Thursday, July 23, 2009

Forget the Muse.
I Write for a Living

'I'm not ashamed to say I write for money. Forget the muse. Like most members of ASJA, I write for a living, and have done so for more than a decade. I've penned articles on topics ranging from animal dissection alternatives to angioplasty, toddler dental traumas to bridesmaid drama. It matters not whether I'm ghosting a sales coaching book or editing a medical course for emergency room docs. Make me an offer, promise a decent amount of money, and I'm your girl.'
--from a recent article in the American Society of Journalists and Authors' monthly newsletter, by the prolific writer (and former attorney) Kelly James-Enger.


At 10:10 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

It's true that there's a luxury to the viewpoint of the artist being dependent on the Muse. The luxury lies in the Romantic notion of inspiration, or being possessed by the forces of inspiration. One can abdicate one's own choice and responsibility for making one's art happen. Thus, we have lots of "poets" who don't actually write much poetry (or much worth reading), because they spend lots of time waiting for the Muse to strike.

But there's a luxury to this workmanlike viewpoint to. That luxury is the idea that being an artisan is more noble than being an aesthete. "I write for a living:" has its own romanticism, or perhaps anti-romanticism, in its assumption that writing is basically just craft and skill.

To be honest, I've heard this attitude from lawyers-turned-writers before; it might be part of their training, because the advocacy role in law requires training in rhetoric. It's particularly strange to hear it coming from a lawyer-turned-poet, in one case I'm thinking of. It leads to some really weird ideas about creativity. Sometimes the argument becomes more interesting to them than what the argument is about.

I think the real truth lies in the middle of these two positions.

I've always said that craft is in the service of inspiration. Having something you need to say, whether we call it inspiration or psychosis, is necessary; and so are the artistic skills (which are the only part of the creative process that can be taught) one needs to have in order to be able to convey what one wants to say. The craft skills are essential; but they're also empty of purpose in and of themselves.

All the skill and craft in the world is useless if you have nothing to say. All the inspiration in the world is useless if you don't know how to say what you need to say.

Privileging craft over inspiration doesn't help the real writer, though, because it leads us towards hollow perfection (Apollo).

Privileging inspiration over craft, though, doesn't help the real writer, because it leads us towards inarticulate drunkeness (Dionysus).

The best writers are those who convey their drunkenness—the world's touch of the mysterious breaking through our daily routines—in ways that others can experience and understand, as well.

At 10:25 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I hope everyone will bathe in the luxurious word bath you've just served up, Art. It's simply marvelous, but all the more marvelous because of the deep thinking behind it all. In other words, it's gorgeous writing in addition to important ideas.

I think the action is in the middle of all these things, synthesizing craft and inspiration. But in the end, the crucial point I always come back to is the one you also mention: absent something important to say, all the focus in the world on craft and style won't get you anywhere worth going.

When I get a minute later in the day, I'll point everyone to another example of a lawyer turned writer who is a very different kind of example. I think she has plenty to teach us as well.


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