On Christmas Day I gave a number of people phone calls, among them one of my best friends, and we ended up talking for upwards of two hours. One of the big subjects we circled back to again and again was writing, and I said something to the following effect: Between him, me, and at least two or three other people we constitute an informal “writer’s circle”.
I’d been in one such informal circle before, but it had fallen apart due to infighting: some of the people in it were shockingly immature, and too many arguments germinated which had nothing to do with writing. One good thing did come out of it on my end—my novel Another Worldly Device was kicked off during that period, but I felt dismal knowing there was no circle, as such, to read it and comment on it. Sending something to a whole bunch of individual people for feedback isn’t the same thing as having feedback in a forum where other people can comment and be heard by each other.
The circle I’ve found myself in now, for lack of a better word, consists of people whose directions and ambitions are highly dissimilar. I’m probably the most “professional” of the bunch, not just because I write for a living (although not fiction), but because I get turned to quite often for advice. I guess I must be doing something right. But I like the fact that the feedback is both to and from people who are not “professionals”.
There’s a couple of reasons for this. The first, and I’d be foolish if I denied it, is that I get a kick out of helping people with whatever experience I have to spare. It’s fun being a teacher. The second is something I have a hard time saying without sounding like I’m being facile: sometimes the company of folks who aren’t “professionals” is more stimulating, less weighted down with the baggage of expectations and performance on both sides. This doesn’t mean I’m going to turn down the company of pros if it’s offered, but sometimes I feel there is only so much those of us who have a claim to a degree of legitimacy as a Writer with the cap W can teach each other. (Good to be wrong about those things, though, when it does happen.)
One of the other writers in this circle is someone who writes if only as a poor substitute for the things he would really like to do that are more immersive—e.g., filmmaking. I empathize with him completely. Writing’s a really poor substitute for just being able to show people what you want them to see—but it also means you, and they, have to exercise the imagination that much more. The imagination also works like any other muscle: the more you work it, the more of it you have. On the plus side, filmmaking technology is cheaper and more readily available now than it has ever been—but requires exponentially more work to get good results from. If you want to write about the desert, you don’t actually have to be there to do it—although it doesn’t hurt to have been there at least once.
Time and again the two of us have some variant on the same discussion, where he makes it clear that writing for him is largely a provisional thing—something he’s going to do until some better way of putting across what he wants comes along. My take is a little more practical: he’s already quite good at it, and the odds of anything better coming along as a replacement are pretty slender. What other art form or medium can put you on another planet, let you hear another language, experience death and rebirth and everything in between, and requires nothing more than a decent amount of light and a few minutes of your time? And yet, I kind of like the idea that he’s uncomfortable about all this; it means he’s skeptical—about himself as well as the medium. It means he’s asking questions and not simply taking the results for granted. He may not think of himself as “a writer”, but he certainly thinks of himself as a storyteller.
Other Lives Of The Mind