When Did You Become a Writer?
Whenever I meet people, either formally or informally, and the topic of writing comes up, people always ask me this question: When did you become a writer? My answer is always the same: I’ve always been a writer.
Writing isn’t like a law or medical degree. There isn’t a date when you step off a commencement stage and begin your career as a writer, even when you’ve completed an MFA or PhD. Writing isn’t really a career. I know there are people who make careers out of writing–journalists, for example, or technical writers–but that’s not what I’m getting at here. At the risk of sounding a little precious, writing is better understood as a devotional practice.
I’ve been writing all my life. Ever since I was a little kid and learned to use a crayon, I drew pictures that told stories, filled spiral bound notebooks with bad poetry, reported on the events in my life. Even at that early a stage, I was attempting to make meaning out of the seemingly meaningless (i.e., life), which is what I think any artistic pursuit is ultimately about. Sure, art can tell a story and be functional and offer beauty, but the process is one of creating connection, not only among people but also between humans and our world, our lives. It attempts to explain why we experience joy one day and deep sorrow the next.
I worry about the idea of art as commerce, which is prevalent in our culture right now. Artists branding themselves and their work, being strategic about partnerships, social media, and financial gain in the same way that private industries do. Art is even sometimes called an industry. I think this focus misleads many people, and waters down the larger cultural experience. I prefer Lewis Hyde’s approach instead.
Everything starts to look and sound and read the same. Important voices–diverse voices–get excluded from a group privileged by upbringing and connections, and yes, race.
If you don’t believe me, just consider for a moment the latest public cultural event near you. Who were the musicians and artists participating in it? Who organized it, did publicity for it, spoke at it? I oftentimes think of this when I attend cultural events in St. Petersburg, where I live. Twenty-five percent of the population is African American, but you’d never know that from its cultural events.
To be a writer is to be a person who is immersed and paying attention on all levels of experience. Are you a writer? When are you willing to truly become one?