DRMacIver's Notebook

Writing from the heart

Writing from the heart

I've been thinking about types of writing recently, and in particular about the following section from Hillary Rettig's excellent "7 Secrets of the prolific":

Grandiosity is a problem for writers because our media and culture are permeated with grandiose myths and misconceptions about writing, which writers who are undermentored fall prey to. Red Smith’s famous bon mot about how, to write, you need only “sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,” and Gene Fowler’s similarly sanguinary advice to “sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead,” are nothing but macho grandiose posturing, as is William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview:

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

Many of the most famous quotes about writing are grandiose. I’m not saying that all of these writers were posturing—perhaps that’s how they truly perceived themselves and their creativity. What I do know is that, for most writers, a strategy based on pain and deprivation is not a route to productivity. In fact, it is more likely a route to a block.

I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent. No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all, and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living.

I think Rettig is, broadly, right here about how most people should be writing most of the time, but I must admit that of all the wisdom in this section the one that's stuck with me is the line she's disagreeing with.

According to Quote Investigator, Red Smith's full line is:

You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.

I think about this a lot because, contra Rettig, writing be like that sometimes.

It's useful to compare and contrast two recent newsletter issues of mine. Labelling feelings 101 and The first hard choice.

Labelling feelings 101 was not a particularly taxing piece to write. It's just a summary of lots of things I've thought about. There's a moderate amount of myself in there, but only because it's explaining how I look at things. It's a look at part of the world through my eyes, but it's just explanatory prose, it's nothing particularly revealing.

The first hard choice on the other hand is weirder and more personal. I started writing, and then I continued writing, and it went in a very different direction than I intended. The underlying thought process is non-obvious, but I think it comes through that I'm writing about something that actually matters to me.

Tellingly, "Labelling feelings 101" has got more attention (it's certainly useful to more people) but "The first hard choice" has got more praise (and also more people checking in to make sure that I'm OK).

Writing is, a lot of the time, a way of expressing something deeply felt. You write from the heart, and it's hard to do that without bleeding onto the page.

Most writing isn't, and shouldn't, be like this. If you're writing an email to a coworker it doesn't have to express some profound truth. If you're writing some basic copy explaining how a product works, same. But if you're writing about your life, or about things that are personally important to you, and you are never doing this, then you're probably holding your feelings at arms length, and that isn't great.

Am I being grandiose? Rettig would probably think so, and maybe I am. But some things are actually important, and it's hard to talk about that without sounding a little grandiose, and maybe that's OK.

I don't do this sort of writing enough, and I'd like to do it more - every time I have it's been in some way transformative.

In order to achieve this, I've come up with a very detailed and elaborate plan: I'm going to do it.