The Writer’s role

Writing – what’s the point anymore? Oh, there are those of us who write for their daily bread, and for them the raison d’être is as plain as day, but for those of who don’t live in New York City or London just what are we doing? Why? And what are we trying to accomplish with all these spilled words and flung-out sentences? What can a writer hope to do – to be – in today’s world?

Writers need readers, but reading too is not what it was. It used to really mean something, it was central to countless lives. And for many, thankfully, it still is. But do books hold the cultural importance that they once did? Do magazines? Articles? Reviews? Op-eds? In daily life we still read all the time, of course, but how much of what we read is only for informative purposes? Or for entertainment? Take the example of email as an indicator of this writing/reading trend. I actually remember quite vividly the first email that I ever sent: it was back in 1996, I had recently entered university, and for the first time in my life had an internet connection at home. Imagine that. For me, for all of us then, sending an email was a very fast way of sending a written letter, and we followed the conventions and formats of traditional letter writing when we typed our emails. The approach was more or less identical. Fast forward a couple of decades and we now have an email culture that in many cases has either come to mimic text-style chatting in content or has itself degenerated into text-style ultra-brief missives in form. What has been lost in the process? Quite a lot of meaningful communication, of course, but written communication is still happening, and reading – of a sort – is still taking place.

Into this mix we place the modern writer. Someone for whom the word still rings with logos, someone for whom the word carries a weight that belies its digital-byte quasi-immateriality. What is this person meant to do in our contemporary setting? For the professional writer the demands faced will be specific and frequent enough that we can place them in another category, their role(s) are well-defined and expectations clear. For everyone else we find a rather large question mark hovering over their names. For truth be told this latter type of writer is producing what is ostensibly neither requested nor even really desired. There is no specific demand, after all, for writing done voluntarily. Yes, you are reading this blog post and are no doubt getting something (at least something) out of it, but I could just as well have never written it and your day and your life would not be affected all that much. Writing of this sort – and its volume is vast indeed – is superfluous: culturally so, economically so, definitionally so. We might wonder why such writers bother, but that is not our question here (although it has often been asked on this site as a quick search shows). Our query rather is how we readers (and many probably also writers) relate to, or ought to relate to, such people.

And this, I think, is up to the writer in question. A writer now, a writer that writes for the sake of writing, a writer for whom it burns in their soul and must be done regardless of reward or its lack, is in the enviable position of being able to define their own role. Since nothing that they do is necessary in any kind of ultimate sense they are fully free to do as they will, and to express that will however they will. That is powerful. That is in fact life itself, and in the role(s) taken on by this type of blood-sweat-and-tears, art-for-art’s-sake writer, we find the expression of an existence declared. Life is an unwanted commodity – no one asks to be born -, and when we find ourselves alive we are confronted with the terrible question of what to do with it. Nonhuman animals do not face this dilemma in the manner we do (though some species do come near to it); our blessing and our curse is to be terribly aware of being so terribly aware. We must find some way to pass all this time, and the burden can be overwhelming. (Incidentally, understanding this quickly removes any desire for immortality – it does for me anyway.) For the writer the answer is primarily to write, and secondarily to read in order to write. What? When? How? Those are the factors, and not why? For this type of writer the issue of role is so wonderfully open that each can respond to it differently, and in that pure uniqueness give voice to that within: solely, purely, singularly, exceptionally. Life can take meaning in that, time can find purpose. To these unfettered spirits we who read say in unison: Be the writer you already are.

 

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