Saturday, 28 April 2012

Who do writers write for? (or) For whom do writers write?

Modern marketing began with the notion that, instead of making a product then trying to find customers to buy it, it would be more effective to find out what the customer needs or desires then make a product to supply that need or desire.

Fair enough, but does it work with the writing product - books, plays, media? I guess it must to a degree, judging by the millions spent globally on focus groups, trend-spotting and other techniques in search of what might be the next big thing.

There are at least two problems, though. The first is that the customer is a rear view mirror - what you get from looking closely at customer behaviour and opinion is not so much the next big thing as the last big thing. How can customers desire what they don’t yet know exists? That must be an even bigger problem for considering products of the imagination than it is for considering products of, say, technology, which tend to work more by accretion than departure.

The second problem is that the product of aggregated opinion must be cliché. By definition, work that is predicated on the predicted must be predictable. In other words, writing out of focus group wisdom is bound to produce the same old pap however thinly disguised in next year’s colour.

So, if we are not writing for the ‘customer’ as made flesh by the marketeers, who are we writing for? ‘Write for yourself’ is sound advice I’ve heard many times, coupled with ‘Write what you know’. To take my own modest case, without it I would not have produced my semi-autobiographical collection of short stories We Never Had It So Good, nor indeed many of the plays for schools earlier in my writing career. Dickens produced some of his best work engaging with and writing from his personal experience, as have so many others - Alan Bennett, to settle on a modern example - but these maxims, useful as they are, set their own boundaries. There is a limit to writing out of yourself, while writing for yourself could restrict you to an audience of one. What would Shakespeare have achieved if he had left himself so confined?

I believe the best we can do is to write for the seeker. Instead of trying to analyse trends or aping yesterday’s successes we need to ask ourselves what is capturing the thoughts (or stoking the anxieties) of humanity now and for the future. Much of our impulse forward is fuelled by a sense of searching for something - often ill-defined, sometimes intangible, but nevertheless there. What is the object of that search; what can we say about the journey?

These are questions that are useful for writers of fact and fiction. They provide a motive force for our research and can drive our writing. Addressing these questions can be so much more liberating than merely writing what we know, and edifying too. As the author Simon Brett pointed out at a recent Authors North event I attended, the full-time writer, cut off from a normal working environment, knows less and less. Writing for the seeker give us a certain impetus to find out what we don’t know. Our efforts to answer the seeker’s questions lucidly will help shape the work we do, and we can demonstrate our qualities to the extent we are able to define what was ill-defined, make tangible the intangible.

Of course the seeker and the writer may be one - taking us back to the notion of ‘write for yourself’ - but the broader concept of write for the seeker offers infinite possibilities on so many levels - personal; interpersonal; societal; global; universal - as well as a forward dynamic and a natural structural fit with the idea of the story or argument as a quest, a journey, an unfolding.

For me there is also a sense of companionship, if only a virtual one, in the idea of writing for the seeker, a realised image of the reader as fellow-passenger on the journey, one for whom I have responsibility throughout and must navigate to our mutual destination across all the obstacles, working with a map that seems to be missing significant parts of the route, overcoming challenges on the way. I may be the guide but, as in all good quests, neither of us could make it to the end without the other.

Finally (to throw the marketeers a bone) there is a commercial rationale. Bookshops, libraries and on-line repositories are natural haunts for seekers of all bent and persuasion. If we have anticipated and successfully engaged with the objects of their search in the works we have created, they will surely find us there.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Write wit 2

Way back in December 2010 I wrote a blog posting of quotations about writers and writing Write wit. It seemed to go down well, so here are some more offerings of the same - a sequel, as it were.

“If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.”

Ivan Turgenev

“I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit.”
P G Wodehouse

"It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?"
Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville West

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
E L Doctorow

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.
E L Doctorow 

"There are plenty of clever young writers. But there is too much genius, not enough talent."

J B Priestley

"Practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book, and does."
Groucho Marx

"A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation for the editor."
Ring Lardner

"Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon."
William Zinsser

“One thing that literature would be greatly the better for

Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor.”

Ogden Nash

Ogden Nash

“If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research.”

Wilson Mizner  

“Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull.”
Rod Serling

“Television has raised writing to a new low.”

