A friend of mine with no particular writerly ambitions of his own (but with good tastes in reading) popped me a question the other day: If the point of something like NaNoWriMo is to give you a boot in the rear and get you writing through a combination of peer pressure, mutual support and a hard deadline—why do it if you’re already a “professional”, or already in the habit of writing and finishing long-form work? Why the gimmickry?
Answer: Because sometimes the gimmickry isn’t gimmickry. Sometimes it is the only way to get from where you are (would-be “writer”) to where you need to be (honest-to-God writer).
Saying all that reminded me of something. A couple of years back, I came across a truly mean-spirited anti-NaNo post linked to by the Paper Cuts blog at the New York Times. The sum total of the opinion expressed was: a) Most writing sucks anyway, so b) why are you adding that much more drivel to the crapflood that we already have?
Said I, “…Oh.”
I am not about to debate the first point. Most writing is not particularly good, for the same reason most things are not particularly good; thank you, Mr. Sturgeon. But the second point is impossible to take seriously as anything but pure spleneticism. Maybe it is the kind of motivational mean-spiritedness that Zen masters used to screen prospective acolytes—the better to see to see which of his potential hot-in-the-biscuit disciples has both the fire in his belly and the patience in his heart to follow through.
It sounds great as long as you don’t actually think about it. Confront all who come to you with a piece of writing that they just plain suck, and all the dabblers and the fakers and the people who really shouldn’t be there will fall away naturally … and leave behind only the true, the talented, the devoted and the brilliant. That’s like saying if you shoot ten thousand people in the back of the head and one of them survives, you’ve found a way to learn who out there has a bulletproof brainpan.
Leaving aside the elitism of this POV, you know what this sounds like? A protection racket. A way to scare off potential competition, because if there’s one thing I know about writers, they’re horrendously insecure people—at least as insecure as actors and singers, if not more so, because they don’t have as many johnny-on-the-spot opportunities to win approval from peers and audiences. I imagine that there are plenty of them who agree with the above outline, if only because it means that much less competition for them. The less people writing, period, the less people they have to worry about potentially taking acclaim (and bread) away from them. And the less people they have to tiresomely talk out of the same old traps.
The idea of “competition” is lame, because it implies there’s only a finite amount of room for writers to operate in. The more genuinely good writers out there, the more I’ll have to read that’ll be worthwhile, to take inspiration from, and to learn from. And if some of them get their start by banging out fifty thousand words in thirty days, more power to ‘em.
Those who grouse are probably just not suited to suffering other people’s baby steps. Far be it from me to tell them how to deal with amateurs, or even other would-be pros. Go dig up Lester Bangs’s Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste and flip to pages 363-364, wherein Brother Lester relates a scene that ends with some gawkish-mawkish Middle America type asking said literary King of Scum: “Would you suggest writing as a career?” (Bang’s telling of the anecdote is downright Aristocrats in the way he builds up to the punchline; that section alone—and the Emerson, Lake & Palmer interview—are reason enough to drop dimes on the book.) I can only imagine Bukowski telling that poor wretch to go commit anatomical impossibilities upon his person: go ‘way, kid, ya bodda me.
It’s happened to me, sort of. A couple of conventions ago I got pegged down by a kid with some mishmosh of an idea about these young tykes who go into their closet and discover their nightmare world exists in there for real. Great, I said, but the more I pressed him for details, the more he thrashed around helplessly. He was all ideas and no story. After asking “Why does x need to be this way?” or “What are you trying to accomplish with y?” and getting no coherent answer—not just once but many times in a row—I realized I was in the position of a man trying to talk someone into climbing out of a hole when their arms didn’t work.
And yet, none of it was wasted time. It gave me something to tell other people, those who were not nearly that mired down in the swamps of their own frustrated ambitions. Not everyone, I guess, has the patience for such things, but by the same token, not everyone doesn’t. W.B. Yeats had, from the sound of it, little patience to spare for mundane little people who sapped his time when he could have been spending it more productively talking Deep and Meaningful Things with his friends, or better yet at his desk composing verse like this:
Dear fellow-artist, why so free
With every sort of company,
With every Jack and Jill?
Choose your companions from the best;
Who draws a bucket with the rest
Soon topples down the hill.
But to an artist, any time spent is going to be time well spent, isn’t it? To think less than that is to cut yourself off from the very world you draw from and give back to.