For more than a year, I’ve been blogging on Open Salon. I’ve written lots of different things there: fiction, poetry, social commentary, criticism, even the occasional link to some goofy thing I found on the web and wanted to share. It’s been a lot of fun having a place to put any old thing I felt like writing, and I love having readers. It’s motivating to know that people like what you write.
Every once in a while, the citizens of Open Salon start lobbing word grenades at each other on the subject of writing. “Real” writers get snooty about all the “amateurs” who’ve “taken over the site.” They’ve turned it into more of a social network, less of a writing community. The “amateurs” point out that the “real” writers are a bunch of pompous jerks who are free to leave at any time.
None of this makes me happy, but Open Salon does not exist for my happiness. It will be what it will be, with me or without me.
But it does make me wonder what people mean when they talk about “writing.”
In the Internet Age, everyone can have a blog. Everyone can voice an opinion about every little thing. Anyone can, by force of personality, gain a following for his or her writing, regardless of writing talent.
But does that make everyone a writer?
Maybe it does. And that’s just great–right up until we all start praising each other for mediocre writing. When mediocre writers praise each other in a public forum, they create an echo chamber very much like the one Tea Partiers have mastered. They are always right–and any suggestion that they might be mistaken or short-sighted is met with self-righteous anger. The “real” writers are held up as elitists and snobs who are trying to spoil everyone else’s fun.
In truth, I have mixed feelings about the whole situation. I would never, ever discourage others from writing–even if I don’t think they’re very good. I would never, ever discourage anyone from reading–even stuff I don’t like. The world needs more thoughtfulness, and writing and reading are parallel paths in the thoughtfulness direction. As I’ve noted many times, I’ve devoted a lot of time to helping kids learn to love writing. I think it can help make their lives better and help make the world a better place.
But we are not children, and we do not all deserve trophies for our work. And writing is one of those things that “everybody” thinks he or she can do, in a way that’s almost unprecedented among professional pursuits.
Why? I have been a practicing, professional writer for thirty years. I write “writer” on my tax return. I would never consider myself to be a doctor, a lawyer, a graphic designer, or a carpenter–even though I routinely self-diagnose illnesses, sign legal documents, doodle cartoons, and make home repairs. That I fixed a toilet this weekend does not make me a plumber.
Throughout my career, clients have supposed they know better than I which words I should use. Doctors have spouses who remember rules from third-grade English they think should apply to my work. Lawyers employ me for their convenience; they’re sure they can do what I can do, better than I can, but don’t have the time. I was once fired from a job because I insisted that “judgment” was the preferred spelling of “judgement.”
Perhaps all of you “amateur” writers don’t understand what “real” writers deal with every day–the rejection and the second-guessing and the condescension that come with the territory. Perhaps you ought to be cautious about reading your own press clippings. (Wow. There’s a cliche from another age.) Most writers on the Internet aren’t very good writers. They haven’t worked at the craft of writing. They may have some natural talent. But–again–just because I have insight into the human condition doesn’t make me a therapist.
I think this may actually be the crux of the issue: lots of people conflate writing with thinking and feeling. When amateur writers admire each others’ writing, they are actually expressing their admiration for the thoughts or feelings being expressed–not the actual writing. Because the form those thoughts and feelings take is “writing,” the writing is what gets praised.
This, then, is where I leave it: when “amateurs” and “real” writers talk about writing, they’re probably not talking about the same thing. I hope the “amateurs” can see why the “real” writers get cranky: we’re surrounded by people who don’t recognize or respect our craft. I hope the “real” writers can accept the enthusiasm of the “amateurs.”
And I hope that writing–real writing, whatever that means–still matters.