Samuel Goldwyn

"Most rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read."
Frank Zappa

"Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”
Robert Frost 

“Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”
Mickey Spillane

I am the kind of writer that people think other people are reading.
V S Naipaul

"When I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I am grown up, they call me a writer."
Isaac Singer

"People want to know why I do this, why I write such gross stuff. I like to tell them I have the heart of a small boy - and I keep it in a jar on my desk."
Stephen King

Stephen King
 “I'm a lousy writer; a helluva lot of people have got lousy taste.”
Grace Metalious

 "I was thirty-seven when I went to work writing the column. I was too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security, and too tired for an affair."

Erma Bombeck

"If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that's read by persons who move their lips when they're reading to themselves."
Don Marquis

"There are men who can write poetry, and there are men who can read balance sheets.The men who can read balance sheets cannot write."
Henry R Luce

"If writers were good businessmen, they'd have too much sense to be writers."

Irvin S Cobb 

“Some day I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away.”
Clarence Darrow 

“Writing is turning one's worst moments into money.”
J P Donleavy 

“Income tax returns: the most imaginative fiction written today.”
Herman Wouk 

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft.”
H G Wells 

“Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.”
Franklin P Jones 

“Be kind and considerate with your criticism. It's just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book.”
Malcolm Cowley

“Do we write books so that they shall merely be read? Don't we also write them for employment in the household? For one that is read from start to finish, thousands are leafed through, other thousands lie motionless, others are jammed against mouseholes.”
G C Lichtenberg

“I can't understand why a person will take a year to write a novel when he can easily buy one for a few dollars.”
Fred Allen

“Ordering a man to write a poem is like commanding a pregnant woman to give birth to a red-headed child.”
Carl Sandburg 

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”

"The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business."
John Berryman

“I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did his dictation.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe
 "When all things are equal, translucence in writing is more effective than transparency, just as glow is more revealing than glare."
James Thurber

"There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don't see them."
Elie Wiesel 

"It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you waggle your ears?"
J M Barrie

If you enjoyed these you might like to view my first Write wit post here. My third in the series is here: Write wit 3.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Entertainment fills, art resonates

As a young man many years ago (OK, late 1970s) I was recruited by Wansbeck Council as their first Arts & Entertainments Officer. One of the questions they asked me at the interview was, what is the distinction between the two? I think I made some blandly vague answer about the difference being in the eyes of the beholder, and that one often slid into the other. The reply must have satisfied at some level since they hired me. Nearly forty years on, the question has popped into my brain again - I’ve no idea why - along with the sort of answer that when I have been drinking I might grab onto as a Eureka moment (should it be ‘an Eureka moment’?), only to wake up in the morning and dismiss as meaningless toss (should that be tosh? I quite like toss).

I haven’t been drinking (despite interrupting myself in parentheses) and it’s still a(n) Eureka moment to me, so I’ll state it below, with my name added to lay full claim to ownership:

Entertainment fills, art resonates
David Williams

I thought of tweeting the distinction and leaving it at that, but I guess it needs a little clarification; hence this short blog post.

We all need diversion, it seems - whether to relieve us from our labours, provide a temporary escape, alleviate boredom, help us socialise with our friends, or simply to fill in the time between the tick and the tock of our lives. That’s how entertainment started, and that still pretty much describes its role, in whatever form the entertainment comes. It can be variable in quality, it can be something done to us (as audience) or that we do ourselves (as participants) or both at once, but essentially entertainment fills these gaps in our time and community. Entertainment can both fill and, at its best, be fulfilling.

Art does more; and entertainment transmutes to art when, on occasion, it does more. Art does not just fill the moment, does not end at the end - it goes on. Think of the moments after a superb piece of music has played; after the curtain comes down on a wonderful theatre or dance performance; the sensation that remains when the great novel is ended and returned to the shelf; when the doors are closed on the great artist’s exhibition. The resonance may be at its most intense immediately after the direct experience (sensed as a wave of bliss, or grief, or passion, or revelation) and the resonance carries on, less intensely but perhaps more deeply, sometimes deep enough to make a groove in the rest of your life, to have an effect on your apprehension, your understanding and your response to future experiences in art and life.

Of course not all art will resonate with all individuals, far from it - we each carry our personal arts centre within ourselves - but one of the tests of great art is the power it has for creating resonance among a sizeable community of individuals and (rather like valency bonds in science if I understand the theory correctly) to bond them in accord, a shared acknowledgement of that greatness. It is through such resonance that our giants of art - our Leonardo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Beethoven, Tolstoy and others - came to be so memorialised.

Does this distinction resonate with readers out there? Let me know.