I’m trying to cut back on red meat and writers’ festivals. The first is on the advice of my doctor, the second’s a self-made prescription. Both are moves to austerity—one dietary, the other more complicated.
Writers’ festivals are expressions of frothy self-congratulation, and the art world’s most defined expression of its system of patronage and self-absorption. There’s a perfume to them—the scent of self-conscious cleverness produced by an unconscious intoxication with Shelley’s boast that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Heady stuff, but writers are no more or less interesting than other people, in my experience. And less so when we’re talking about “process”.
Admittedly, the interminable bullshit spoken about The Writers’ Process is prompted by the earnest inquiries of giddy idiots in the audience, and the panellists are probably pained to answer them. Which is as it should be: The Writers’ Process is an idiosyncratic and banal thing of little instructional value. If you wanna write, grab a fucking pen and paper. Or a laptop, typewriter or napkin. I don’t care. Just don’t tell me about it.
There’s a meta festival to writers’ festivals. It’s found in the unspoken rules and aloof priorities of the literary bien-pensant. It’s found in the irony of self-professed independent thinkers pontificating predictably. A herd of individuals congratulating each other for their uniqueness.
Are writers a messy part of this world, or do we levitate serenely above it?
I assume—ungenerously—that audience members want one or both of the following: a) entry into a ruefully deified “world”, or b) advice on writing, aesthetic or other.
Unfortunately, attendant writers politely feel compelled to acknowledge the existence—or possibility—of either. If there is a “world” of writers, it’s a back-scratching cabal that’s ultimately anathema to their professed work of bravely interpreting the world. And if there’s any advice to be had, it’s pretty simple: get on with it.
But if nascent writers want more advice, here it is:
*Distinguish between networks of support and networks of sycophancy. And once you have, ask yourself which would you prefer;
*Stop hanging out with people who think Modest Mouse degenerated as a band once they started selling records. Stop hanging out with people who are unthinkingly undemocratic;
*Young writers: stop yarn-bombing things. And stop yarn-bombing your prose with winks, cultivated levity and strategic profanity. A hip house-style has emerged in places, and it stinks. It reeks of the dead hand of conformity, of cleverness, of Collingwood. If you’re happy to retard your own voice, if you’re happy with only 10 people reading your work, then fine;
*Conversely, stop being so diligently fucking artful that all feeling dissolves from your work;
*Self-contentment will kill you—but so will a brittle ego;
*If you’re writing non-fiction, get out of the house. Stop reading Slate and Jezebel. Stop watching Youtube. Journalism is about “hanging out” with others. And not writers. Stop hanging out with other writers. Your authority will come from practice, not parties. Your authority will come from a generous engagement with the world—the actual world, not cocktail circuits.
*Stop complaining about this piece on Twitter;
*Most importantly: do everyone a favour and shutup about writing and write. But don’t speak about mystical trepidation. It’s a gig. It’s something you have to do. And don’t think that reading those Paris Review interviews with writers are gonna help much. I tried that. It was procrastination. You get better by doing. And you’ll get better by placing a premium on the strength of arguments, not their familiarity. You’ll get better by reading, and internalising rhythms.
And know this: I don’t care. Ultimately, no one cares. You do this because you can’t do anything else. And that’s it.
Finally: if you’re not blind, you’ll appreciate this piece is a strawman. Worzel Gummidge meets Clint Eastwood, to mix metaphors. So start plucking out the hair, the eyes, the carrot nose. But while you’re at it, pause on your own conceits. They abound.