On the Ethos of “The Writer”

I had a friend at UC Irvine who constantly talked about “The Writer.”  The idea of “The Writer,” as I understand it, is a creation of movies and the media.  It’s a cultural stereotype of what writers are, and aspiring writers tend to take this and romanticize it.  This makes sense; if one wants to be a writer, they might try to adopt the traits of a writer.

But many of these traits are not even related to writing.  Sometimes it feels like bad marketing in practice.  Going “Real writers like wine.  So if I want to be a writer, I should drink wine” feels very similar to “LeBron James drinks Sprite.  So if I want to be a basketball player, I should drink Sprite.”

Some of these aspiration fantasies are downright destructive if emulated: aggrandizing dysfunctional relationships, symptoms of mental illness, and substance abuse.

Winter Wrap Up List

“Scarf to look pensive in the cold. Check. Saddle that looks great in black and white photographs. Check. Galoshes because they were referenced in James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Check. Abusive relationship. Check. And I’m already drunk. Guess who’s ready for AWP.”

I don’t know why my friend was so obsessed with conforming to this stereotype.  It might have been because he transferred to being an English major from something completely different and did so late in his academic career.  I don’t know if he became infatuated with “the writer” because he was insecure around all these more knowledgeable English majors or if it was his infatuation with the writer image that made him transfer to begin with.

Now my friend is by no means alone.  I’ve been to three schools now with three very different writing communities, but all of them had this same common feature.  There were students who had a view of “the writer” ethos.  I see this either used as a goal, “I need to start doing drugs to become a great writer” (Do not do this).  Or it’s used to justify a present lifestyle “I do so many drugs, because that’s what writers do.”

Pinkie with a Pipe

“I smoke a pipe, because I’m a writer. Tobacco? No, it’s full of DMT, the chemical your brain releases when you die. I’ve experienced the moment of death. Have you experienced the moment of death?”

Now I’ve been friends with many writers throughout their entire careers as they’ve unfolded thus far.  They’ve changed their mind about certain things after gaining new experiences about the literary world.  The friend from UC Irvine went on to work at an agency.  Before this job he used to be someone who cared about quality and personal truth.  Then he redefined what “the writer” does.  According to a phone call I had with him, he said “the writer” keeps track of market trends and writes what is needed.

I don’t think most writers whose name you actually know have ever done that.  It’s usually the insecure bottom feeder authors with no vision who do this.  But this tells something about the nature of worshiping the image of “the writer.”  We make the “the writer” in our image to reaffirm our identity, but also to put ourselves in a status above others who do not fall into our arbitrary categories.

“Real writers have wings, pink hair and a butterfly cutie mark.  It represents a unity with nature which is a left over ideology from the Romantic Era poets.  But you wouldn’t know that because you’re not a special writer like me.  I realized this on my morning walk.  Morning walks are something the writer does.  If you don’t take morning walks, then you’re not a real writer…a real writer like me.  I’m a real writer.  My mom was not right about me wasting my time and money on a career path that will never bring me happiness or success.  You shut up while a real writer is talking to you!  I’m not wasting my life!”

“Real writers have wings, pink hair and a butterfly cutie mark. It represents a unity with nature which is a left over ideology from the Romantic Era poets. But you wouldn’t know that because you’re not a special writer like me. I realized this on my morning walk. Morning walks are something the writer does. If you don’t take morning walks, then you’re not a real writer…a real writer like me. I’m a real writer. My mom was not right about me wasting my time and money on a career path that will never bring me happiness or success.  I’m not wasting my life!”

The problem is everyone actually is a scholar of literature to some degree.  Everyone enjoys some media of storytelling and poetry somewhere in their lives, whether it is advertisements, conversations, TV, movies, blogs, books…  But when everyone is a scholar to some extent, a writer might feel that they have to do much more to separate themselves from the rest of the world, make themselves stand out and be special.

I try to avoid generalizations about what “the writer” does.  It is damaging to the art form.  We get all these wonderful and diverse people from all walks of life coming in to give their experiences of the world, but what do we do?  We encourage them to conform to a hipster douche bag who drink a certain type of liquor and has terrible relationships.  If someone is suggesting you’re less of an artist for being who you are, that person knows nothing about art or sex they couldn’t read in any trendy, New York, underground, fashion magazine.

I’ll admit I stole that last line from Say Anything (the band not the movie).

