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Old writer to a young writer

From an old writer to a young writer

Oh, the horror, the horror! The teenage (but not for much longer) son of my best friend thinks he wants to be a writer, so he has asked his writer godfather for some advice. I was immediately tempted to say — Don’t do it. Like every parent who has lived a difficult, demanding, and too often fruitless pursuit of an artistic life, his own father is a professional musician, we hope to save those we love from what is, in spite of its compelling glories, a suffering pursuit. While, oddly, at the same time, being proud of the maturing presence of courage, creativity, and imagination.

I do wonder if giving him a Moleskine journal when he was sixteen may have … ?

It could be worse. His initial instinct was to be an actor.

Let me move this from the specific to the general. I have been a writer for at least fifty years, and an author for thirty, and have written screenplays, journalism, academic essays, and novels. I have been lucky. I have been paid for almost all of that work. If I were my godson’s age, would I do it again, knowing what I know now?

That is a false question. If I have learned anything true during this life as a writer, it is that writers write because they cannot not write. If you can not write, then you fly the writer flag under false pretenses. Yet, I think, maybe that is also less true than I always believed. Because what I know as “writing,” and “being a writer,” may have ended or be ending, and what writing is becoming and what a writer will be is something alien to the life I’ve had. I don’t know if this is true; it’s just a feeling that has started to consume my thinking about this sort of artistic life.

I am convinced that these recent years and those years upcoming are transitional for writers, and what we have always known of and called “writing.” It is the Internet age, of course, which is still too new to have formed a paradigm. There is the writing and the life of the writer that came before, the life I had the fortune to have participated in as it lay dying, and there is whatever is coming next, after the transitional time. I know what was, I have a vague but clarifying idea of what is, but I have no clue what is coming, what will be.

Thus, the problem of advice to the young. I can only tell you what was, while you are already living smack dab in the what is. Neither of us knows what will be, although you probably have more clues than I do. For a very long time, centuries, the old could both honestly advise and provide models for the young, the professional to the novice. Writers live like this, writing looks like this, if you do this, and if you are lucky on the side, you can expect that. No more. It worked for centuries, but no longer.

In spite of that, I do believe that the human mind will always demand stories and therefore need story-tellers. What I don’t know is what the format of those stories will be and how the story-tellers will tell their stories.

My godson will be my current age in about forty-five years. I do not have the capability of imagining his world then. When he is the age I am now, it will be a decade more than a century after my birth. I was living as a writer a century after Dickens, Poe, Twain, Hawthorne, Hugo; I lived and worked as a novelist almost a century after the births of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Balzac, Proust. Any of them could have served as models for the life I chose, any of them could have advised me well. Is this true for our generation? Can I advise my godson with the confidence that what I offer will have much acquaintance with the real world in his future?

I have no answer for that. I can only say that knowing what I know now, in spite of the unknown world after the Internet transition, would I chose to be a writer? The answer is, what choice?

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28 replies »

  1. The writing world has changed very little, I think. It’s the publishing world that’s changed a great deal and continues to alter form and shape.

    I suppose with enough change in the publishing world the writing world must follow suit, but the real impetus behind any changes in writing is changes in consciousness. More than anything else, that’s what going to transform our primal need for narrative. We’ll not get rid of that need by any means, but the forms and typescenes by which we realize our narratives may change dramatically. And I guess they already are.

    • Yes, I believe that the radical (in terms of centuries of tradition) alteration in how creative work is published and distributed will be the catalyst for how the writing world and the working life of writers changes for the first time, significantly, since the early proliferation of the printing press.

      An astute and interesting comment from you, as always, as I have come to anticipate and expect.

      • If it’s true, as some say, that the internet is actually changing our brains and the way they function, then some change in consciousness of the sort of which Brad is talking is on the way, I think. Leading almost inevitably to the sort of radical change you envision, Don. Did the appearance of mass printed matter in Europe fundamentally alter the consciousness of people there? I think you could argue that it did. And made the working life of a writer, as previously understood, possible.

        Similarly, then, the internet will also alter (is altering) our consciouness, and at this stage, I think it’s too early to say how that’s going to go. My sneaking suspicion is, someone will come up with a previously-unimagined narrative form that fits the internet age as perfectly as the novel fit the age of the printing press, and when that happens, everyone will say, Well yes, of course, that is what we wanted all along. Given the acceleration of our age, I don’t think it will take as long to develop as the modern novel did. But it may not happen within my lifetime.

        Tell the youngster to become a video game developer. My guess is that whatever-is-coming-next will look more like a video game than a paperback novel. Just in some as-yet unthought way.

        (Postscript: The new Kindle from Amazon is completely sold out. This is good news, in one sense – unlike other devices, the Kindle can do nothing but serve as a reader. So there are still plenty of readers around. I do wonder at the demographics, though – I bet the average of a Kindle purchaser is 35.)

          • Interesting suppositions there. Thanks for unearthing. The problem is, Amazon doesn’t release any actual data on Kindle sales so it’s all guesswork. But if these stats are roughly accurate, then the average age of a Kindle user is even older than I would have thought. Which may not bode well for my thesis that there are “lots of readers out there.”

            • There are lots of movie watchers and video game players out there.

              Your earlier comment on video games was appropriate. That sort of interactive experience may be where our narrative desires end up spending themselves. The Star Trek holodeck may be the new novel someday.

              • Something like that, yeah. Youngsters today don’t demand entertainment so much as involvement. It’s difficult to teach them because they want to do everything for themselves, and, if something is not immediately to their to predlictions, they’ll instantly switch towards something that is (rather like we hope around websites). A huge generalization, I know, but sympomatic of trends I see, anyway.

