Aggression, Cynicism and Great Writing

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

What I intend to say, and how I say it, are not always the same. I received a letter from a Mr. D. of Manhattan. He stated that my attitudes to “being a writer” were aggressive and cynical. I will agree to being aggressive, but not cynical. The tone of what I say often conceals the feeling with which I say it. Still, I finally answered Mr. D’s letter. He also made some statements about “being a writer.” What follows now are excerpts from my reply to Mr. D.

Mr. D writes: “I believe that great writing evolves naturally without forcing it.” My answer denied his belief.

“I don’t believe any writer deliberately writes great writing at all. He or she merely writes. Greatness is dumped, whacked, or blanketed upon them by a constituency of critics who happen to be around at the time the writer is published. You will find that nine-tenths of what is considered great writing is almost unreadable, in this time. Which defeats the mantle of “greatness” since if it is truly great it must transcend the centuries because of the vibrant universality of its content. Re-read the books you once considered great and you will experience a dreadful disappointment.

“If you are in fact, Mr. D., a writer, then you know it is a daily job. There is no glitter, no tinsel, no romance. It is what you do. The writer is engaged in craft not art. How do I get a character across the street? If I use introspection here, will it slow the action–and if it does, is the content of the introspection worth the interruption? Can I end this chapter with a “hanging moment” and begin the next chapter with a summary of what happened in the last chapter when I left it–and thus save unnecessary exposition and documentation? Is the setting more vivid than the action it is meant to authenticate?  And on and on.

“This is what writers do. They conceived through the abstract and use their senses of drama to bring it into the tangible experience. If they are concerned with “greatness” while they write, they are fools. If they are concerned with art while they write, they are equally foolhardy. They are, in the reality of experience, writing for their lives. And when they are done, it is no longer theirs. The strata of the society lays judgment on their work.

“In your letter, Mr. D., you seem to be dealing with “therapy” rather than creativity. A writer doesn’t find themselves in the writing. They are a self when they begin. I have lived through the ugliness, the pain, the despair that students reach when they try to write; when they keep writing; and I grieve for them. In whatever I write (a column, a review, my own work) or whenever I teach, I always indicate that writers write for two reasons only. For fame, and for wealth. I am perhaps lying through omission.

“They also write because they must fit themselves into their time. They are castoffs, malcontents, exiled–because they are talented. Because they are dramatic. Because they see in the common, the rare. The talent, that odd and alien vein that carries sweet and bubbly blood to their hearts, estranges them from the time in which they want to belong–and yet, not really belong, because it is oppressive; it is grinding; it is wrong. There are roses and they learn the petals are sour. There is a magic kiss and then the astonishment that all the teeth are loose.

“They write because they cannot fit into the world and they want to change it; or write to change their own lives so they need not fit into the world, and yet live. Yes, they want fame and wealth and awards, but they also want to touch what always seems unreal, and shape it into a reality they can live with.

“You write about “theme”… and I have come to despise the word because I have seen it mislead and corrupt so many talented writers. The theme is born into writers long before they bring a pen to paper. If they have to think of themes they are consciously limiting the expanse of their work. If what they write doesn’t have a multitude of themes then they have written a duty. You find the theme after you finish the work… People who are everyday writers do not think of themes, they think of craft, of sentences, of backgrounds, of drama… Whatever you write must be published, or it is not written. It is merely notated. That is a crass and hard fact, but it is not cynical. If it is not published it is not read. Writers are not some bone-heads, egg-heads or effete intellectuals who inhabit some esoteric dimension not open to the community of commons. They write to be published.

“What you say about writers entering a dark room when they begin, and they adjust to the darkness and become less fearful because there is nothing in the room that can harm them, is right. But you leave out a significant detail. Writers bring someone into the dark room with them–themselves. They bring in their restraint, their shame, their anger, their doubts, their parents, their friends, and all the terrors they tried to hide all their lives. And unless they write about this, they may find light in the room, in time, but none in themselves.

“That’s what you’re for, Mr. D., and what I’m for. To help them see some light in themselves. If an ex-drifter like me can do it, then it can be done. If someone like yourself can teach and offer helpful comments and instruction, then that is what you are there for–to bring them some light. Light chases the gloomy guilts and arcane fears and long intervals of self-torment. And if you are not loved for it–does it really matter? We are paid for what we write and teach and if we demand love as part of the compensation, we are performing in a clattering conceit.”

That was some of what I wrote to Mr. D.

©Copyright Leonard Bishop,2013

(first published October 13, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)


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