While I don’t believe that there’s a particular way that writers must be, I think there are definitely attitudes and behaviors that, if adopted, would greatly benefit a writer.  Some of them are as follows: be eager to learn, accept criticism, learn to get the message despite the messenger, learn other people’s perspectives (including people you hate and who have wronged you), be open to new and different strategies, be open to the idea that even though you think you do these things that you might not actually do them as well as you think…

I have received criticism for this blog saying that it wasn’t very literary because of the ponies.

Twilight Sparkle is all about books.  Your argument is invalid.

Twilight Sparkle is all about books. Your argument is invalid.

These people are well-meaning.  They’re trying to look out for my career, but I feel like they don’t quite understand why or how I write.  I don’t want to put a fake smile on and try to write about writing in a very general sense, blindly reposting writer porn, challenging nobody, making no original thoughts, and any angst or pain should be packaged and exploited for the sake of “seeming real.”

If other people think that acting out a crafted character and pretending you are this person on the internet (Wow, I never realized how much writers have in common with furries), then more power to you.  I do not believe this is a behavior that should generate a real fandom nor should it generate respect among your peers.  But it is what everyone is told to do in writing school, so I assume it is safe.

I’m taking a different road.  I do not see writing a fake blog where I pretend to be a version of myself who is more like “the writer” and less in love with My Little Pony as a proper use of my talents or my time.  I will stand out by being myself.  Let’s see how that turns out.

10 Comments

  1. John Brantingam |

    Right on man. As someone who worked with new writers (a lot), I spend a lot of time telling people not to expect drinking or drugging to make their writing better. Please, young people, stop!!

  2. I love this! But you knew that already.

    • I wouldn’t have thought about it actually. But now that you said something, I totally see why this is up your alley.

  3. Tracy McCusker |

    I wish that in addition to facebook buttons, there was a button that could be on this blog that, when pressed, would find you, maybe when you’re out shopping for groceries, maybe when you’re chillin’ with friends and a party. It would come up to you, and whisper:

    “I agree with this blog post, and it burns with truth brighter than a million spiders lit on fire simultaneously.”

    I would push that button. Because I would want my support of you in your endeavor to find your writing voice to be equally uplifting and kind of creepy.

    You’re welcome!

    (Please keep at it. :)

  4. I think people who succeed don’t know why they succeeded, and that scares them. So they tell stories. I made it because I was focused. Because I was smart. Because I listened to my adviser. A million mutually inconsistent stories about the exact way to make it. A million mutually inconsistent recipes.

    If someone could have distilled the answer into a replicable, bottleable, marketable solution, would they really be giving it away? It’s that no one knows the answer, but if you succeed and they knew you back when, they through you their glory grows.

    Sharif. They don’t deserve your glory. Go take it for yourself.

    • I have a blog planned to discuss this actually. I used to work with a writer who always withheld secrets from people. She felt that if she gave away her secrets she would just be creating greater competition for herself.

      But the thing she didn’t realize was that by keeping her secrets to herself, these secrets were never challenged for fallacy or merit.

      So she went to work on a book using an aesthetic theory that she both did not understand and didn’t know how to use. She focused on the intrinsic value of the phonetics of the language and devalued the practical sense of the sentence instead of using both in harmony with each other. She sometimes used tautological-circularish sentences that were not just grammatically incorrect in English but were linguistically invalid. I’m having a really hard time coming up with such a horrid example, but Ex. “With cat corner in the corner cat.”

      She didn’t get the holistic nature of beautiful language. She sacrificed way too much and it all came for nothing, because she was greedy with her knowledge.

      Also it’s foolish to try to have secrets as a writer. Your work will unveil all if someone is smart enough to see it. It will also unveils things you weren’t consciously aware of. When you talk with people about it. Share it, you become more aware of your own work, but also invite other people to teach you about your own ideas.

      TL;DR version is I think when you’re strong enough you can tell others how to be strong too without worrying. I’m confident in my writing and fear no competition. If anything I fear a lack of competition and the atrophy that comes with it.

      • In addition, I’ve learned that people are inclined to just do whatever the hell they want, no matter how dumb it is.

  5. As always, an interesting read. I don’t have any personal stories or anything, since I’ve never really done this nor have I ever met anyone who has, so it sounds very foreign and weird to me that people would do this.

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