                Remember those “virtual reality goggles” that were once thought to be the next big thing? Something like that is what’s on the way, I bet.

                Also, it seems likely to me that the narratives of the future won’t be written by solitary folks hunched over desks alone at 5 in the morning, but in large glass buildings by collaborative teams that comment and critique their way to a narrative.

  2. Thanks for the stimulating exchange.

    I did suggest to my godson that whatever writing he does that he keep in mind the ubiquitous presence of the Internet.

    Really it makes no sense for me to speculate on what I would do if I were under thirty and not way over thirty, because if I were that young, I wouldn’t know what I know, nor have the set of experiences in a particular world that I have, so the option I took might not even occur to me.

    In fact, I find it odd that a 19-year-old boy would even consider being a writer in the historical sense. Probably my influence has been ultimately corrupting.

    I suppose it just isn’t possible to predict or begin to understand what will happen to human consciousness when everything we know is delivered electronically, through one piece of hardware, from which what we discover and “know” has no real existence, in hard terms, I mean, but resides entirely in a place that does not itself exist in hard terms — cyberspace.

    Another thing to note is what Court wrote about acceleration. This is unprecedented and will carry its own particular and as yet unknown impact.

    Thanks, gentlemen.

        • God love ’em. Imagine the uproar over a socialist takeover if such a thing were even vetted here.

          • There are a lot of problems living in a city like this, but it is the most culturally alive city I have ever been in, including Paris.

            I think there is a chip on the shoulder mentality about Buenos Aires, or like the short kid on the playground. Lots of overcompensating. Porteños are almost mad to appear culturally European, to be separate from all the rest of the Americas, but especially the Latin part of it.

            I would not hesitate to claim there are more distinctly literary cafes in this city than in the usual suspects — Paris, Vienna, Rome.

            Maybe partly because the price of anything electronic here is at the obscene level, there are virtually no electronic readers. Yet everybody reads. People carry books with them, they read on the subway and buses, they read in cafes, they read on park benches … .

            If the rest of the world was like this, I would have hope.

            It ain’t.

            • You’ve posted in the past about the madness attending the arrival of a foreign literary celebrity – are the local writers there revered, too? I would think they would be.

              • I have much less direct experience with this, because, not understanding enough Spanish, I don’t attend most of these author events, but the few experiences I have had would indicate that yes, authors are revered here, and taken seriously.

                • Add to that … when I have been to the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, the largest book fair in all the Spanish speaking world, it is stunning to see thousands and thousands of people a day — more than a million through the course of the event — happily wandering around books, lining up to buy a book, lining up for hours to get a book signed, attending author speeches in standing room only crowds.

                  Maybe I happen to currently be living in the last bastion of the book.

  3. I have heard that about Mexico in general and Guadalajara in particular. I don’t know yet if that’s where we’re going next, it is one of three strong possibilities; we won’t know for at least one more year.

    One element I’ve recently considered regarding countries with large populations of book readers is price. Of course there are dozens of intertwined conditions to account for populations who read and value books, but price is a strong consideration.

    While imported books here are stupidly expensive — almost double the “home” price … my $22 Possessed is almost $40 here — local books are rather cheap and bookstores get government subsidies to help keep (local) books cheap. Buying a book here does not mean you don’t eat that day.

    Another place in my experience that helps confirm this is Slovakia. When I lived there, books were prolific, everybody seemed to be reading one, and they were cheap.

    For this reason, although not solely, I requested that my last novel, The Common Bond, come out in trade paper and not hardbound. That lowered the price from $25 (its hardbound price) to $15. People seldom take chances on an unknown book for $25, but might be more inclined to give it a shot at $15.

    The downside of that choice is that, dumbly, most reviewing outlets only review hardbound books, so that novel got about half the national reviews that Possessed, in hardbound, got.

    It’s tomorrow now, Rose.

  4. i haven’t lived long enough to tell a younger person not to become a writer, though i’ve warned quite a few of my younger friends not to become a journalist. then, upon hearing about their failures at interviews for jobs that don’t remotely suit their temperaments (like management trainees, teachers, etc.) i finally tell them to get a journalist/writing job coz it’s not a bad thing for starters.

    the curse of our temperaments!

    i do agree though it’s a transitional time for the ‘new’ generation of writers – when i was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, i imagined myself – or any other writer – producing fiction of certain substance and favor that appeared in a serious journal. now it’s mostly ‘shattered’ and most of the works that appear have little integrity, but that’s what young writers need to produce if they want to be a part of the scene.

    • I have no idea how this will all turn out for writers. I won’t be around long enough to find out, although you probably will — when you are my age, I think “whatever’s coming next” will have arrived. If there is reincarnation, I intended to request to come back as a really cute puppy. If you adopt me, you can tell me how it all worked out.

  5. and…damnit! this photo isn’t me…some confusion with a blog i help maintain for an ‘artist’ friend who does bottleart.

  6. “after the transitional time” .. surely all time is transitional.. we only freeze moments in history and I suppose to an extent storytelling..

    you mention a list of generally accepted great writers, they are great because the write of humanity and human qualities, which I believe are universal and eternal, language might change but some things don’t.

    If someone has a passion, whether it be writing or acting or whatever, that is a wonderful thing, always, and should be nurtured and encouraged as much as possible, if they love what they do their life will almost certainly follow happily.. i think..

    • I wish.

      This is about something less lofty, more mundane and at the same time more profound. Story-telling, and story-tellers, will remain, because there is a universal human need for it. But the medium of stories and the tools of story-tellers are going to change. I just don’t know exactly what they are going to change into.

      I am a big fan of passion.

      Thanks, Gemma.