But, as I watched newspapers and magazines close, I decided to make the ultimate mistake and shift entirely to teaching. After all, teaching seemed like a secure career path. That didn't end well, and I decided to embrace technology. When that didn't work, did I return to writing? Nope, I went back towards teaching. Only later did I briefly focus on returning to college for a graduate degree in journalism… but that didn't work out well, either.

My entrepreneurial efforts might be compared to being an unrealistic artist, but my attempts to "fit in" within corporate or educational settings were soul-sucking disasters. Not that failing as an entrepreneur is good, but it is better than other forms of misery and discontent. Still, writing would have been cheaper and easier than some of my attempts to achieve financial security.

In a cycle I have written about several times, I would start to pursue writing only to panic about financial security. I'd end up doing something that seemed realistic and potentially rewarding, chasing dreams of earning a living at the expense of writing.

Experiencing failure after failure (personal and financial) as I embraced "realism" over creative writing, guided me towards a doctorate degree. Only an artist could view a career in academia is more secure than doing what he or she loves. It turns out, there aren't anywhere near the job openings necessary to accommodate a fraction of terminal degree holders. Chasing writing would have at least avoided piles of student loan debt and years spent not writing the creative forms and genres I enjoy.

If you want to be a writer, write. I tell my students that, I tell my clients that, I tell seminars that, and yet it isn't what I was doing. I was busy being "realistic" while advising other people to embrace the absurd notion of writing for fun and profit. Why had I allowed this to happen? Why had realism won over my true nature as a writer? I spent six years in graduate school, not engaged in creative writing.

Yes, yes, I know that academic writing, all writing, is "creative" to some degree. But everyone knows what I mean when I describe myself as a creative writer trapped in the world of scholarly writing. Just try to submit an academic paper as an epic poem. Maybe a journal or two will accept it, but most are hung-up on APA and MLA formatting and that horrible language of "academese."

Forget realism. Assume your creative works are good enough. Assume they are whatever you imagine them to be — they just might be that good.

When I write, I know the work I produce isn't "great" compared to the works I admire. But, I also know, without any doubt, that my works are better than 90 percent (or more) of what I read, hear, and see. That's the balance an artist probably needs: the certainty that you're good, the humility to recognize greatness in others. You need a little realism, without being realistic.

Somehow, I need the faith in my works to not be sidetracked by other pursuits. Chasing money has probably cost me money and delayed my career as a writer. I'm not sure how I will avoid being sucked back into that bad cycle, either. How do you not worry about earning enough to pay bills? To take care of family? I need to be unrealistic and convince myself that writing is a career.

If I am going to do anything other than write, it should enable and extend my creative writing. This is going to be a scary transition, and too often I have been scared out of writing full-time. Why do some people pursue their long-shot dreams, while others surrender to realism? The artists must have insane self-confidence and a realization that they are not meant to do anything else.

I keep claiming to be a writer. I make this claim every few years, and then quickly abandon the path required to succeed as a writer. Time to embrace what I tell others and be unrealistic. I must write, write, and write some more, and not only blog posts about why I should be writing….

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