paintingRecently I’ve been talking to Molly, a friend from college who now lives in Chicago. We share a lot of the same interests (writing, improv, reading, complaining about our jobs) and are in a similar place in our lives. She’s just re-started her blog, Bittersweet, and we thought to share some of our correspondence (this one’s about writing, non-fiction, and the internet), split between our two blogs. You can read the first half at Bittersweet and then come back over here for the second half.

Sarah, speaking of writers, over at Geek Buffet there was a post that quoted Milan Kundera as saying, “One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.” How does the culture of blogging and social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook affect our generation of writers and thinkers? Has the age of universal deafness and incomprehension arrived?

Sarah: Since I moved to New York, everyone I’ve met has claimed to be a writer. Everyone’s working on a novel, everyone’s scribbling in a journal on the train, everyone either went to an MFA program or applied or is going to apply next year. To be honest, I was bothered by it — it doesn’t you feel very special.

But then I started to see past it. Everyone has this idealistic image of what a writer does: they don’t work, they go to book parties and readings and spend their huge advances and smoke cigarettes. But like I mentioned a few weeks ago, I went to a reading recently where a person in the audience said that they were a writer, except that they didn’t write. And she was being serious. It cleared a lot of things up for me.

There won’t be a day when everyone wakes up a writer. Just like there won’t be a day when we all wake up painters or politicians or Martians. I write all day and it isn’t fun, but it’s all I know to do. We don’t go to literary events and we don’t smoke cigarettes and we don’t talk about the novel we’re working on (after work, at lunch,
during work) because we’re embarrassed by this problem we have: writing.

As for being deafened by the sheer volume of people writing words these days, I’ll bring back the painter metaphor. Anyone can cover a canvas in paint, but I will never, ever be able to paint a picture that moves someone. I read an article recently in the New York Times about a woman who found a priceless painting leaning against a dumpster in New York. She said that when she saw it she didn’t want to carry it, didn’t have room for it in her apartment, and she knew it was worthless. But it spoke to her and she couldn’t help but carry that painting home, against all of her logic. We’ll always be able to hear the best, real writing over the din.

(the painting is pictured above, “Tres Personajes” by Rufino Tramayo)

Molly, I’ve just talked about the writing community in New York and how I find writing to ultimately be a solitary and lonely act. What parts of your writing life do you share with a community and which do you keep to yourself? Is being a writer something you can teach, or is it innate?

Molly: Writing is such a strange and contradictory practice, because it isolates you in the very act of reaching out to communicate. We write to share our stories, to add our voices to the global discussion, and yet to do so we must separate ourselves from the world. And not only are you physically apart from people as you sit with your notebook or your computer screen, but you’re also mentally apart; while the rest of your friends are laughing over beers together, you’re planning your next essay or story in your head. It can be incredibly lonely.

I’m currently taking a writing workshop through Story Studio Chicago, which has been a great experience simply for the opportunity to talk with other writers about all the boring writerly questions that don’t interest my friends and family very much. It’s been interesting, too, workshopping the first chapters of my new novel with them, when with my first novel maybe one person got to see it before I had a working second or third draft of the entire manuscript. Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to find a few fantastic people willing to read my work and give me incredibly thoughtful, detailed feedback about that. So I do feel that I’ve created a good little community of support and critique for myself, but it took me a long time to do so. I spent a lot of time writing in the dark, writing by and for myself, and I think that was just as critical as the community is now.

As for whether being a writer is something you can teach, yes and no. I think you can absolutely teach techniques and ways to focus your writing, ways to strengthen it, to sharpen it. In my writing group, I’m seeing a lot of manuscripts that could benefit from attention to some very simple elements: setting, dialogue, pacing… things easily covered in a class.

However, what can’t be taught, I think, is the sheer will – the need – to write. Can you be taught to keep going after a million rejections? Can you be taught to ignore the people who laugh at you or tell you to grow up and get a real job? Can you be taught to – after any success or failure, no matter how small or large – come home and set the pen once more to the page? Probably not. It’s a cliché, but I really can’t imagine anyone becoming a writer unless some deep, hidden part of them tells them that they have no choice. That they must.