More than a Clump of Dirt

by JHow on January 16, 2012

in Lies, Damned Lies, and Fiction Writing

Shakespeare exploded a bigger picture

I read an argument about Shakespeare recently. One individual contended that the world would be a poorer place without the Bard, and further that Shakespeare’s genius is distinct from, say, Newton’s in that somebody would have articulated the same scientific principles had Newton never lived, whereas if Shakespeare hadn’t lived we would never have had his particular artistic accomplishments. The other team contended that, had Shakespeare been hit by a carriage, we would just remember some other Elizabethan playwright, and things wouldn’t be any different.

That got me thinking about writing and writers and how there’s a strong undercurrent of morose self-destruction in our profession. Maybe it was just the crowd I ran with in college, but we seem to like bars, parties, smoke, and moderately dangerous shenanigans, despite the physical toll they take on us. I’ve heard some colleagues point to their deteriorating health and personal lives with a sort of pride, as their dedication to the craft trumps such tawdry concerns as maintaining relationships or eating the occasional grapefruit. Personally, I spent most of my college career nursing a bad hiking habit, wandering around in the woods and on mountains—rain, sleet, or snow—without telling anyone where I was, or strolling around town in lightning storms.

There are a lot of plausible reasons for this behavior. There’s the classic Hemingway Defense, that our sensitive souls can’t face the horrors of the universe without some induced numbness. There’s the Byronic Argument, that we must wring the marrow from life and suck every bit of experience from every instant if we’re to truly be able to create art. I’ve even entertained, from time to time, the Researcher Hypothesis, that in order to authentically write about all of the sorts of things that make for good conflict, we need to experience them for ourselves.

A load of crap, of course, and I’ve met enough writers who take care of themselves to know it isn’t universal. But the trend is broad enough to be interesting. There’s an intellectual tendency, I think, to downplay the writer’s role in the process, to view it as a sort of tragedy that a person has to be involved at all. Here’s a good example: a while ago Dan Harmon, creator of the excellent TV show Community, blogged a comparison of writers to piles of dirt with holes in the center, through which stories pass. The idea, as I understand it, is that you wanted to avoid letting your filth contaminate the story, instead transmitting it, unsullied, to the page.

It’s a hell of an image, and I agree with Mr. Harmon that a writer can royally screw things up by thinking too much and that the story is a preexisting thing: it emerges from the subconscious soup of memories, impressions, emotions, and instincts largely without being called. But I don’t hate myself quite enough to reduce my conscious role in things to a pile of dirt. I think, rather, that I’m the only thing making my stories anything at all.

When you boil them down, there aren’t very many stories, and there aren’t very many truths being articulated in them. We are not an art form that blazes new and fascinating ground. But every author puts a unique stamp on the story; to stick with Mr. Harmon’s metaphor, every author smudges the story with a particular color and consistency of dirt. Sure, we might’ve remembered a different playwright had Shakespeare never lived, and that playwright might’ve written a play that addressed similar themes to, say, Macbeth. But he wouldn’t have written Macbeth, and that particularity is, I think, what makes the writer more than a clump of dirt through which good ideas pass.

“It’s about understanding what you do and valuing it,” my dear friend Professor Ventre once told me, and I think that’s true. We’re writers: we see—or, if you prefer, are shown—the ideas, the possible stories, the constellation of potential narratives, and by passing them through our particular combination of physiology and experience and spirit, we make them something unique.

There’s certainly value in that. Take care of yourselves, and happy writing!

Tom Rich is a writer, itinerant academic, and flannel enthusiast. His work has appeared in the Midwest Literary Magazine. Since graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2011, he has gone professional in filling out applications.

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