Don't Try to Be an Artist--Just Write!

by Tina Blue

I have little patience for the artistic pretensions of writers.

Typically, thinking of your writing as "art" either blocks you from writing at all, or it encourages you to produce pretentious twaddle.  Very few writers are talented enough to write well when they are self-consciously attempting to create "art."

I am reminded of Madonna in Truth or Dare, the video documentary recorded during her "Blonde Ambition Tour." (Joan Cusak, by the way, did a hilarious spoof of it called Dare to Be Truthful.) In one scene, Madonna angrily assures her dancers and musicIans before a show that she will not allow the well-publicized presence of censors and police officers to pressure her into "compromising her art."

What great form of artistic expression was she refusing to compromise?  Well, word had gotten out that in one number she had flashed her bare cro . . . --um, private parts--at the audience.  The cops were there to stop the show if it happened that night.

Oh, the risks we will take for our "art."

The best thing an aspiring writer can do is to purge himself of all that nonsense about being a serious literary artist and just write.

Many years ago I read an article by a man who had spent two years doing what I call "factory writing."  He was one of those anonymous writers who crank out endless quantities of formula romances, mysteries, westerns, and other popular subgenres of the sort that you find near the magazine rack at your local supermarket. 

These books are published under house pseudonyms, but they are produced by stables of writers earning little more than minimum wage.  They are paid by the hour, and they are expected to produce a certain number of words or pages per day. 

For each subgenre, the writers are given a set formula to follow, and they fill in the details.  No one pretends it is art.  It's just writing, pure and simple.

The point of the man's article was that it was the best apprenticeship possible for a becoming a professional writer.  It forced him to slough off all his college-boy pretensions and taught him to write as if writing was his job.

It was.

Writing was also Shakespeare's job (along with acting and directing, of course).  He wrote to make a living.

A lot of writers now taught in high school and college English classes started off as working journalists--e.g., Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Other major writers, like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, went to Hollywood to earn money by writing screenplays.  (They weren't very successful at it.) 

Many of the writers we consider great today were considered hacks by their contemporaries.  Some of them, like Dickens, are still denigrated by a few pompous critics who deplore their popular appeal.

Think of some of the self-consciously "artsy" writing you've read, either because it was required for some class or because some highbrow critic called it brilliant.  A lot of that stuff disdains comprehensibility.  It is virtually unreadable. 

I am not saying that high literary art is bad or that popular writing is necessarily good.  A lot of popular writing is absolute garbage, and of course serious literature often really is sublime.

But when writers think of themselves primarily as artists, they sometimes get pretty silly.

Have you seen that delicious Woody Allen movie Bullets Over Broadway?  In it, Woody Allen plays a self-consciously highbrow playwright.  He and the other "serious" writers he hangs out with spend their evenings drinking wine and bemoaning the philistine taste of the benighted public, which doesn't appreciate their work.  They wallow in rarefied discussions of the philosophy of art and of artistic meaning and value.

Meanwhile, their truly awful works bomb with audiences, who stay away in droves.

Finally, the only way the Woody Allen character can get financial backing for a play is to make a deal with a crime boss, who will back the play if his ditsy blonde girlfriend, who is an excruciatingly bad actress,  is given a major role.

Chaz Palmenteri plays the bodyguard assigned to keep an eye on the boss's girlfriend.  Soon, he starts offering suggestions to the playwright about ways to improve the dialogue, enhance character development, and tighten the dramatic structure of the play.

By following his advice, the playwright vastly improves the quality of his play.  Before long, the hood has essentially rewritten the entire piece, though the playwright still takes all the credit.  Not only is it a better play--the audiences love it, so it actually ends up making real money as well.

Although he is willing to let the playwright claim the work as his own, the hood is not willing to see it ruined by the boss's girlfriend's lousy acting, so he kills her.  As soon as the boss realizes what has happened, he has the hood whacked in return.

Everybody's a critic these days.

Fortunately, most of us don't need to worry that criticism of our work will go that far. 

My point here is to forget about being an "artist."  On the one hand, such pretensions may encourage you to commit self-indulgent sloppiness while calling it "creativity."  (Personally, I try to stomp out "creativity" wherever it rears its ugly head.)

On the other, thinking that you are in the process of creating timeless works of literary art may prevent you from writing anything at all. 

     I say, give me solid, competent "hack" writing any day.

Tomorrow, that "hack" work may very well be taught as a classic in some high school or college English class.

back to article index
back to homepage
Tell a friend about this page
Sign InView Entries
email me
Improve Your English Grammar with WhiteSmoke