Crummy writing

January 12, 2011

I cannot get this essay off my mind.

“If you’re truly talented, then your work becomes your way of doing good in the world; if you’re not, it’s a self-indulgence, even an embarrassment.” – Kathryn Chetkovich, in her essay “Envy”

Can a writer be content without ever being published?

Chetkovich doesn’t seem to think so. Though I’m not sure it would be fair to label the above statement her philosophy of writing so much as an honest expression of self-doubt, it is interesting to note that she does not go on to correct this sentiment anywhere in her essay.

Isn’t there any intrinsic value in the act of writing, in artistic expression? Remember Didion’s confession that she writes “entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means”—is this merely “self-indulgence”? Of course, Didion is the “truly talented” one in Chetkovich’s statement, but if she were never published, and her books never did any good in the world, would that deter Didion from writing? Not if she was honest when she stated her motives (notice she says this “finding out” is the entire reason she writes).

And consider what Madeleine L’Engle, another writer whose words have been haunting me for the past few weeks, has to say:

“Our truest responsibility to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find the truth.”

Whoa. L’Engle’s creative act is not “self-indulgence,” but in fact just the opposite: it is a responsibility. L’Engle also answers to Chetkovich’s hasty dichotomy of the talented and the untalented artist:

“Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else…Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.”

I suppose much of the contrast here could have to do with the way one sees the world: if there is no truth to be found, if prayers are useless, then perhaps crummy writing, and every other form of inadequate art, is closer to self-indulgence than responsibility.

This is not to say that rejection slips did not break L’Engle’s heart. She talks openly of her low spells after each publisher’s dismissal and of her elation when A Wrinkle in Time was finally accepted. Nevertheless, in the midst of a dry spell, she never questioned whether or not to keep writing:

“We each have to say it, to say it in our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try; to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notations, or we die.”

I only hope to have a spirit so willing to fail.